John R. DeniResearch professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute
For Ukraine to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin, it will first have to safeguard its two centers of gravity. The first is the Ukrainian will to resist. This seems remarkably strong so far, but it will continue to depend in large part on President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership and survival. The second is Western aid, and here, there’s more work to do, especially because Ukraine’s materiel requirements remain massive, the West’s biggest players aren’t all pulling their weight, and Kyiv’s needs will undoubtedly evolve as the war does.
Next, Ukraine will need to overcome Russia’s numerical advantages in equipment and manpower. This will be easier if Ukraine plays defense but harder if Kyiv attempts to recover all territory lost since 2014, including Crimea.
Regarding Russian will, it remains to be seen if it is any deeper than Putin. Assuming it is not, Ukraine’s best hope to stop Putin may be to outlast waves of Russian conscripts while waiting for his downfall from internal strife, natural causes (he turns seventy next week), or other dynamics like the March 2024 presidential “election.”
The views expressed above are the author’s own.
Martin EhlChief analyst at Hospodářské Noviny
The answer depends on a subquestion: Is Vladimir Putin still a rational geopolitical actor?
If so, then he can be stopped even if we do not know what else in terms of the economic and political stability in Russia and its position in international relations he is willing to sacrifice. In this case, the pressure in the form of the current Western sanctions policy must be maintained and Ukraine will recover more and more of its occupied territories until the moment Putin—somehow—admits defeat, even if Russian propaganda calls that a victory.
If he is not rational, then we are venturing more into the field of unknowns, where any predictions are hard. But also in this case, the West should not back off in terms of sanctions.
In both cases, the domestic developments in Russia will be crucial and there, the mobilization fatigue will play a role. Therefore, the decision not to admit those leaving Russia for fear of being mobilized plays an important role in increasing domestic pressure. No less important is Western/EU help to those countries in Russia’s orbit, like Armenia, Kazakhstan, or Tajikistan, which see an opportunity to break some chains.
François HeisbourgSenior advisor for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)
Notwithstanding the flight of hundreds of thousands of young men from Russia, the historical precedents aren’t encouraging when it comes to preventing the success of forced enrolment, even in democracies.
During the American war in Vietnam, close to 600,000 conscripts dodged the draft from 1964 to 1973. This didn’t prevent the U.S. military from securing the number of soldiers they considered to be necessary from prosecuting the war until the end. The call-ups increased the unpopularity of the American war, contributing over time to its termination in 1973, but only after more than 58,000 deaths of which a third or so were draftees.
The same happened with the partial mobilisation by France to ramp up the war in Algeria from 1956 onward. Lengthening the draft, recalling former draftees and reservists to the colors was broadly successful, increasing the military in Algeria by close to 330,000, from 114,000 to 442,000. Of the circa 23,000 French soldiers killed in action, 51 percent were drafted men. Here too, forced enrolment contributed politically to the war’s unpopularity but the military didn’t lack the manpower they viewed as necessary. The war went on for six more years.
Linas KojalaDirector of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, Vilnius
The Kremlin didn’t want to order mobilization. From a military point of view, it made more sense to call up additional troops back in spring. Yet Putin probably saw it as a risky move. Queues of people leaving Russia, anecdotal evidence about protests, and doubts about Putin’s grip on power are evidence of why that’s the case.
For Russians, the war is not a reality show on TV anymore. Signs of weakness are appearing. For instance, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s attempt to reconcile the mobilization with a statement that the number of killed Ukrainian soldiers is ten times higher than that of Russians sounds implausible, likely even for hardcore Kremlin supporters.
Yet it all plays out in a black box of the Russian regime. Political scientists will skilfully explain why Putin lost power after that will have happened. The number of risk factors for him is accumulating. But there is no way of precisely predicting it. Thus, all the West must do is maintain military and economic support for Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. A firm and principled response against aggression is the only language that Putin understands—and it clearly makes him uncomfortable.
Andrei KolesnikovSenior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Events show that a cornered Putin is becoming almost impossible to stop. Even the fact that he risks losing his Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) partners, who are beginning to fear him—for example, Kazakhstan is already moving along a separate track—and he will not be able to become the curator of a large imaginary Eurasian empire, doesn’t stop him. Here, as in another spheres, he achieves goals that are directly opposite to those intended. Nor does the obvious wariness of China, India, and Turkey stop him.
Putin has rudely violated the unwritten social contract of recent years: citizens do not pay attention to the theft and wars of the Putin elite and the elite, in exchange for this, allows the citizens to live their private lives. The degree of internal accumulated discontent is still difficult to measure, given the high adaptability of the population. But it is clear that protests are no longer of the opposition and civil society, but of the “deep people,” the root social base of the regime that can restrain the Kremlin a little. So, Putin’s tactical allies outside the country and the Russian people themselves, who are undergoing an unprecedented shock, can try to stop the dictator.
Alena KudzkoDirector of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Bratislava
A “normalized” Putin—or a more cooperative successor—combined with a stable democratic Russia, remains a pipe dream for the foreseeable future. But if measured against his own original war plans, which Western countries by and large believed he could achieve, Putin finds himself profoundly weakened.
Ukrainian momentum on the battlefield, the uncooperative attitude of Russian conscripts, and the relatively subtle—but stinging—rebukes by countries like China and even Kyrgyzstan have created a window of opportunity to send Putin further staggering. Ukraine may be able to regain the majority of, if not all, occupied and annexed territories.
Putin has calculated that time is on his side if he can only halt Kyiv’s momentum and somewhat freeze the war. But he should not be provided the luxury of dragging the war out and regrouping.
Western countries must further intensify their weapons deliveries and tailor them to the evolving battlefield situation. The steady flow of financial aid to Ukraine—preferably tilted toward grants rather than loans—and sanctions against Russia must be sustained.
The Ukrainian “collective guilt” approach toward Russia is understandable. But providing a temporary exit and extending support to Russian emigrants who have opposed the war will contribute to dismantling Putin’s war apparatus.
The risk that Putin will deliver on his threat to use nuclear weapons cannot be discounted. The West must consider these scenarios and keep a steady hand. But if we give in to nuclear blackmail, we can be certain that it will never stop.
Linas LinkevičiusFormer foreign and defense minister of Lithuania
Putin himself will not stop, but he can and must be stopped. He has no arguments left—only threats and blackmail. He will threaten and bluff until someone is afraid. When the bluff doesn’t work, he will come up with another one. This is the essence of his “negotiating” tactics.
The mobilization will be as “successful” as the “special operation.” It will not add any quality to the Russian army—only increase casualties. It has already caused enormous social tension, which can turn into a political crisis. Relations with the military leadership are becoming complicated and they will only get worse, because the Kremlin, over the heads of the military leadership, directly interferes in commanding military operations, and for failures it is always the army that is to blame.
The conditions for removing Putin through domestic efforts will only improve. This should in no way change the West’s position and actions. Let’s keep doing the same and even more: provide Ukraine with better, heavier weapons, tanks, also jets. Let’s provide sustainable financial support. Let’s further strengthen the economic sanctions against Russia.
Stefan MeisterHead of the International Order and Democracy program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
If the West stays the course, Putin might stop himself. The mobilization in Russia happens against the background of a weakened Russian army. If Putin does not want to lose the war, he had no other choice than the partial mobilization. But with this, he links the victory in Eastern and Southern Ukraine to his own political survival.
His core electorate, the quiet mass of Russians, are against being dragged into the war. That is not possible anymore. The more Russians will have to fight in Ukraine, the more dead soldiers return, the more the domestic pressure will grow. Therefore, the West and Ukraine must increase their leverage on Putin.
The more systematically Ukraine gets Western weapons and training, the more likely it becomes that the Russian army will not win. Losing this war, combined with a growing economic crisis in Russia, will increase the pressure from society and the elite on the leadership. Therefore, continuing the sanctions and closing the military gaps is key.
There is a risk of a tactical nuclear attack on Ukraine. But if Putin would do this, he would unite the West even more and make this war less acceptable for China and India.
Gwendolyn SasseNonresidential senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS), Berlin
Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization ended the myth of the controlled “special military operation.” There was little opposition to the war in Russia, but the reactions to the forced recruitment show that many Russians do not actively support the war and choose to blank it from their lives. This is no longer possible now as the war and its effects are potentially hitting every Russian family.
The risk Putin was willing to take with this step indicates that his position is not as secure as it was at the beginning of the invasion. He reacted to an apparent lack of military personnel on the ground and to public criticism of his weak military leadership by ultranationalists. Thus, Putin understands the risks elites can pose in an authoritarian system. A momentum for change will have to come from the elites, possibly from the military or security forces in reaction to the costs of this war.
Ultimately, Putin will have to be stopped inside Russia. The nearly inconceivable has become at least a possibility. But the war dynamics, in particular the question of whether further Ukrainian offenses can succeed with Western military support, will be an important factor in preparing the ground for domestic change—the direction of which remains open, too.
Paul StronskiSenior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
If anyone can stop Vladimir Putin, it will be the Russian people or the Russian elite. Putin’s mobilization order was a miscalculation that triggered protests. It also reaffirmed Russia’s military and geopolitical weakness. But there are no indications so far that they pose a serious challenge to the regime or the elite is ready to move against their boss.
Before the announcement, Russians were largely removed from the war and interest was waning, although far-right hardliners demanded course corrections. However, mobilization woke Russians up to the horrors of war. Sending more hastily trained men—some right from their university classroom or workplace—into battle will not shift the war’s trajectory anytime soon, but it has activated average Russians’ concerns for their own safety and that of their male relatives.
The war is now palpable in a way it was not before, leading to protests, violence, and the flight of many young men abroad. The private views of Russian elites, however, remain unknown. They will be key to deciding the country’s future and Putin’s place in it.
With sudden uncertainty at home and in Ukraine, Russia’s path now is unclear. But an uncertain and insecure Putin regime remains highly dangerous.
Andreas UmlandAnalyst with the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI)
When surveying recent Russian policies toward Ukraine, an apocryphal saying of Napoleon Bonaparte comes to mind: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
Since late August 2022, Putin’s rhetorical and practical missteps have accumulated. To name but a couple of them, two of the hitherto most effective Russian narratives about the war against Ukraine are currently being undermined. With the possible Russian annexation of parts of Eastern and Southern mainland Ukraine, the Kremlin’s elaborate historical and legal justifications for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, that also found many adherents in the West, is being subverted.
The capture of the Black Sea peninsula eight years ago may soon appear as a mere episode in an ordinary war of imperial expansion. With the recent release of dozens of Azov Regiment fighters to Ukraine, in exchange for a smaller amount of Russian prisoners of war, the earlier Russian apologetic rhetoric around a necessary denazification of Ukraine is becoming questionable.
If allegedly neo-Nazi Ukrainians are captured yet then freed without a trial, what was the whole “special military operation” about? If things continue this way, the West and Ukraine may need to do only a little more than before and might just need to wait until Putin’s regime destructs itself.