The Russian Clocks Are All Ticking

Putin is running out of time.

A protester holds a hand-written sign that reads "No 'burialization'" in Russian.
A Russian protester holding a sign that translates into "No 'burialization'" in Moscow on September 21 (Contributor / Getty)

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Vladimir Putin’s massive conscription of Russian men is yet another calamity of his own making.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

A Darker Motive?

Russia continues to lose in Ukraine. A dramatic Ukrainian counteroffensive, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky, has recaptured about 2,000 square miles of territory and sent Russian forces reeling. Putin, like many authoritarians, relies on an image of personal invulnerability, and so he rightly fears the political risks of military defeat. At home, even his most loyal sycophants are demanding that he do something to stem the losses in Ukraine.

Putin has answered this call by making two foolish moves. First, he is now getting personally involved in some of the operational decisions in Ukraine; second, he has begun a conscription drive that is supposed to mobilize an additional 300,000 men into the Russian military. Both of these decisions will speed up the clocks on the many growing threats to his regime, including sanctions, social unrest, and military collapse, among others.

Putin, apparently, is now directing some of the military activity on the ground in Ukraine long-distance from Moscow—he is reported, for example, to have denied requests from some units for permission to retreat from Kherson. Such interventions are always a risky choice for civilian leaders far removed from the battlefield. The Kremlin boss assuming command is, of course, easy fodder for Hitler-in-the-bunker memes, but even Russian imperial history should be a warning to Putin: When Tsar Nicholas II decided to assume command of the Russian empire’s forces in World War I, his own advisers warned him that personal association with failure could destroy his reign. “Consider, Sire,” one wrote to him, “what You are laying hands on—on Your own self, Sire!” (Another warned him bluntly: “The army under Your command must be victorious.”)

Putin is running the same risk. One of the many looming deadlines he faces is the onset of winter, when fighting will slow, Russian morale will sink even lower, and supply issues will worsen. The Russian high command and its officers almost certainly want to win this war as a way to recover from the shame and dishonor of their staggering incompetence over the past seven months. But if they lose more men and territory because of some harebrained order from Putin, will they again stand silently and take the blame?

The mobilization order is so pointless that I am left wondering who in Moscow thought it might be a good idea. It was a decision guaranteed to generate massive protests for no apparent military benefit. There is no way for the poorly supplied and corrupt Russian military to train, house, clothe, and arm 300,000 men anytime soon, and certainly not before winter arrives. In reality, Putin doesn’t even have 300,000 men; he has roughly 300,000 names of male Russian citizens, many of whom will never set foot on a military base. As a strategic matter, this measure is pure idiocy.

One gruesome possibility, however, is that Putin and his commanders have decided simply to throw bodies at Ukraine. The generals may have resigned themselves to feeding the Ukrainian meat grinder, and think they can just dragoon non-Russian minority kids from the Russian Federation’s boondocks and thus keep the call-up limited and off of Russian televisions. The actual implementation, however, has so far been stupendously incompetent, and protests and chaos have spread across the country.

There may, however, be a much darker motive at work here.

Putin’s fantasy of a “special military operation” to liberate fellow Slavs from a Nazi regime went to pieces in a matter of days, but many Russians remained supportive of the invasion as long as it did not touch them. Putin’s deal with the Russian public is essentially the old Soviet social compact: Leave those in power alone, and they will leave you alone. But drafting young men to go and die in a losing war—as the Soviets learned in Afghanistan—invalidates that contract.

Sending untrained men into battle only to die may be part of Putin’s plan. He is furious about losing, and (as I wrote months ago) he has been spoiling to turn the invasion into a nationalist war against NATO as the only way to save face and motivate the Russian people to endure more sacrifices. And therein lies Putin’s dilemma: How can he infuse that sense of fervor into Russians who couldn’t give a damn about fake republics in Luhansk or Donetsk?

The answer, for Putin, is to annex Ukrainian land while claiming that the war is now “to defend our motherland, its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” making it a holy war to protect Russia itself against Ukraine, NATO, and the entire West. Putin then turns Ukraine into “Russia” by taking Russian men from their families, shipping them to Ukraine, getting them killed, and letting their blood soak into the dirt. He could then say, to his own people and to the world, that the buried bones of so many Russian men make Ukraine hallowed ground from which Moscow will never retreat.

Soviet leaders treated Eastern Europe the same way. In 1968, for example, Leonid Brezhnev told the leaders of then-Czechoslovakia that they had no right to rebel against the U.S.S.R., because their nations had been bought with the blood of Soviet soldiers and that forevermore their borders were also the Soviet Union’s borders. Putin, facing failure, may be counting on the same idea—while once again refusing to learn from history.

The Russian president is facing multiple countdowns that could end in disaster, all of them set in motion by a series of his own stupid and reckless decisions that has cost thousands of lives and put world peace at risk. There is one last mistake he has not yet made—the use of a nuclear weapon—and we can only hope that all the other clocks run out before he even considers the most dire misstep of all.


Today’s News
  1. A hard-right coalition led by Giorgia Meloni prevailed in Italy’s national election, all but guaranteeing that Meloni will become prime minister.
    Related: Italians didn’t exactly vote for fascism.
  2. Putin granted Russian citizenship to Edward Snowden, nine years after the former security consultant and whistleblower fled the United States to Russia to avoid prosecution.  
  3. Hurricane Ian has rapidly intensified and is projected to make the closest pass to Tampa Bay by a major hurricane since 1950. The Florida National Guard has activated 7,000 soldiers, and Hillsborough County issued evacuation orders for parts of Tampa.


Evening Read
a collage of a photos: a solo portrait of a man, a headstone, and a family
(Erik Carter / The Atlantic. Images courtesy of John Temple; Judith Cohn.)

How I Finally Learned My Name

By John Temple

The email came from a stranger. “Dear Mr. Temple,” it said. “My name is Andrea Paiss, and I live in Budapest, Hungary. I do not know whether I write to the right person. I just hope so.”

It reached me in San Francisco on January 1, 2020, and told of a “Granny,” then 92, who wanted to know what had happened to her cousin Lorant Stein. Andrea had found a document online about Lorant in the Central Database of Shoah Victims at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It had been submitted by someone named John Temple. Could I be that same John Temple, she asked, the one who had filled out the form by hand 20 years earlier? “I would be happy if you could tell me how you [are] related to Lorant, as we have no information about relatives in America.”

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

A young girl smiling and holding a bird in "Catherine Called Birdy"
Bella Ramsey as Catherine in Catherine Called Birdy (Amazon Studios)

Read. The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li, a historical novel about women and girls in mid-century France that reads more like a fairy tale.

Watch. Catherine Called Birdy, in select theaters now. Lena Dunham’s adaptation of the beloved YA novel is “a supremely playful romp,” our critic writes.

Or keep an eye out for the other titles on our list of the 20 most-anticipated films of the season.

Play our daily crossword.


The United Nations has proclaimed today the “International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.” (My teenage daughter reminded me of this, which made me both happy that she pays attention to the stuff her dad works on and sad that she has to be aware of such things at all.) Although I don’t believe abolition is possible—or at least not until we develop a Men in Black neuralyzer that can make us forget how to construct such things—it is a worthy benchmark by which we can measure all other policies about nuclear weapons.

If you’re new to the subject, I would recommend a recent book by Michael Krepon, one of the great scholars of the field who, sadly, died earlier this year. It’s titled Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control, and though it’s a pretty hefty read, it’s about as up-to-date and comprehensive a history of nuclear issues and arms control as you’ll find.


Kate Lindsay contributed to this newsletter.