Vladimir Putin cannot admit that he is losing a war, least of all a war he expected to win with such clinical success as to merit only being called a “special military operation”.
That sinister euphemism, imposed on Russian media by law, will be harder to maintain now that the president has announced a mobilisation of army reservists. Sending hundreds of thousands of civilians to the front is a signal to Russians that Ukraine is more determined and capable in defence of its nationhood than was advertised by Kremlin propaganda.
A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced Mr Putin to downgrade his ambitions from regime change in Kyiv to “liberation of the entire territory of Donbas”. (“Liberation” means its opposite in this context.) Alongside the call-up of army reservists, the Kremlin has announced plans for referendums in occupied regions on the Russian border, leading to annexation. A rigged vote to gratify Mr Putin’s territorial appetite is a foregone conclusion.
Rebadging Ukrainian territory as part of Russia is part of a strategy to present the war as self-defence, with Kyiv as a front for the aggressor, Nato. That is a monstrous inversion of reality, but one that has a purchase on the Russian nationalist imagination. Mr Putin is trying to mythologise the conflict as a second chapter in a western plot against his country, where the first chapter was the unravelling of the Soviet Union.
Paranoid delusion cannot compensate for military shortcomings, which is one reason why Russia’s disoriented infantry is losing to better-motivated Ukrainians on the ground. But the fiction of Russian victimhood is also the basis for Mr Putin’s nuclear grandstanding. His threats have hardly been veiled. Annexations are a step towards Russia complaining that its sovereign territory has come under attack, with the implication that, in the most catastrophic scenario, a nuclear riposte would be justified.
That menace cannot be casually dismissed when it comes from a leader of questionable rationality and a dread of losing face. But according to western intelligence assessments (which have been reliable so far in this conflict), Russia’s nuclear sabre-rattling is an escalation of rhetoric, not yet a battlefield mobilisation.
The intention is the same as it was when the same threat was issued nearer the start of the war – to impose a limit on support that Nato will give to Kyiv. It worked, to the extent of making western countries nervous about provoking Moscow. But it failed to prevent Ukraine maximising what help it received with heroic ingenuity.
Mr Putin conjuring the nuclear spectre is also a psychological device in a campaign to terrorise Ukraine. Conventional forces are already deployed to that end – unleashing indiscriminate artillery bombardment, strikes at civil infrastructure, targeting of civilians, kidnapping, torture, rape and murder.
The discovery of mass graves near Izium, a city taken in the recent counteroffensive, is a grim reminder of what Mr Putin’s methods mean on the ground, and why his extreme postures must not be allowed to dictate western policy. Solidarity with Ukrainians in their struggle against a barbarous dictator is both a moral and a strategic imperative for the rest of Europe. Putinism represents a profound threat to global security. It must be contained.
The Russian president did not expect to fight a long war. Having blundered into one, he is forced to prolong it further, making cannon fodder of his own citizens. It is a desperate strategy that relies on a demoralised, poorly coordinated and corrupt Russian army outlasting Ukraine’s will to fight for its survival. That has been a formula for the humbling of bullying powers in the past. So it is proving again.