(CNN)Time is running out for Russian President Vladmir Putin, and he knows it.
Meanwhile his bombast continues: announcing the annexation of Ukrainian territories on Friday, Putin declared Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson will become part of Russia “forever.” He is rushing to claim a victory and cement slender gains and sue for peace, running a dangerous political tab, regardless of the fanfare in Moscow.
He called on Ukraine to “cease fire” immediately and “sit down at the negotiating table,” but added: “We will not negotiate the choice of the people. It has been made. Russia will not betray it.”
He is doing his best to hide it, but he is losing his war in Ukraine. The writing is on the wall.
Andrey Kortunov, who runs the Kremlin-backed Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, sees it, too. “President Putin wants to end this whole thing as fast as possible,” he told CNN.
Putin’s recent heavy-handed conscription drive for 300,000 troops won’t reverse his battlefield losses any time soon, and is backfiring at home, running him up a dangerous political tab.
According to official data from the EU, Georgia and Kazakhstan, around 220,000 Russians have fled across their borders since the “partial mobilization” was announced. The EU said its numbers — nearly 66,000 — represented a more than 30% increase from the previous week.
Independent Russian media quoting Russia’s revamped KGB, the FSB, put the total exodus even higher. They say more military age men have fled the country since conscription — 261,000 — than have so far fought in the war — an estimated 160,000 to 190,000.
CNN is unable to verify the Russian figures, but the 40 kilometers (around 25 miles) traffic tailbacks at the border with Georgia, and the long lines at crossings into Kazakhstan and Finland, speak to the backlash and the strengthening perception that Putin is losing his fabled touch at reading Russia’s mood.
The clock ticks loudly for Putin because his back is against the wall.
Kortunov says he doesn’t know what goes on in the Kremlin but that he understands the public mood over the huge costs and loss of life in the war. “Many people would start asking questions, why did we get into this mess? Why, you know, we lost so many people.”
Putin’s logical option, Kortunov says, is to declare victory and get out on his own terms. But for this he needs a significant achievement on the ground. “Russia cannot simply get to where it was, on the 24 February of this year, say, okay, you know, that’s fine. Our mission is accomplished. So we go home… …There should be something that can be presented to the public as a victory.”
And this is the logic Putin appears to be following, rubber-stamping the sham referendums in Ukraine’s Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, and declaring them part of Russia.
He used the same playbook annexing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and now, like then, threatens potential nuclear strikes should Ukraine, backed by its Western allies, try to take the annexed territories back.
Western leaders are in a battle of brinksmanship with Putin. Last Sunday US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Washington would respond decisively if Russia deployed nuclear weapons against Ukraine and has made clear to Moscow the “catastrophic consequences” it would face.
Leaders have also vowed not to recognize the regions as part of Russian territory.
US President Joe Biden said Moscow’s actions have “no legitimacy,” adding that Washington will continue to “always honor Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders.” The European Union said it “will never” recognize the Kremlin’s “illegal annexation,” and described the move as a “further violation of Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
There is little new in what Putin does, which, if nothing else, is making his moves more predictable, and therefore more readily analyzed.
Kurt Volker, who was US ambassador to NATO and US special representative to Ukraine under former President Donald Trump, believes Putin maybe gearing up for peace. “I think what he must be striving for, is to brandish the nuclear weapons, make all kinds of threats to Europe, and then say, okay, so let’s negotiate a settlement. And let me keep what I have already taken.”
Fiona Hill, who has advised three US Presidents on national security about Russia, also thinks Putin may be attempting an end game. “He feels a sense of acute urgency that he was losing momentum, and he’s now trying to exit the war in the same way that he entered it. With him being the person in charge and him framing the whole terms of any kind of negotiation. “
If these analyses are correct, they go a long way toward explaining the mystery of what happened under the Baltic Sea on Monday.
Both Danish and Swedish seismologists recorded explosive shockwaves from close to the seabed: the first, at around 2 a.m. local time, hitting 2.3 magnitude, then again, at around 7 p.m., registering 2.1.
Within hours, roiling patches of sea were discovered, the Danes and the Germans sent warships to secure the area, and Norway increased security around its oil and gas facilities.
So far, at least four leaks in Russia’s Nord Stream pipelines 1 and 2 have been discovered, each at the surface resembling a boiling cauldron, the largest one kilometer across, and together spewing industrial quantities of toxic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Russian naval vessels were seen by European security officials in the area in the days prior, Western intelligence sources have said. NATO’s North Atlantic Council has described the damage as a “deliberate, reckless and irresponsible act of sabotage.”
Russia denies responsibility and says it has launched its own investigation. But former CIA chief John Brennan said Russia has the expertise to inflict this type of damage “all the signs point to some type of sabotage that these pipelines are only in about 200 feet or so of water and Russia does have an undersea capability to that will easily lay explosive devices by those pipelines.”
Brennan’s analysis is that Russia is the most likely culprit for the sabotage, and that Putin is likely trying to send a message: “It’s a signal to Europe that Russia can reach beyond Ukraine’s borders. So who knows what he might be planning next.”
Nord Stream 2 was never operational, and Nord Stream 1 had been throttled back by Putin as Europe raced to replenish gas reserves ahead of winter, while dialling back demands for Russian supplies and searching for replacement providers.
The Nord Stream pipeline sabotage could, according to Hill, be a last roll of the dice by Putin, so that “there’s no kind of turning back on the gas issues. And it’s not going to be possible for Europe to continue to build up its gas reserves for the winter. So what Putin is doing is throwing absolutely everything at this right now.”
Another factor accelerating Putin’s thinking may be the approach of winter. Napoleon and Hitler both failed to take Moscow as supply lines running through Ukraine were too long and arduous in winter. Volker says that what historically saved Russia is now pressing down on Putin: “This time, it’s Russia that has to supply lines, trying to sustain its forces in Ukraine. That’s going to be very hard this winter. So all of a sudden, for all these factors, Putin’s timeline has moved up.”
The bottom line, said Hill, is that “this is the result of Ukraine gaining momentum on the ground on the battlefield and of Putin himself losing it, so he’s trying to adapt to the circumstances and basically take charge and get every advantage.”
No one knows what’s really going on in Putin’s mind. Kortunov doubts Putin will be willing to compromise beyond his own terms for peace, “not on the terms that are offered by President Zelensky, not on the terms which are offered by the West… .[though] he should be ready to exercise a degree of flexibility. But we don’t know what these degrees [are] likely to be.”
According to Hill, Putin wants his negotiations to be with Biden and allies, not Ukraine: “He’s basically saying now you will have to negotiate with me and sue for peace. And that means recognizing what we have done on the ground in Ukraine.”
Having failed in the face of Western military unity backing Ukraine, Putin appears set to test Western resolve diplomatically, by trying to divide Western allies over terms for peace.
Volker expects Putin to pitch France and Germany first “to say, we need to end this war, we’re going to protect our territories at all costs, using any means necessary, and you need to put pressure on the Ukrainians to settle.”
If this is Putin’s plan, it could turn into his biggest strategic miscalculation yet. There is little Western appetite to see him stay in power — US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said as much in the summer — and even less to let down Ukraine after all its suffering.
Putin knows he is in a corner, but doesn’t seem to realize how small a space he has, and that of course is what’s most worrying — would he really make good on his nuclear threats?
The war in Ukraine may have entered a new phase, and Putin may have his back against the wall, but an end to the conflict could still be a very long way off.