Putin’s brutality could worsen in Ukraine.

Russia’s fanatical president, Vladimir Putin, may have just endured his worst week since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he says was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.

His vaunted army, including a tank force once considered one of Russia’s best, collapsed in the face of a Ukrainian offensive in eastern Ukraine. Some Russian soldiers fled after abandoning their uniforms and wearing civilian clothes that they stole from their homes, according to local residents.

In southern Ukraine, Russian units defending the strategic city of Kherson struggled to maintain their positions against persistent Ukrainian attacks.

Putin even faced what seemed like a tough questioning from his most important ally, Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“We understand your questions and concerns” about Ukraine, Xi told a summit meeting in the central Asian city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

When Putin ordered his army to invade Ukraine in February, he saw a historic opportunity to reassemble the heart of the Soviet Union and seemed to expect a quick victory.

That plan failed when Ukraine, backed by Western military aid and US intelligence, halted Russia’s attempt to seize its capital, Kyiv.

Now Putin’s plan B, the invasion of eastern and southern Ukraine, is teetering on the brink of failure, too.

Some fans hailed Ukraine’s victory at Izyum, an important railway junction in the East, as the turning point in the war. This is premature. Russia occupies about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory and has more troops it can deploy, although their quality is uncertain.

“Despite the euphoria, this is not over yet,” Alexander Vershbow, a former US ambassador to Russia, told me last week. Putin is clearly angry at the failure of his leaders… but that doesn’t mean he will give up. He can still escalate in many ways.”

So what can we expect from Putin now? Vershbow made predictions.

Putin will not give up. This means the end of his reign.

It will likely intensify the death and destruction that Russia has inflicted on civilians in Ukraine.

Putin’s career was marked by success in wars against weaker opponents. He came to power in 1999 by ordering a midwinter siege of Grozny, the capital of the Russian republic of Chechnya, in a brutal war to suppress Muslim separatists. In 2008, he sent the army to neighboring Georgia; In 2014, he sent troops into eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

In those wars, his forces often caused civilian casualties as a deliberate tactic.

His approach in Ukraine corresponds to the same pattern. She did not do well against a well-driven, well-trained and well-equipped opponent.

“We’re going to see a further escalation of brutality,” Vershbow said. They have already launched a massive bombing of civilian infrastructure. … some [Russian] Officials say they want to expel millions of Ukrainians from the country.”

Putin’s goal, he said, is to “return this to a war of attrition…and hopefully that over time, war weariness is driving Ukrainians to withdraw.”

To achieve this, some hardline Putin supporters have called for full mobilization, which means conscription to replenish the army and formally declare war.

But Putin’s aides said that conscription would not be considered.

The government continued to reassure the Russians that this was a limited “special military operation” and even banned calling it a “war.”

“He’s still desperately trying to avoid mass mobilization,” Vershbow said. “Recruitment will send protesters into the streets in Moscow. Until then, it takes months and months to train new forces.”

Michael Kaufman, a Russian expert at CNA, a defense think tank, suggested that Putin might opt ​​for “partial mobilization,” to extend contracts to recruit existing soldiers and craft new veterans with the required skills.

“Partial mobilization is possible, but it could be inferior forces,” Vershbow said.

As for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, most military and foreign policy experts say Putin likely won’t use them unless his survival is directly at stake.

“The problem with most escalatory options, including nuclear weapons, is that they might simply unite Europe, portray Putin himself as a Hitler’s monster and speed up Western arms supplies to Ukraine,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a former National Security Council official. Now at Columbia University.

Putin’s other hope is to win the war not on the battlefield but in Western Europe, where Moscow has cut off natural gas supplies to put pressure on Germany and other consuming nations that have sent weapons to Ukraine.

So far, the energy war has had surprisingly little effect. One recent poll showed that 70% of Germans support continuing aid to Ukraine, despite the rise in gas prices. In the United States, a Gallup poll found a similar level of support, 76%.

However, the real test will come this winter, when the need for gas to heat homes will increase.

On both fronts, Putin hopes that inflicting pain on noncombatants will lead to victory. It is believed that the Russians are better fighters than the Ukrainians and more resilient in winter than the Europeans or the Americans. The challenge for the West is to prove it wrong.

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