As he turns 70 on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin finds himself in the eye of a storm of his own making: His army is suffering humiliating defeats in Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of Russians are fleeing his mobilization order, and his top lieutenants are publicly insulting military leaders.
With his room for maneuvering narrowing, Putin has repeatedly signaled that he could resort to nuclear weapons to protect the Russian gains in Ukraine — a harrowing threat that shatters the claims of stability he has repeated throughout his 22-year rule.
“This is really a hard moment for him, but he can’t accuse anyone else. He did it himself,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. “And he is going straight ahead to big, big problems.”
By unleashing the disastrous war in Ukraine, Europe's largest military conflict since World War II, Putin has broken an unwritten social contract in which Russians tacitly agreed to forgo post-Soviet political freedoms in exchange for relative prosperity and internal stability.
Mikhail Zygar, a journalist who has had extensive contacts among the Kremlin elite and published a bestselling book about Putin and his entourage, noted that the invasion came as a complete surprise not only for the public but for Putin's closest associates.
“All of them are in shock,” Zygar said. “None of them wanted to see the developments unfold in such a way just because they are going to lose everything. Now they are all stained by blood, and they all understand they have nowhere to run."
Stanislav Belkovsky, a longtime political consultant with extensive contacts among the ruling class, described the invasion as a mechanism of “self-destruction for Putin, his regime and the Russian Federation.”
With the Russian army retreating under the blows of Ukrainian forces armed with Western weapons, Putin raised the stakes by annexing four Ukrainian regions and declaring a partial mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists to buttress the crumbling front line.
The poorly organized call-up has triggered broad chaos. The military is struggling to provide supplies for new recruits, many of whom were told to buy medical kits and other basics themselves and were left to sleep on the floor while waiting to be sent to the front.
Social networks have been abuzz with discussions about how to dodge recruitment, and hundreds of thousands of men fled the mobilization, swarming Russia's borders with ex-Soviet neighbors.
The mobilization, Kolesnikov noted, has eroded Putin's core support base and set the stage for potential political upheavals. “After the partial mobilization, it’s impossible to explain to anyone that he stabilized the system. He disrupted the foundation of stability,” he said.
The military setbacks also drew public insults from some of Putin’s top lieutenants directed toward military leaders. The Kremlin has done nothing to halt the criticism, a signal that Putin could use it to set the stage for a major shakeup of the top brass and blame them for the defeats.
"The infighting between powerful clans in Putin’s entourage could destabilize the system and significantly weaken Putin’s control over the situation in the country,” Belkovsky said.
The widening turmoil marks a dramatic contrast with the image of stability Putin has cultivated since taking helm in 2000. He has repeatedly described the turbulent rule of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, as a time of decay when national riches were pilfered by Kremlin-connected tycoons and the West while millions were plunged into poverty.
Russians have eagerly embraced Putin’s promises to restore their country's grandeur amid oil-driven economic prosperity, and they have been largely indifferent to the Kremlin's relentless crackdown on political freedoms.
Insiders who have closely studied Putin's thinking say he still believes he can emerge as a winner.
Belkovsky argued that Putin hopes to win by using energy as an instrument of pressure. By reducing the gas flow to Europe and striking a deal with OPEC to reduce oil output, he could drive prices up and raise pressure on the U.S. and its allies.
Putin wants the West to tacitly accept the current status quo in Ukraine, resume energy cooperation with Russia, lift the most crippling sanctions and unfreeze Russian assets, Belkovsky said.
“He still believes that he will get his way in the long showdown with the West, where the situation on the Ukrainian front line is just one important, but not decisive, element,” Belkovsky said.
At the same time, Putin threatened to use “all means available” to defend the newly annexed Ukrainian territories in a blunt attempt to force Ukraine and its Western allies to back off.
The U.S. and its allies have said they are taking Putin's threats seriously but will not yield to what they describe as blackmail to force the West to abandon Ukraine. Ukraine vowed to press its counteroffensive despite the Russian rhetoric.
Kolesnikov described Putin's nuclear threats as a reflection of growing desperation.
“This is the last step for him in a sense that this is a suicidal” move, Kolesnikov said. “If he’s ready for the step, it means that we are witnessing a dictator who is even worse than Stalin.”
Some observers have argued that NATO could strike Russia with conventional weapons if Putin presses the nuclear button.
Belkovsky warned that Putin firmly believes that the U.S. and its allies wouldn't dare to strike back if Russia used a low-yield nuclear weapon in Ukraine.
“If the U.S. believes that there is no psychologically readiness for that, it's mistaken,” he said.
Zygar compared the Russian leader to a fighter pilot who tries to win a dogfight by attacking the enemy head-on and waiting for him to turn away first.
“He thinks he has the nerve, and he believes he must escalate to the end,” Zygar said.
He noted that pundits failed to predict Putin's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the current invasion just because they were using rational criteria.
“Our past perceptions about rational limits all have proven false,” he said. “There are no such limits.”