Putin’s suicidal gamble

The Kremlin has decided to take the risk of a social backlash to ensure its own survival.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Governor of the Novgorod region Andrei Nikitin in the city of Veliky Novgorod on September 21, 2022 [File: Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov/Pool via Reuters]

On September 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the stakes in the Ukrainian conflict to a dangerous new level, as he announced mobilisation and threatened to use nuclear weapons. In a speech aired on national TV, he said: “This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weather vane can turn and point towards them.”

Following Putin’s speech, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said about 300,000 people would be drafted. However, it seems that the real figure might be much higher. The presidential decree that formalised the draft was not released in full; the part of it made public does not contain an actual target number and defines conditions for mobilisation in rather vague terms. The exiled Russian media outlet Novaya Gazeta cited a Kremlin source who said a classified clause of the decree puts it at one million. The Kremlin dismissed the report.

Simultaneously, Russia has been conducting “referendums” in four partly occupied Ukrainian regions in a move that will likely lead to their annexation. These sham votes will allow the Kremlin to claim that Ukraine is attacking “Russian territory”. That, in turn, will activate Russian defence doctrine which allows the use of nuclear weapons.

The impact of this drastic decision on the course of the war in Ukraine and on Russian domestic politics is extremely hard to predict.

Putin is taking a maddening risk which could result in the collapse of his regime, but – just as likely – could lead to Russia drowning Ukraine in a sea of blood and by extension defeating the US-led West in this conflict.

Russia has not seen a general mobilisation since World War II. For the country’s conformist majority, this is a clear breach of the social contract with Putin’s regime in which they traded their political freedoms for security and economic stability.

Under his rule, they have lived completely disengaged from politics and the regime has made sure politics does not knock on their door. Putin has excelled in precision strikes against his opponents; thus, political repression has affected only a tiny share of the population actively engaged in opposition activism.

On the economic side – even despite crippling Western sanctions – Russians are living through the most affluent period in living memory. They are a long way from the level of desperation they felt during the epoch of liberal reforms in the 1990s.

But if the mobilisation proceeds as announced, millions will be directly and tragically affected by Putin’s suicidal foreign policy, which they only conditionally and half-heartedly endorse.

There is nothing remotely similar to the outbreak of patriotic enthusiasm seen at the start of the two world wars in the 20th century. Instead, there are long queues at the Russian borders and airline tickets reaching exorbitant prices, as men facing the draft try to escape the country.

So why is Putin taking this risk?

His policy of keeping the population shielded from his own adventurist foreign policy was rooted in the paradigm of stability which underpinned his first decade in power. The stability, wholeheartedly welcomed by Russian society after the turmoil of the 1990s, was the source of his legitimacy. But that paradigm changed some 10 years ago when the Bolotnaya protest movement challenged Putin’s rule in 2011.

Since then, the Russian president has turned the conflict with the West into his new source of legitimacy, evolving from a populist majoritarian leader into a wartime dictator. In order to remain in power, he needs Russians to feel genuinely threatened by the West and he ideally needs the threat to look plausibly existential. The West played into his hands through Russia’s geopolitical alienation, effectively depriving Russians of a democratic European alternative.

Now that Putin has placed a large chunk of the population in a situation where they need to fight for personal survival, his regime could face a domestic backlash. But the risk of this may be outweighed by the opportunities.

It would be preposterous to believe that a mishandled war may result in civil unrest that will topple the regime. When people are largely focused on survival, they are very unlikely to turn into revolutionaries. War makes revolution less, not more likely. That is the reason why Putin started it back in 2014, outsourcing his domestic conflict to a neighbouring country.

Ukraine, punished by Putin for its Maidan revolution, has served as a real-life cautionary tale for Russians. When the Russian army is levelling Russian-speaking cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv, it serves as a message to Russians who might be considering a Maidan-like event: this is what may happen to your cities should you revolt like the Ukrainians.

Of course, in the absence of motivation, the newly mobilised soldiers may mutiny or begin surrendering to the Ukrainians en masse. This would be even more likely if commanders throw them into battle poorly equipped or if Russia suffers crushing defeats at the hands of the Ukrainian military.

But the fact that the mobilisation is largely targeting less educated and less well-off classes makes this scenario somewhat less probable. Who may take over any possible mutiny is also a question. Militant ultranationalists, who are already blasting Putin for indecisiveness and alleged liberalism, are likely to prevail over any moderate voices. This scenario, in which Putin finds himself completely cornered, also makes the use of nuclear weapons, his last resort, extremely likely.

But it is also possible that mobilisation will achieve what Putin intends it to – military victories that would eventually coerce Ukraine into signing a peace agreement considerably more humiliating than the Minsk agreements, which Kyiv fatefully chose not to implement in the run-up to Russia’s full-scale invasion. In that case, the veterans would become the backbone of the Russian regime and the victory would give it legitimacy and prolong its existence indefinitely.

Because of its fundamental irrationality, social behaviour is very difficult to predict. However, it is possible to alter the behaviour of various elements in Russian society if the West and Ukraine get serious about finding and nurturing allies within it. The only way to achieve this is to present a clear vision of a future Russia fully integrated into European and Euro-Atlantic structures. This is the only political paradigm that proves workable in Eastern Europe if the goal is to prevent countries from degrading into fascist-like dictatorships, as happened with Russia.

For now, the Western messaging that is reaching Russians – not least because it is being amplified by Kremlin propaganda – is questionable at best. The head of NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre appearing at a conference in socks with the words “trample on the rusnya [a xenophobic anti-Russian slur]” gets infinitely more traction on Russian social media than any (very rare) attempts by Western governments to reach out to the Russian population over Putin’s head.

Coupled with policies that are preventing Russian dissidents and draft dodgers from entering the EU, this kind of messaging is only increasing the already strong suicidal tendencies in Russian society and the feeling that there is no way out.

As it brings us to the verge of nuclear war, this crisis warrants very smart, responsible and visionary policies. A leadership failure will result in a global catastrophe too horrible to even ponder.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.