September 21. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a pre-recorded speech on Russian television, announces that Russia is being attacked by the Ukrainian government and the West. He defines Ukrainian territories occupied by the Russian army as "liberated zones". He speaks of the referendums he staged in the regions of Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson to try illegally to attach them to Russia. He says that he has decided on a "partial mobilization" to defend the Russian fatherland; adds that the West threatens Russia, and that any aggression against Russian territory will lead to a response by "all weapon systems available to us".
Putin, in short, described a parallel position that that bears little relation to his real position. It is clear that Russia was the aggressor and that Ukraine was the country attacked. The Ukrainian government has been defending its country against Russian aggression; the West has been helping Ukraine to defend itself. The Ukrainian territories occupied by the Russian army are still, according to international law, Ukrainian territories occupied by the Russian military, not "liberated zones". The referendums are a sham, intended to cover up an illegal annexation. No one will even recognize the annexation, except perhaps a few failed states. The mobilization is not intended to defend Russia, but to try to avoid the complete debacle of the Russian army in Ukraine. The West is not threatening Russia. Putin is threatening the West.
For weeks, even Putin's most fanatical supporters have been sending alarmist messages that Russia was on the verge of defeat. His supporters appeared partially satisfied with Putin's decisions, but apparently wanted more. Those who spoke on official Russian television delivered extremely violent speeches, such as Ukraine "cannot continue to exist", or threatening a "nuclear annihilation" of Britain.
Moderate Russians, on the other hand, are seeing that Putin now wants to send tens of thousands more Russians to wage a war that they reject. Demonstrations have been taking place in Moscow and St. Petersburg, even though the protesters know they are risking long prison terms.
A large part of the Russian population have not protested loudly, but, it seems, refuse to die for nothing. Those who could afford to leave the country have already left, or are trying to. Flights to countries where Russians can enter visa-free sold out fast. Roads leading to the borders of Georgia and Finland were immediately clogged – and still are.
Leaders of the Western world were not intimidated by Putin's speech; they learned nothing that they did not know already: Putin is in a dire situation. He is in danger of losing the war that he chose to start seven months ago.
Earlier remarks by Putin on Russian television, on February 24, clearly show he thought he was launching a brief military operation intended to overthrow the regime in power in Kyiv and replace it with a man on his own payroll. The operation failed completely. Russian intelligence seems to have told Putin that the Ukrainian people would warmly welcome Russian soldiers, especially in Russian-speaking areas, and that the Ukrainian military would put up little resistance.
The Ukrainian population, however, saw Russian soldiers as invaders, even in the newly illegally-annexed Russian-speaking areas. The Ukrainian military proved remarkably capable of resisting Russia's crushing assaults. Putin also apparently thought Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would be eliminated or would agree to leave the country. Zelensky stayed, behaved with breathtaking courage and determination, and succeeded in mobilizing Western opinion in favor of Ukraine. Putin thought he had an effective military. He discovered that the Russian army was not only flawed, but also inefficient, and riddled with corruption.
When the Russian army withdrew from the outskirts of Kyiv, it had already suffered heavy losses in both men and materiel. A war that was supposed to be one of conquest saw few territories conquered, and the cost was exorbitant. At the end of June, British and American intelligence services estimated that Russia had lost 80,000 men as well as most of the modern military equipment at its disposal. As early as April, Russian soldiers were using obsolete equipment dating from the Soviet era.
In July, Russia's general staff announced that it was implementing an "operational pause". The Russian army was out of breath.
The Ukrainian counter-offensive started from that moment, and led to the present stalemate. The Ukrainians had received American HIMARS artillery rockets that allow precise strikes from a distance of 50 miles, and began systematically destroying Russia's ammunition stocks, logistical forces and command bases.
The blitzkrieg action the Ukrainian army launched from the Kharkiv region on September 7 led to yet another humiliating defeat for the Russian army. Russian soldiers did not even try to fight. They ran. They left behind many of tanks and military vehicles, as well as confidential documents. Many soldiers reached the Russian border, others surrendered. The Ukrainians recaptured almost 3,000 square miles in less than a week, including Izium, a way-station that Russia had been using to resupply its troops in the Donbass. On October 1, the Ukrainian army recaptured Lyman, in the Donetsk region.
"This week alone, since the Russian pseudo-referendum, dozens of population centres have been liberated. These are in Kherson, Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk regions all together," Zelensky said earlier this month.
Russia's army is in tatters. It still has old howitzers that fire inaccurately but can nevertheless cause destruction. It is trying to defend the positions it holds, but seems to be slowly retreating on all fronts. On September 26, the Institute for the Study of War published a tweet saying "Putin is likely coming up against the hard limits of Russia's ability to fight a large-scale war."
In all the Ukrainian towns and villages liberated by the Ukrainian army, war crimes committed by the Russian army are being uncovered: executions of tortured civilians, mass graves, torture rooms. The horrors discovered in Bucha were just the first in a long, sickening list.
Putin doubtless knows the state of his army and the horrific atrocities committed by his soldiers. He has ordered other horrific atrocities, not only in Chechnya and Syria, but also in Ukraine. Two million Ukrainians from the "occupied areas" reportedly have been deported to remote regions of Russia -- some are children taken from their families and offered up for adoption in Russia. These are serious violations of the 1949 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Putin is trying not totally to lose the war. He sees that he has no easy way out, that Western leaders want to try him for war crimes, and that dictators who lose wars they start often end up quite badly.
Putin has to continue to lie. Were he to say anything other than what he has been saying from the beginning -- that he had to conduct "a special military operation", not a war, to "protect" the people of Donbass against a "Nazi" Ukrainian government -- would be to reveal that he was lying all along. He is not going in the direction desired by the most fanatical Russians: the total destruction of Ukraine, but no one knows what he will decide in the weeks to come. The "partial mobilization" has already sparked discontent in the Russian population. A total mobilization would no doubt arouse even more, but does Putin even care about the discontent he arouses?
Putin might desperately try to reverse the situation, whatever the cost. The Ukrainian government might never forgive the crimes committed and is unlikely to make any concessions. Ukraine and its heroism have shocked the world. Ukraine's army can win, but it will require the unwavering support of the West. Zelensky said he would only accept a full recognition of Russian defeat, the full withdrawal of the Russia's army from all Ukrainian territory, and Russia's punishment.
To many, Putin's future looks grim.
The men he recently began sending to the front may be reservists, but most have not held a weapon for a very long time and have no will to fight. Some who managed to send messages on Telegram channels say they know they are destined to be cannon fodder. It would take months to make these reservists effective combat soldiers. Even with the required training, their lack of will to fight would render them ineffective. They have to rub shoulders with criminals recruited from prisons and people released from mental institutions who have been given a uniform and an old gun. Cases of mutiny reportedly have multiplied over the months. Deserters who managed to reach European countries are providing testimonies. One man who found asylum in France described the army as if from a third world country.
Russia's army, which now lacks modern weapons, seems unable to acquire them. Due to Western sanctions, also applied by some Asian allies of the West, Russian arms factories have difficulty obtaining the electronic components needed to manufacture advanced weapons that would enable them successfully to confront those supplied to Ukraine. Only two regimes are openly ready to supply weapons to Russia -- the North Korea and Iran -- and these regimes cannot supply modern weaponry; they do not have it.
Ukraine's soldiers, however, are well trained, they now have some of the best weapons, and they have the will to fight.
Putin has almost no allies and could lose what limited support he has. Chinese President Xi Jinping has in common with Putin a clear hostility to the West, but has reportedly not supplied Russia with weapons.
During a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Samarkand, Uzbekistan last month, Xi reportedly told Putin that it was necessary to "instill stability and positive energy into a world in turmoil". Whatever that meant, it was not a message of support for the war.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on September 20 that "Russia should return the occupied lands to Ukraine" -- not exactly the direction in which Putin would like to be going.
When Putin referred to "all weapon systems available to us", many analysts assumed he was referring to nuclear weapons. Some commentators think Putin might use them if he thinks he is losing everything. All analysts agree that if Putin uses a nuclear weapon (even a small one), he will trigger a strong response.
Biden and Europe are weak; Putin can see it. The Chinese Communist Party, which openly says it wants to dominate the world, apparently does not want a larger war just now. On September 24, Wang Yi, China's foreign minister, was even more explicit than Xi in Samarkand:
"China supports all efforts conducive to the peaceful resolution of the Ukraine crisis. The pressing priority is to facilitate talks for peace. The fundamental solution is to address the legitimate security concerns for all parties. President Xi called on the international community to pursue common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries."
Putin might not want to want to lose China's slim support, almost the only support he has. This view may have led some analysts to believe, perhaps as wishful thinking, that the likelihood of Putin resorting to nuclear weapons is small.
Putin seems to be counting on the fear of nuclear weapons to intimidate the West -- a tactic that has been working -- and on Russia's annexation of Ukrainian territories to claim that he is acting to liberate Russian territories and that any counter-offensive could mean the Ukrainians are attacking Russia. Putin also seems to be counting on energy shortages in the West during the coming winter to force Europeans to lift the sanctions they imposed on Russia. Discontent and angry outbursts among the Europeans are expected: Europeans are not interested in being cold. European leaders have sworn, inexpensively, that they will not give in.
Because Putin has no way out and no way back, he will persist. The sham referenda gave results resembling those of "elections" in the Soviet Union. 99.2 % of "voters" in the Donetsk region chose annexation, 98.4% in Luhansk, 93.1% in Zaporizhzhia, 87% in Kherson. Meanwhile, the Russian army has kept on retreating; Putin nevertheless officially declared the annexation of the regions to Russia. He said that their populations are now Russian "forever", railed against "satanic" West, and proposed a ceasefire that Ukraine did not accept.
It is not certain that that Putin will be able to remain in power. On September 11, Dr Mike Martin, a War Studies Visiting Fellow at King's College London wrote bluntly : "Putin is finished". If, in spite of everything, Putin does manage to stay in power, he will be a diminished dictator, his reputation as a strongman and wise strategist dramatically reduced; he will probably be coasting on borrowed time.
The Russian army has been humiliated. Dozens of generals and senior officers reportedly have been killed. Others have been fired. The Russian economy is slowly falling apart; the possibility for Russian entrepreneurs to do business in the West has weakened and could weaken even more in the months to come. Will the Russian oligarchs indefinitely accept that condition? Some of them in recent months have supposedly "committed suicide". Will these "suicides" continue without Russia's oligarchs asking Putin pointed questions and conspiring with the military to try to redress the situation by removing Putin?
European leaders have, for now, adopted an attitude of verbal firmness. When the war ends, will they learn from their mistakes and finally get rid of their fairy-tale illusions?
In 2019, then US President Donald J. Trump warned then Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel that making her country dependent on gas imports from a regime hostile to the West could expose her country to blackmail and supply disruptions. Merkel was not interested in hearing it. Other European leaders were not interested in hearing it, either, and are now facing the consequences of their own daydreams.
Trump also cautioned the countries of Western Europe to abandon the fantasy that perpetual peace would reign on earth and to respect their commitments as members of NATO, including more funding for their own defense. He added that enemies of the West could strike, and that the US should not be alone in bearing the burden for Europe's defense.
No one listened. French President Macron called NATO "brain dead". Other European leaders have promised to spend more on their defense. Will they do it? For how long? The European countries that were courageous and determined from the start of the war were the United Kingdom and Poland, full stop. France, Germany and Italy took weeks to show some grit.
The United States has, once again, like it or not, emerged as the only power capable of defeating an aggressive enemy of democracy; when it does, the status of the US and NATO are strengthened. It is, however, impossible to forget that America's debacle in Afghanistan, the Biden administration's frenzy to sign a lethal nuclear deal with Iran under almost any conditions, and the extreme weakness of Biden's White House before Putin invaded Ukraine. These failures no doubt played into Putin's decision to invade.
The Biden administration's failure to arm Ukraine before the invasion and his comments that a "minor incursion" might be acceptable were catastrophic. The same failure to provide sufficient deterrence to Taiwan is unquestionably inviting Communist Chinese aggression.
Ruthless dictators dream of conquest; they do not even try to hide it. Enemies of the United States and democracy are ever on the watch for opportunities to strike. In the world as it really is, only the fear of a credible American response can deter enemies and preserve peace.
The way to maintain peace is, as President Ronald Reagan used to say, by "Peace through strength." It was a formula successfully followed by President Trump. The weakness of the Biden administration has created aggression everywhere -- Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, North Korea; assaults on the dollar as the World's reserve currency -- even domestically.
Will the Biden administration ever learn from its mistakes? Or is its ultimate, unspoken goal actually to hand over the United States quietly to Russia, China and Iran?
Dr. Guy Millière, a professor at the University of Paris, is the author of 27 books on France and Europe.