The past week has been one of alternately hopeful and discouraging news in the 7-months-long invasion of Ukraine by Russia. We asked Ukraine expert Paul D'Anieri for guidance on whether the developments signal a winddown in Russian aggression or if they foretell a next, more perilous chapter. D'Anieri wrote the 2019 book “Ukraine and Russia" and a 2007 book, “Understanding Ukrainian Politics: Power, Politics and Institutional Design.” For the 2017-18 academic year, he served as a fellow in the Harvard University Ukrainian Research Institution. He is a professor of political science and public policy at UCR.
Q: Ukraine has in the past week launched a successful counteroffensive, driving Russia from hundreds of square miles of territory occupied since the early days of the war. Is it proper to frame this as a retreat? Is Russia truly running out of the military resources to carry on this war?
D'Anieri: Russia was forced to retreat from hundreds of square miles of territory it had occupied in northeastern Ukraine. With a front of over a thousand miles, and fewer than 200,000 troops committed, Russia did not have sufficient troops to adequately defend all of the front. Russia still has immense resources overall, but has shortages in some key areas. One of those is in troops, which the partial mobilization announced on Wednesday is intended to alleviate.
Q: What meaning should we place behind Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public rebuke of Putin?
D'Anieri: Modi’s criticism of the war should be taken as a genuine reflection of his opinion and as a manifestation of India’s sense of itself as an independent and important player on the world stage. It does not represent India taking sides with the U.S. and the West in this conflict. But it does show that even those who are very skeptical of the U.S. role in the world oppose Russia’s violation of all the accepted rules of conduct.
Q: Russia has moved to stage referendums, considered both a rouse and illegal, for the annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories Luhansk and Donetsk. How do you frame Russia’s military hold on these territories? Could this annexation be Putin’s exit strategy? If not, how do you see this playing out?
D'Anieri: Russia’s decision to announce referendums in occupied territories, coupled with his nuclear threats, represents not only an escalation of the conflict, but a doubling down on his original decision to invade. By holding referendums, he intends to present a new status quo in which these territories are Russian. He intends therefore to say that any attacks on them constitute attacks on Russia, justifying disproportionate retaliation (perhaps including nuclear weapons). He needs to use this deterrence because it is not clear that the Russian military can hold the territories. Rather than being an exit strategy, declaring these territories to be Russian territory deepens Putin’s commitment to holding them, and increases the loss to his credibility should Russian troops lose the territory. It is hard to know how this plays out, but the events of the last few days show both that Putin is aware that Russia is losing the war and that rather than pursuing an exit through negotiation, he is increasing his commitment to prevailing in the war.
Q: Is the activation of the reserves and other Russian citizens announced Wednesday likely to make Russian citizens less favorable toward the war effort? Is Putin still on solid footing with the populace?
D'Anieri: Putin knew that this would be very unpopular, which is why he hesitated for so long to do it. There have already been protests in Russia against the mobilization, and one-way flights out of Russia have largely sold out. Putin is not in any immediate danger of losing power, but he has raised the stakes not only for Russia and Ukraine, but for himself personally. He cannot afford to be seen as losing the war, which means that further difficulties are likely to be met by further escalation, not by him backing down.