Putin obviously doesn’t have similar concerns.
His Wednesday speech was full of apocalyptic rhetoric, portraying Russia as a nation under attack by the whole West. But he didn’t announce the kind of full-scale mobilization that rhetoric would seem to imply. Instead, he announced a series of half-measures that defense experts doubt will do much to change Russia’s downward military trajectory. I have no reason to question their judgment.
What struck me, however, was that the new policies amount, in effect, to a betrayal of Russians who believed Putin’s past promises. Notably, contract soldiers — people who volunteered to serve for a limited time — have suddenly found themselves stuck in service for the indefinite future. This may shore up Russian numbers for the next few months; but who, in the future, will be foolish enough to volunteer for Putin’s army?
Putin’s clumsy efforts at economic warfare are, in a way, creating similar credibility issues. Russia has largely cut off the flow of natural gas to Europe, hoping to bully Western democracies into stopping their military and economic aid to Ukraine. He is succeeding in creating a lot of economic pain; energy prices have soared, and a nasty European recession seems highly likely.
Yet the West isn’t going to abandon Ukraine, especially given Ukrainian success on the battlefield. So Putin’s attempted economic bullying, like his partial mobilization, probably won’t change the course of the war. What it’s doing, instead, is showing how dangerous it is to do business with an erratic, authoritarian regime. This means that even if and when the Ukraine war ends, Russia’s trade relations won’t return to normal: As long as Putin or someone like him remains in power, Europe will never again allow itself to become so reliant on Russian energy.
In short, Putin is engaged in what we might call a bonfire of the credibilities — his desperate short-run efforts to rescue his war of aggression are undermining Russia’s future, by making it clear that he can’t be trusted. Looking forward, Russian citizens won’t volunteer to serve in the military, lest they end up trapped in a kill zone; European companies won’t sign contracts with Russian suppliers, lest they find their businesses stranded by economic blackmail.
Credibility can seem squishy, and it can be abused as a rationale for objectively bad policies. And being too rigid about obeying rules that have been overtaken by events can do a lot of damage.