Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Ukraine: The critical moment has arrived

October 13, 2022
Mikhail Khodorkovsky | Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Putin has laid all his cards on the table — and we mustn’t be cowed by the bluster of a bully who knows he’s losing.

When declaring the annexation of Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk, and parts of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin showed characteristic contempt for the truth. The announcement followed sham referenda reflecting Putin’s brand of democracy — where voting takes place at gunpoint and the outcome is predetermined.

Delivered amid deranged bombast regarding the “satanic” West, this was Putin’s latest attempt to regain the initiative and deflect attention from the fact that he’s losing his disastrous war — to a humiliating extent. Announcing the mobilization of 300,000 reserve troops last week was as close as he could come to admitting he’s losing. And the now familiar threats to use nuclear weapons can also be seen in this context.

Evidently, the critical moment has arrived.

Putin has laid all his cards on the table — and we mustn’t be cowed by the bluster of a bully who knows he’s losing. Instead, we must intensify support for Ukraine and give it what it needs to ensure Putin’s defeat. Simultaneously, the West must also take steps to support and incentivize members of the Russian population dissenting from the Kremlin’s latest abominations, to hasten his defeat at home.

As it stands, Putin’s forces are now incapable of holding the line without massive reinforcements.

According to some estimates, since the start of the invasion, the total of Russia’s fallen and wounded could be as high as 100,000 to 150,000 — roughly the size of the total initial invasion force. And Russia’s generals have repeatedly, even publicly, insisted they cannot accomplish the goals they have been given without a serious increase in personnel. Their desperation became clear when footage emerged of Putin crony Yevgeny Prigozhin scouring Russian prisons for contract fighters to enlist.

And though the new mobilization answers the generals’ request, it creates a whole host of other problems — both military and political.

Up until now, Russian society’s support for the war in Ukraine could be defined as “apathetic non-interference.” It was a matter for the Kremlin to deal with, and it didn’t affect them directly. But the mobilization has blown this wide open, sending shock waves throughout the population.

Previously, authorities had been able to balance the not-entirely-voluntary use of conscripts with the offer of generous handouts if they were wounded or killed. For this purpose, they started with those from Russia’s poor periphery, but they’ve now exhausted this pool of cannon fodder.

After mobilization, the war in Ukraine is no longer something far away for ordinary Russians.

Hence, the hundreds of thousands of Russian men of fighting age desperately trying to flee the country. Why would these men wish to stay and be sent to face the horrors of war — a war that serves no purpose other than the agenda of a corrupt regime? Why would they want to become war criminals, corpses, or both, simply to protect the wealth, power and pride of Putin and his gangster cronies?

Moreover, drafting 300,000 is just a first step. Currently, people from all of Russia’s regions and social groups are receiving mobilization draft notices, and it’s likely that over a million will have been drafted by the start of next year.

But saturating the front lines with poorly trained, and even less motivated, mobilized troops won’t lead to greater military “success.” It will be unmanageable, and the expected losses will be catastrophic.

Russian society’s ability to tolerate tens and hundreds of thousands of dead conscripts is not a given. As time goes on, passive forms of protest, such as draft evasion, will increase. And as losses mount and the number of deserters rises further still, protest will begin to take more aggressive forms.

Then, there are also the more medium-term domestic risks for the regime, like the emergence of at least tens of thousands of individuals in Russia who have deep but thus far restrained grievances with their lot in life, now with weapons, training and experience in using them. Moreover, this group won’t only be comprised of Russians but also the armed separatists from Ukrainian regions Putin has now “annexed,” and to whom he has granted citizenship.

If, and when, Ukraine’s army penetrates the front, stopping this armed “Russian” horde from retreating into the Russian Federation and heading through the adjoining regions to Moscow won’t be possible. The historical precedent of 1917 may provide a template, when the rollback of troops from the front in World War I led to the fall of the regime and the Bolshevik takeover.

All of these risks may have been what held Putin back from mobilizing sooner, but the situation at the front is now out of control. Mobilization, sham referenda and vainglorious declarations of annexation are acts of desperation and weakness, and the West must choose how to respond.

One response to mobilization could be for European countries to grant asylum to draft dodgers. Ukraine could also provide asylum for Russians who wish to fight on the Ukrainian side or otherwise support its war effort too.

At the same time, however, Ukraine needs weapons, and it’s down to every country with the ability to do so to provide them. It’s particularly vital to increase the supply of weapons capable of taking out distant command and logistical centers.

But no matter what, now is not the time for the West to soften its resolve in the fight against Putin — it’s time to step it up. There is no “escape ramp” to offer him; no elegant way of enabling him to declare victory. Those pushing such “solutions” don’t understand Putin — or worse, they’re advocating a policy of appeasement against a fascist dictator to try to reduce their gas bill.

Instead, by far the most efficient way to put an end to Putin’s energy blackmail and nuclear threats would be a further rout of his invasion force. That’s why the world must now back Ukraine’s forces with greater intensity than ever before.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former political prisoner and CEO of Yukos Oil company, is the author of “The Russia Conundrum: How the West Fell for Putin’s Power Gambit – and How to Fix It.”

Opinion originally published at POLITICO Europe.