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What now for Putin? After Russian retreat, the Kremlin has few good options

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A general mobilization would enable the military to draw further on Russia’s 2 million reservists, allow it to expand the draft and put the Kremlin in a position to pressure its manufacturing base toward a wartime footing. It would require heavy training and rededicating materials and the economy, however, meaning it could take until at least the spring for it to have an effect on the battlefield.

It could also lead to backlash in major Russian cities, where life has in many ways continued as usual and where residents have not suffered the same numbers of casualties as its rural provinces to this point. 

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“If you start taking young men from Moscow and St. Petersburg, who are more politically powerful than those from the provinces, and they start dying in Ukraine while Russia is losing, that’s a very politically risky position for Putin to be in,” said Kristine Berzina, a senior security and defense policy fellow at the German Marshall Fund. 

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said this week that the Kremlin was not considering full mobilization but that the debate was welcome — to a point. 

“Critical points of view can be considered pluralism so long as they remain within the bounds of the law,” he said. “But the line is very, very thin. One must be careful here.”

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Sue for peace?

Other voices in Russia have pressed for an end to the invasion and a withdrawal of forces.

Politician Boris Nadezhdin’s comments on Russian television that the Kremlin had no chance to win and that it should emphasize peace talks made waves online this week. 

“We’re now at the point when we have to understand it’s absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine,” Nadezhdin said Sunday on state-controlled NTV, where he further slammed the Kremlin for its “colonial war methods” and use of contract soldiers and mercenaries without mobilization.

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Nadezhdin told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he does not fear arrest and did not believe he violated the Russian legislation that outlawed disparaging the military or spreading “false information” about the conflict.

“There was not a single fake at all, not a single fake in what I said,” he told the news agency “There was a statement of absolutely obvious facts.”

Nadezhdin is a former liberal member of Russia’s parliament.Sergey Ponomarev / AP file

Moscow and Kyiv entered into negotiations early in the war but failed to make substantive progress toward any peace deal. Given Putin’s territorial ambitions and Ukraine’s increasing confidence in its ability to retake lost land, any deal may require concessions neither side is willing to countenance.

The potential damage of the growing criticism for Putin is clear, with pressure both to step up the military campaign and to bring it to an end increasing. Putin even admitted Thursday after a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping that Xi has “questions and concerns” about the war. 

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Calls for his resignation, like the one 50 municipal deputies made in a petition this week, could indicate greater threats to Putin’s ability to hold on to power, Kimmage said, and they could mean some in Russian politics are beginning to hedge their bets and seeing cracks in his strongman veneer. 

“That is going to be the most interesting dynamic to watch in Russian politics in the next couple of months,” he said. “They’re doing it at some political risk, but if the Russian army truly loses, I don’t think Putin can survive that defeat.” 

The nuclear option?

With his own position perhaps more vulnerable as the war shifts in Ukraine’s favor, some analysts have warned that a cornered Putin might turn to Russia’s nuclear arsenal

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Fears of a nuclear confrontation between Russia and NATO have eased since the start of the war, but analysts said a small-scale tactical strike against Ukraine could remain a possibility — especially if Putin’s prospects continue to sour.

Such a move would most likely provide limited military gains while drawing geopolitical blowback in which the situation could spiral out of the Kremlin’s control. 

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