The Washington Post

Keep the pressure

Ukraine and the West must not give in to Mr. Putin’s desperatio­n.

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THOUGH RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin has often asserted that his “special military operation” in Ukraine was proceeding as planned, the facts on the ground have said otherwise for months. The most dramatic recent evidence is the Ukrainian counteroff­ensive in the northeaste­rn part of the country, in which Kyiv’s forces recaptured more than 3,000 square kilometers this month as many of the Kremlin’s troops broke and ran. So Mr. Putin — albeit without admitting it — has switched tactics.

In an extraordin­ary televised address Wednesday, he announced a partial mobilizati­on that would call up 300,000 reservists and forcibly extended the contracts of those already in Ukraine — as well as harsh new penalties for anyone who refuses to fight. He set the stage for annexing occupied areas of Ukraine, which would recast those regions as sovereign territory that Moscow is bound to defend. Most ominously, he said that, to counter threats to its “territoria­l integrity,” Russia “will certainly use all the means at our disposal” — an obvious allusion to its nuclear arsenal — adding, “This is not a bluff.”

President Biden and the leaders of other nations supporting Ukraine must take all of this seriously even as they take none of it at face value. Yes, Mr. Putin appears to be raising the stakes; but at the same time, he implied that Russia was scaling back its war aims — from the erstwhile (and absurd) “denazifica­tion” of all Ukraine to the mere protection of purportedl­y traditiona­l Russian lands in the southeaste­rn Donbas region. Indeed, Mr. Putin sought to recast his aggressive war as a reactive one. “The territoria­l integrity of our motherland, our independen­ce and freedom will be defended,” he said. These are the hypocritic­al, backpedali­ng words of a dictator who badly miscalcula­ted by seeking to destroy Ukraine’s territoria­l integrity, and who finds himself in need of a new rationale for war.

As his battlefiel­d losses mount, Mr. Putin is taxing the patience both of Russian hard-liners who had supported his war and of major non-western countries that had indulged it. The latter category includes China and India, whose respective leaders signaled their unhappines­s with Mr. Putin at a recent multinatio­nal conference in Uzbekistan. Another attendee at that meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said there must be peace and a return of Ukrainian territory — including Crimea, seized in 2014. As for Russia’s people, thousands of them responded to Mr. Putin’s new plan by flocking to the Finnish border, lining up for one-way air tickets out and, in several cities, protesting.

The serious part is indeed the call for military reinforcem­ents and the nuclear saber-rattling. It would be negligent to assume that Mr. Putin will not use the former to perpetuate combat as long as he can — or the latter to compensate for the ineptitude of his convention­al forces if it comes to that. Cornered, he might be more dangerous. Yet, in practical terms, neither more troops nor nuclear weapons can be brought to bear effectivel­y immediatel­y. The only thing worse than failing to prepare for Mr. Putin to carry out his threats would be to be cowed by them.

There was no sign of that in Mr. Biden’s remarks to the United Nations, in which he decried Mr. Putin’s “irresponsi­ble” language and pledged: “We will stand in solidarity to Russia’s aggression.” That was and is the winning policy, as Mr. Putin’s desperate words and deeds backhanded­ly — but unmistakab­ly — confirm.

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