In Other News – Putin Struggles on the Domestic and International Fronts – 9/15/2022

September 15, 2022

Indications of struggle for Putin on the domestic and international fronts. Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive in the northeast Kharkiv region put Russia on the defensive and forced a retreat that has attracted international attention. Moscow termed the retreat “a regrouping”, but after the loss even Putin’s allies like Chechen leader Kadyrov took to social media and criticized the Russian military’s performance, insinuating that Putin wasn’t fully aware of the mistakes that were being made on the battlefield. Other Putin supporters, like the pro-war Russian hardliners, also expressed frustration with the battlefield status and called for Moscow to double-down via attacks on civilian targets and infrastructure, and to initiate an aggressive conscription campaign.

Putin, like the hardliners, would love to double down on his Ukraine attack, but he’s facing significant challenges. What he really needs is manpower, but he doesn’t want to risk losing favor with his own population. For several months, Putin has been discretely relying on financial incentives to recruit Russian soldiers and he’s also hired private military fighters- not only to gain bodies, but to avoid direct blame for any human rights abuses perpetrated by deployed soldiers. Just this week it was leaked that Russia’s shadow mercenary Wagner Group has been attempting to recruit Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine, another indication that Putin is trying hard to avoid forcing all eligible citizens to enlist.

Indeed, thus far many Russians have been able to distance themselves mentally and physically from the battlefield, but a mandatory draft would drive the conflict home and could spark a broader opposition. The patriotism required to back the Kremlin in an increased offensive endeavor isn’t apparent, and with each military set-back it decreases. Further, after the losses in Kharkiv, opposition deputies in over 30 municipalities reportedly called for Putin’s resignation in a rare symbolic showing of discontent – notable even if the dissenters were not eligible for another term. It’s also likely that internal dissent will continue to grow as the effect of sanctions sets-in over the coming months.

Putin, unable to achieve the quick victory he initially anticipated, is now left with the choice of cutting a deal, grinding-on, or elevating the conflict. But just as he risks losing the support of his population with a mandatory service requirement, if Putin tries to greatly elevate the war, he risks problematic relations with some of his critical allies like China and India. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this week, Putin and Chinese President Xi reportedly reaffirmed their commitment to collaborating on their respective “core interests”, yet Putin also publicly acknowledged that Beijing had “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine. Indeed, it needs to be in China’s continued interest to support Moscow, and this isn’t a straightforward equation.

In addition to complicating his status with major allies like China and India, the war is shifting Putin’s role in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, and in conflict zones like Nagorno-Karabakh and Syria. Where before, Putin was able to devote substantial attention to playing statesman and orchestrating side-agreements, his presence has been largely absent in many of these conflict zones. And if his status in such areas is weakened, it will limit Putin’s bargaining power on other fronts. Further, Putin doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy and he’s scrambling for political and economic opportunities, as evidenced by his recent outreach to both Saudi Arabia and Iran. The paradox is that these nations are also watching him, waiting to see how they might exploit Russia by purchasing cheap energy while Putin is most vulnerable, and simultaneously looking for economic stability elsewhere.