Amid the euphoria following recent Ukrainian battlefield victories, some commentators are cautiously optimistic that Ukraine could win the war by the spring. But Vladimir Putin’s latest moves suggest that Russia is settling in for a long war of attrition that will test European resolve.
BERLIN – A nuclear specter is haunting Europe once again. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a mobilization of some 300,000 reservists and announced that he will use “all available means” to defend Russia, adding, “This is not a bluff.” As one senior European policymaker noted to me, such nuclear brinkmanship is an invitation to dust off old Cold War tomes such as Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War.
To be sure, amid the euphoria following recent Ukrainian battlefield victories, some commentators are cautiously optimistic that Ukraine could win the war by the spring. But Putin’s latest moves suggest that Russia is settling in for a long war of attrition. In addition to issuing more strident threats, he has also reduced two significant asymmetries that have characterized the conflict so far. The first is the gap between Russia’s “special operation” and Ukraine’s whole-of-society response to it. Deploying 300,000 more soldiers may not be enough to overwhelm Kyiv or occupy Ukraine, but it will keep Russia in the game.
The other asymmetry is at the level of international support. Ukraine would have disappeared from the map many months ago had it not received billions of dollars of military supplies, intelligence support, and economic aid from Europe and the United States. By contrast, Russia has been at pains to attract any meaningful external support. But at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Samarkand, Putin got to catch up with fellow travelers like Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
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