limportant developments last week pointed to flaring hopes for peace in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin acknowledged that Xi Jinping had expressed deep concern about the war, and Narendra Modi publicly criticized the Russian leader over his invasion.
China and India, major economic and military powers, had thus far avoided condemning Moscow for the conflict and had indeed relaxed international sanctions by buying Russian oil at a discount. Their change of position was held back by the West as a very damaging erosion of support that could lead the Kremlin to accept that military victory was no longer possible and to seek a ceasefire.
President Putin responded softening to the strictures at a summit in Uzbekistan, telling Prime Minister Modi that “we will do our best to stop this. [the war] as soon as possible” and address “the concerns you raise”. He told President Xi that he understood “your questions and concerns” about the war.
On Tuesday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Putin wanted to end the conflict and that a “major step” lay ahead to achieve this. The Turkish president said Putin is “actually showing me that he is willing to put an end to this as soon as possible … because the way things are going now is quite problematic.”
Twenty-four hours later, Putin had ordered a partial mobilization of reserves for his “special military operation,” with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu adding that 300,000 Russians with combat experience will now be called up to fight.
Putin also used some of the most incendiary language to date since sending his troops to Ukraine, raising the prospect of nuclear strikes. “Of course, if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” he said. “This is not a bluff… Those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.”
Putin and his supporters blame the West for introducing the nuclear map over Ukraine. But the threats of nuclear strikes all come from hawks in Moscow. The latest news was from Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of state broadcaster RT, who said: “Judging by what is happening and what is about to happen, this week marks either the threshold of our imminent victory or the threshold of nuclear war. I don’t see a third option.”
With “what’s to come”, Simonyan spoke of the situation on the ground, the huge gains made in the current Ukrainian offensive, the Russian turnaround that Erdogan called “problematic”.
The pace of the advance and the crumbling of the Russian lines has taken everyone by surprise, including the Ukrainians. Not only have they captured important Russian military strongholds in the northeast, they have also recaptured settlements in the Donbas.
While Putin announced the partial mobilization, the Kremlin also stated that referendums will be held in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson. This will no doubt be followed by annexation into Russia.
But some of the fighting is now near the borders of the separatist republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, which have been controlled by Russia since the 2014 war.
Putin had stated that one of the main goals of the military operation was to take over the parts of the Donbas into Ukrainian hands – to “reunite” the parts of the Donbas. About half of the territory is now in the hands of Moscow, including cities like Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.
But now there is a real possibility that the Ukrainians will not only regain those places, but also recapture lands that Russia took in 2014.
It is the kind of humiliation that would be unthinkable for Russia. Putin has been cornered. He lashes out, and another level of uncertainty and danger has been added to the war in Ukraine affecting Europe and beyond.