The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As war fails, Russia’s authoritarian grandmaster backs himself into a corner

Vladimir Putin appears on a screen at a Moscow concert Friday marking his declared annexation of four Ukrainian regions. The slogan on the screen says: “Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson — Russia!” (Reuters Photographer/Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech Friday, declaring his annexation of four Ukrainian regions, was likely the most consequential of his nearly 23 years in power. But rather than a clarion call to restore Russian greatness as he clearly intended, the address seemed the bluster and filibuster of a leader struggling to recover his grip — on his war, and his country.

By proclaiming the largest military seizure of territory since World War II, Putin left no off-ramp from his war in Ukraine, placing Russia and himself in acute danger. That raises a serious risk of escalation, and the prospect of a new, more perilous phase of the conflict, which Putin has made clear is not just with Ukraine but also with the United States and Kyiv’s other Western allies.

With the Russian public increasingly anxious about Putin’s declaration of a military mobilization, the speech offered a moment to reignite declining domestic support for the war, as he asks more Russians to send loved ones to fight and risk death in Ukraine.

Instead, Putin delivered another rambling, resentful diatribe, stuffed with historical references, lashing out fiercely at what he described as a predatory, thieving, lying neocolonial West out to dominate and break Russia. For long stretches, he did not mention Ukraine but focused his venom on the United States.

“The West wants to see us as a colony, a crowd of soulless slaves,” he said, in a long and aggressive denunciation of Russia’s enemies.

But it is far from clear that ordinary Russians view this alleged Western colonization effort as a clear and present danger to their quality of life, or that they view “reunification” with the regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as a cause that their sons, husbands and brothers should die for.

The citizens of the four Ukrainian regions “are becoming our citizens. Forever,” Putin announced.

“This is an inalienable right of people. It is based on historical unity, in the name of which the generations of our ancestors won, those who from the origins of ancient Russia for centuries created and defended Russia,” he said speaking in the gilded St. George’s Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace.

Putin’s move to annex more Ukrainian lands follows a series of failures in his Ukraine policy.

For decades, he wanted to install a pro-Kremlin regime, but Ukrainians rebelled against Moscow’s puppets. He failed to capture Kyiv and topple the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky. And he has even failed to occupy all of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

All of these failures have sown doubt in Russian society, including among its elite, that Russia can win in Ukraine.

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Russian politicians, propagandists and pro-Kremlin foreign policy analysts insist that Russia cannot and will not lose. But even after his speech, Putin’s goals remained blurry.

Was it to mold a new world order? Or just to conquer Donetsk? Was it to save Ukrainians in the east from what he called, without basis, “genocide”? To secure a “land bridge” to Crimea? Or to save Russia from some future existential threat from the rapacious West?

No one but Putin seems to know.

Putin said Russia was leading “a liberation, an anti-colonial movement” to create a “just and free” world, and spoke with contempt about the need to save Russia from Western “degradation,” referring to acceptance of nonbinary and transgender people and “monstrous experiments” aimed at crippling children’s souls.

“Do we want things that lead to degradation and extinction to be imposed on children from elementary school?” he asked. “Do we want them to be taught that instead of men and women, there are supposedly some other genders and to be offered sex-change surgeries? This is unacceptable to us.”

He made it clear that Ukrainian counterattacks to retake territory would be seen as assaults on Russia itself, warning that the Kremlin would use “all means at our disposal” to defend annexed land, comments that foreshadowed likely new escalation.

Hard-liners have called for devastating strikes on civilian infrastructure such as dams and railways. Russian officials have openly warned Russia could use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine. In his speech, Putin warned that the United States “created a precedent” when it used nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945.

Tatiana Stanovaya, an analyst with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that Putin’s escalation raised questions on whether Russia’s elite was ready to “go all the way” with him. Many do not share Putin’s argument that Russia faces an existential threat, she wrote in an analysis.

“Finally, the unity of the Russian elite may be cracking at the seams over whether Russia is willing to pay any price for defeating Ukraine,” Stanovaya wrote.

In Zaporizhzhia, Russia controlled a referendum but not hearts or minds

Having chosen to escalate, Putin now faces a real threat of defeat, in a war based on misconceptions and intelligence failures that has exposed the country’s military weaknesses — leaving him politically vulnerable at home and weakened on the global stage.

Russians are protesting mobilization, and more than 200,000 men have fled the country.

Putin’s most important ally, Chinese President Xi Jinping, has asked questions and expressed concerns over the war. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi rebuked Putin publicly. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who says Russia must return land seized after the Feb. 24 invasion, warned Wednesday that the staged voting in Ukraine, used by Moscow as a pretext for annexation, “brings troubles.”

Xi, Modi and Erdogan can’t be described as puppets of Washington. Meanwhile, Central Asian leaders, notably Kazakhstan’s Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, are no longer deferential to Putin.

Some of the cracks in the facade of Russian military power are now glaringly obvious. The Kremlin’s pit bull propagandist, Vladimir Solovyov, complained on state television that there had not been a single Russian advance to stem the bitterness of Russia’s recent retreat in Kharkiv.

“The whole of the West is starting to mock us,” Solovyov said, in a clip posted on Twitter by Julia Davis of Russian Media Monitor.

The regional head of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, threw his phone down and swore at local officials over the bungled mobilization effort.

Many Russian officials complain they have no idea what Putin is thinking before he acts, but most expect him to escalate further, according to an analysis by journalists Farida Rustamova and Maxim Tovkaylo.

Putin illegally claims annexation of Ukrainian regions, escalating war

By proclaiming annexation, Putin closed off a chance for negotiation, while prompting Western countries to impose new sanctions, which will speed Russia’s isolation and economic decline.

Cornered and weakened, Putin may launch a new, more dangerous phase in the war. Analysts warn of an increasing risk of nuclear attack, and the possibility Russia may try to draw NATO into a hybrid conflict by mounting deniable attacks on vital energy infrastructure or underwater cables, as well as launching increased cyberattacks, disinformation and political interference.

Explosions that created leaks in two Nord Stream natural gas pipelines this week raised Western fears that such a hybrid conflict has begun. Putin on Friday blamed “Anglo-Saxons” for the explosions.

Pro-Kremlin pollster FOM reported that the proportion of Russians saying their friends and relatives are feeling anxiety jumped after the mobilization announcement from 35 percent to 69 percent. The survey was conducted from Sept. 23 to Sept. 25.

Putin’s speech, however, offered them no comfort. Instead, it foreshadowed a bitter struggle against external enemies that could last for many years.

Having jailed all prominent opposition figures, Putin is likely to respond to Russian protests with even tougher repression, analysts said. A grim example occurred Monday when a poet, Artyom Kamardin, was allegedly beaten and raped with a dumbbell by police and forced to make a groveling apology video — all because he recited an antiwar poem and posted it online. He is now jailed.

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As the political risks rise for Putin, so do the financial costs.

Recent budget figures showed that the Russian government expects a protracted war with skyrocketing military spending. Initially budgeted at 3.5 trillion rubles ($58 billion) this year, it will instead reach 4.7 trillion ($78 billion), and is projected to hit 5 trillion ($83 billion) next year.

“The further the conflict goes, the more resources the regime throws into the furnace of war, the more serious are the intra-elite differences,” Stanovaya wrote.

That might not matter if they were all still convinced Putin will win. But doubt has set in.

Western analysts, such as Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, dismiss the argument common in Russian foreign policy circles that Putin cannot lose.

“He can and he might,” Freedman wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. “A series of terrible decisions has led him to undermine Russia’s international position and economic prospects, shatter the reputation of the Russian Federation as a serious military power, and fail in the most important gamble of his career.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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