Russian President Vladimir Putin is running out of time and knows it.
Meanwhile, his bombast continues: when Putin announced the annexation of Ukrainian territories on Friday, he declared that Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson would become part of Russia “forever”. He hastens to claim victory and cement meager gains and pleas for peace, running a dangerous political reckoning despite the fanfare in Moscow.
He urged Ukraine to “cease fire immediately” and “sit down at the negotiating table,” but added: “We will not negotiate the people’s election.” It has been done. Russia will not tell.”
He does his best to hide it, but he loses his war in Ukraine. The writing is on the wall.
Andrey Kortunov, who heads the Kremlin-backed Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, agrees. “President Putin wants to end this whole thing as soon as possible,” he told CNN.
Putin’s recent dogged campaign of conscription for 300,000 troops won’t reverse his battlefield losses anytime soon and backfires at home, leaving him with a dangerous political bill.
According to official figures from the EU, Georgia and Kazakhstan, around 220,000 Russians have fled across their borders since the “partial mobilization” was announced. The EU said their number – nearly 66,000 – represents a more than 30% increase from the previous week.
Independent Russian media, citing Russia’s transformed KGB, the FSB, put the overall escape even higher. They say more men of military age have fled the country since conscription – 261,000 – than have fought in the war so far – an estimated 160,000 to 190,000.
CNN is unable to verify the Russian figures, but the 40-kilometer traffic jams at the border with Georgia and the long lines at the crossings into Kazakhstan and Finland speak to the backlash and a growing perception that Putin is losing his storied flair for interpreting Russia’s mood.
For Putin, the clock is ticking loudly because his back is against the wall.
Kortunov says he doesn’t know what’s going on in the Kremlin but understands public sentiment about the huge cost and loss of life in war. “A lot of people would start asking questions, why did we get into this mess? You know, we’ve lost so many people.”
Putin’s logical option, says Kortunov, is to declare victory and exit on his own terms. But for that he needs a remarkable performance on site. “Russia can’t just get to where it was on February 24 of this year, say, okay, you know, that’s fine. Our mission is accomplished. So let’s go home… …There should be something to present to the public as a win.”
And Putin seems to be following this logic by approving the sham referendums in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson and declaring them to be Russia.
He used the same script when he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, and now as then threatens possible nuclear strikes if Ukraine, backed by its western allies, tries to retake the annexed territories.
Western leaders are in a race with Putin for brinksmanship. Last Sunday, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC’s Meet the Press that Washington would react decisively if Russia used nuclear weapons against Ukraine, and has made clear to Moscow the “catastrophic consequences” it faces would be.
The leaders have also vowed not to recognize the regions as part of Russian territory.
US President Joe Biden said Moscow’s actions had “no legitimacy,” adding that Washington will continue to “always honor Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.” The European Union said it would “never” recognize the “illegal annexation” of the Kremlin, describing the move as “another violation of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
There is little new in what Putin is doing that at least makes his moves more predictable, and thus easier to analyze.
Kurt Volker, who served as US ambassador to NATO and US special envoy to Ukraine under former President Donald Trump, believes Putin may be preparing for peace. “I think what he needs to aim for is to wield the nukes, make all kinds of threats against Europe and then say ok, so let’s negotiate a deal. And let me keep what I’ve already taken.”
Fiona Hill, who has advised three US presidents on national security issues related to Russia, also believes Putin may be attempting an endgame. “He feels an acute sense of urgency that he is losing momentum and he is now trying to exit the war the same way he entered it. He is in charge and determines the overall terms of any type of negotiation. ”
If correct, these analyzes will go a long way towards unraveling the mystery of what happened under the Baltic Sea on Monday.
Both Danish and Swedish seismologists registered explosive shock waves near the seabed: the first at around 2 a.m. local time with a magnitude of 2.3, then again at around 7 p.m. with a magnitude of 2.1.
Within hours, churned sea patches were discovered, the Danes and Germans were sending warships to secure the area, and Norway was tightening security around its oil and gas assets.
So far, at least four leaks have been discovered in Russia’s Nord Stream Pipelines 1 and 2, each of which resembles a boiling cauldron on the surface, the largest being a kilometer in diameter, and together spewing industrial quantities of toxic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Russian naval vessels were spotted in the area by European security officials in the days before, Western intelligence sources said. NATO’s North Atlantic Council has described the damage as a “willful, reckless and irresponsible act of sabotage”.
Russia denies responsibility and says it has launched its own investigation. But former CIA chief John Brennan said Russia has the expertise to inflict this type of damage, “all indications point to some type of sabotage, these pipelines are only in about 200 feet of water and Russia has the underwater capability to do it lightly place explosive devices next to these pipelines.”
Brennan’s analysis is that Russia is the most likely culprit for the sabotage and that Putin is probably trying to send a message: “It’s a signal to Europe that Russia can reach beyond Ukraine’s borders. So who knows what he’s planning next.”
Nord Stream 2 was never operational and Nord Stream 1 had been throttled by Putin as Europe raced to replenish gas reserves ahead of the winter while demand for Russian supplies was scaled back and substitute suppliers sought.
According to Hill, the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline could be a last-ditch effort by Putin to ensure “there is no turning back on the gas issue. And Europe will no longer be able to build up its gas reserves for the winter. So what Putin is doing is throwing absolutely everything at it right now.”
Another factor speeding up Putin’s thinking could be the approaching winter. Both Napoleon and Hitler failed to take Moscow because the supply lines running through Ukraine were too long and arduous in winter. Volker says what historically saved Russia is now pressing on Putin: “This time Russia has to deliver the lines and try to maintain its forces in Ukraine. It’s going to be very tough this winter. So suddenly, despite all these factors, Putin’s schedule has shifted upwards.”
Bottom line, according to Hill, “this is the result of Ukraine gaining momentum on the battlefield and Putin himself losing momentum, so he’s trying to adapt to the circumstances and basically take command and take advantage .”
No one knows what’s really going on in Putin’s head. Kortunov doubts that Putin will be willing to compromise beyond his own terms for peace, “not on the terms offered by President Zelenskyy, not on the terms offered by the West….[though] he should be willing to exercise some degree of flexibility. But we don’t know what these grades are [are] probably.”
According to Hill, Putin wants his negotiations to be with Biden and his allies, not Ukraine: “He’s basically saying you need to negotiate with me now and ask for peace. And that means recognizing what we have done on the ground in Ukraine.”
Having failed in the face of Western military unity in support of Ukraine, Putin appears ready to test Western resolve diplomatically by attempting to divide Western allies over peace terms.
Volker expects Putin to mobilize France and Germany first, “to say we must end this war, we will protect our territories at all costs, by any means necessary, and you must put pressure on the Ukrainians to settle down. ”
If this is Putin’s plan, it could become his biggest strategic miscalculation yet. There is little interest in the West in keeping him in power – US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said over the summer – and even less in abandoning Ukraine after all its suffering.
Putin knows he’s sitting in a corner but doesn’t seem to realize how little space he has, and of course that’s the most worrying thing – would he actually carry out his nuclear threats?
The war in Ukraine may have entered a new phase, Putin may have his back against the wall, but an end to the conflict may still be a long way off.