Time is running out for Vladimir Putin and he knows it (analysis)

(CNN) — Time is running out for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he knows it.

Meanwhile, his bombast continues: Announcing the annexation of Ukrainian territories on Friday, Putin declared that Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson will become part of Russia “forever.” He is quick to claim a victory and cement small gains and sue for peace, handling a dangerous political account, regardless of the fanfare in Moscow.

He called on Ukraine to “cease fire” immediately and “sit at the negotiating table”, but added: “We will not negotiate the choice of the people. It has been done. Russia will not betray him.”

He does his best to hide it, but he is losing the war in the Ukraine. It’s not a secret.

Andrey Kortunov, who heads the Kremlin-backed Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, sees it too. “President Putin wants to end all of this as quickly as possible,” he told CNN.

Putin’s recent heavy-handed recruiting drive for 300,000 soldiers will not reverse his battlefield losses any time soon, and it is failing at home, leading to a dangerous political account.

According to official data 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 numbers, almost 66,000, represented an increase of more than 30% from the previous week.

Independent Russian media citing Russia’s revamped KGB, the FSB, further elevates the total exodus. They say more men of military age have fled the country from conscription (261,000) than have so far fought in the war (an estimated 160,000 to 190,000).

CNN cannot verify the Russian figures, but the 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) of traffic jams on the border with Georgia, and the long lines at the crossings into Kazakhstan and Finland, speak to the backlash and growing perception of that Putin is losing his legendary touch by reading Russia’s mood.

The clock is ticking loud for Putin because his back is against the wall.

Kortunov says he doesn’t know what’s going on in the Kremlin, but he understands the public mood about the huge costs and loss of life in the war. “A lot of people would start asking questions, why did we get into this mess? Why, you know, we lost so many people.”

Putin’s logical choice, says Kortunov, is to declare victory and go out on his own terms. But for this he needs an important achievement on the ground. “Russia can’t just get to where it was, on February 24 of this year, say, okay, you know, okay. Our mission is accomplished. So we go home… …There must be something that can be presented to the public as a victory.”

And this is the logic that Putin seems to be following, approving the fake referendums in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia and Kherson, and declaring them part of Russia.

He used the same playbook to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and now, as then, is threatening possible nuclear strikes if Ukraine, backed by its Western allies, tries to retake the annexed territories.

Preparing for peace?

Western leaders are in a risky battle with Putin. Last Sunday, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Washington would respond decisively if Russia deployed nuclear weapons against Ukraine and made clear to Moscow the “consequences catastrophic” it would face.

The leaders have also promised not to recognize the regions as part of Russian territory.

US President Joe Biden said Moscow’s actions “have no legitimacy,” adding that Washington will continue to “always honor Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.” The European Union said it would “never” recognize the Kremlin’s “illegal annexation” and described the move as a “further violation of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

There is little novelty in what Putin does, which at least makes his moves more predictable and therefore easier to analyze.

Kurt Volker, who was the US ambassador to NATO and the US special representative to Ukraine under former President Donald Trump, thinks Putin may be preparing for peace. “I think what he should be fighting for is brandishing nuclear weapons, making all kinds of threats to Europe and then saying, okay, so let’s negotiate a deal. And let me keep what I’ve already taken.”

Fiona Hill, who has advised three US presidents on Russia’s national security, also believes that Putin may be attempting an end game. “He feels an acute sense of urgency that he was losing momentum, and now he’s trying to get out of the war the same way he got in. With him being the person in charge and him framing all the terms of any kind of negotiation.”

If these analyzes are correct, they will go a long way toward explaining the mystery of what happened under the Baltic Sea on Monday.

Both Danish and Swedish seismologists recorded explosive shock waves near the seabed: first around 2 a.m. local time, reaching a magnitude of 2.3, then again around 7 p.m., registering 2.1.

Why did Putin annex a region of Ukraine to Russia? 3:16

Within hours, patches of rough seas were discovered, the Danes and Germans sent warships to secure the area, and Norway increased security around its oil and gas facilities.

So far, at least four leaks have been discovered in Russia’s Nord Stream pipelines 1 and 2, each on the surface resembling a boiling cauldron, the largest a kilometer wide, and together spewing industrial quantities. of toxic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Russian warships were seen by European security officials in the area in the days before, Western intelligence sources said. NATO’s North Atlantic Council has described the damage as a “deliberate, 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 experience to inflict this kind of damage: “All signs point to some kind of sabotage that these pipelines are only about 200 feet or so of water and Russia has a subsea capability that will easily place explosive devices next to those pipelines.”

Brennan’s analysis is that Russia is the most likely culprit in the sabotage and that Putin is probably trying to send a message: “It is a signal to Europe that Russia can reach beyond Ukraine’s borders. So who knows what he might be planning next.”

Nord Stream 2 was never operational, and Putin had scaled back Nord Stream 1 as Europe scrambled to replenish gas reserves ahead of winter, while also reducing demand for Russian supplies and looking for replacement suppliers.

The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline could, according to Hill, be a last roll of the dice for Putin, so “there is no way to go back on the gas problems. And it will not be possible for Europe to continue to accumulate its gas reserves for the winter. So what Putin does is throw absolutely everything at this right now.”

Congested supply lines

Another factor speeding up Putin’s thinking may be the approaching winter. Both Napoleon and Hitler failed to take Moscow because the supply lines through the Ukraine were too long and arduous in winter. Volker says that what historically saved Russia is now putting pressure on Putin: “This time, it is Russia that has to supply lines, trying to keep its forces in Ukraine. That is going to be very difficult this winter. So all of a sudden, because of all these factors, Putin’s timeline has moved up.”

The bottom line, Hill said, is that “this is a result of Ukraine gaining momentum on the battlefield and Putin himself losing it, so he’s trying to adapt to the circumstances and basically take over and get all the momentum.” the advantages”.

No one knows what is really going on in Putin’s mind. Kortunov doubts that Putin is willing to compromise beyond his own terms for peace, “not on the terms offered by President Zelensky, not on the terms offered by the West… [aunque] should be ready to exercise a degree of flexibility but we don’t know which ones [es] likely to be these degrees.”

According to Hill, Putin wants his negotiations to be with Biden and his allies, not with Ukraine: “He basically says that now you will have to negotiate with me and ask for peace. And that means acknowledging what we have done on the ground in Ukraine.”

Having failed in the face of Western military unity backing Ukraine, Putin appears poised to test Western resolve diplomatically, trying to divide Western allies over peace terms.

Volker expects Putin to launch France and Germany first “to say, we have to end this war, we are going to protect our territories at all costs, using any means necessary, and we have to put pressure on the Ukrainians to settle.”

If this is Putin’s plan, it could become his biggest strategic miscalculation yet. There is little Western appetite to see him stay in power – US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said so in the summer – and even less to let Ukraine down after all its suffering.

Putin knows he’s backed into a corner, but he doesn’t seem to realize how little space he has, and that, of course, is the most worrying thing: will he actually follow through on his nuclear threats?

The war in Ukraine may have entered a new phase, and Putin may have his back against the wall, but the end of the conflict may still be a long way off.

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