Anna Arutunyan

Putin is running out of options – and shopping for more

As Vladimir Putin geared up to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the end of the Siege of Leningrad, all the chatter pointed to a second wave of mobilisation to prop up Russian troops struggling to hold on to occupied Ukrainian territories.

But the Russian president announced no such thing. Instead, addressing veterans and workers at a weapons factory in St Petersburg on Wednesday, he rallied Russians with promises of an ‘assured victory’ and pledged that he was trying to end the war. It was, in the end, a rather anticlimactic message. Vladimir Rogov, the Kremlin appointed head of Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia had promised ‘a very important statement,’ before the speech while western and Ukrainian intelligence officials predicted another mobilisation drive. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov even had to weigh in to curb the enthusiasm, denying plans to call up more troops.

 At the heart of Putin’s rhetoric is a reckoning with reality

Of course, Kremlin denials will not prevent Putin from announcing a further mobilisation if he so chooses. It certainly didn’t stop him in September, when a ‘partial’ drive was announced calling up 300,000 people. But right now, Putin’s roller-coaster of drummed-up drama followed by fiery but ultimately insubstantial rhetoric is a symptom of a leader running out of options, while shopping for more.

With the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion approaching, the Kremlin is digging in for the long-haul, and Putin has been preparing the population for a long-term war. The president is focusing on reframing the message away from a short and tactical ‘military operation’ to a war of survival – indeed, he used the word ‘war’ for the first time in a statement on 22 December. To that end, in December he ordered the Culture Ministry to prepare a series of documentaries on the operation in Ukraine and the fight against ‘neo-Nazism’.

But this pivot to propaganda indicates a growing recognition in the Kremlin that the aims of the military operation are not likely to be achieved.

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