Vladimir Putin’s latest escalation over Ukraine not only demonstrates that even he doesn’t think he’s winning the war but what happens when a leader knows he has to do ‘something’ but doesn’t quite know what.
Momentum was, after all, no longer on his side. He seems to have hoped that over a hard winter, either Ukraine would lose the will to fight or the West would succumb to ‘Ukraine fatigue’. However, Ukraine’s impressive counter-offensive in the north-east not only confirmed Kyiv’s continued and even growing will and ability to fight but also galvanised Western support.
Meanwhile, the West is not alone in feeling the pain. Putin went to Samarkand for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation hoping for some political, if not practical endorsements for his war on the West. Instead, China, India and Turkey all pressed him to end the war quickly, and he was forced publicly to recognise their qualms.
Putin returned to Moscow, his isolation emphasised by the global gatherings of leaders at the Queen’s funeral (to which he was not invited) and the United Nations General Assembly (to which he wouldn’t dare go). He had been dissed at the autocrats’ club, his stock with the elite at home was falling, his claims that the ‘special military operation’ was going to plan sounded increasingly hollow.
This seems to have been enough to push him off the fence he had been straddling for so long. Hawks and the military had been demanding a full declaration of war and a mobilisation; his own political technologists were warning that while the public were willing to countenance the conflict so long as it didn’t impinge on their lives too much, this would alarm and alienate them.
True to his usual form, faced with unpalatable choices, Putin stalled as long as he could.