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Putin’s brutality in Ukraine may get worse.

Russia’s imperious President Vladimir Putin may have endured his worst week since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he says was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.

His vaunted army, including a tank force once considered one of Russia’s best, collapsed in the face of a Ukrainian offensive in eastern Ukraine. Some Russian soldiers fled after shedding their uniforms and putting on civilian clothes they stole from houses, according to local residents.

In southern Ukraine, Russian units defending the strategic city of Kherson struggled to hold their positions against persistent Ukrainian attacks.

Putin even faced what sounded like harsh questioning from his most senior president, China’s Xi Jinping.

“We understand your questions and concerns” about Ukraine, he told Xi at a summit in the central Asian city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

When Putin ordered his army to invade Ukraine in February, he saw a historic opportunity to reassemble the core of the Soviet Union and seemed to anticipate a quick victory.

That plan backfired when Ukraine, bolstered by Western military aid and US intelligence, stopped Russia’s attempt to seize its capital, Kyiv.

Now Putin’s Plan B, the conquest of eastern and southern Ukraine, is also on the verge of failure.

Some cheerleaders have hailed Ukraine’s victory at Izyum, at a major rail junction in the east, as the turning point of the war. That is premature. Russia owns about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory and has more troops it can deploy, though their quality is uncertain.

“Despite the euphoria, this is not over yet,” Alexander Vershbow, a former US ambassador to Russia, told me last week. “Putin is obviously furious that his commanders have failed…but that doesn’t mean he will give up. He can still climb in many ways.”

So what can we expect from Putin now? Vershbow offered a forecast.

Putin will not capitulate; that would mean the end of his rule.

It is likely to intensify the death and destruction that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine’s civilians.

Putin’s career has been marked by success in wars waged against weaker opponents. He came to power in 1999 by ordering a midwinter siege of Grozny, the capital of the Russian republic of Chechnya, in a savage war to suppress Muslim separatists. In 2008, he sent the army to neighboring Georgia; in 2014, he sent troops to eastern Ukraine and annexed the Crimean peninsula.

In those wars, his forces often inflicted casualties on civilians as a deliberate tactic.

His approach to Ukraine has followed the same pattern. It just hasn’t worked as well against a well-run, well-trained, well-equipped opponent.

“We are going to see a further escalation of brutality,” Vershbow said. “They have already launched heavy bombardments of civilian infrastructure. … Some [Russian] officials say they want to expel millions of Ukrainians from the country.”

Putin’s goal, he said, is “to turn this back into a war of attrition…and to hope that over time, war-weariness will drive the Ukrainians to give up.”

To achieve that, some of Putin’s hardliners have called for full mobilization, meaning a draft to replenish the army and a formal declaration of war.

But Putin’s aides have said conscription is not being considered.

The government has continued to assure Russians that it is a limited “special military operation” and has even prohibited describing it as a “war.”

“He is still desperately trying to prevent mass mobilization,” Vershbow said. “A draft would send protesters to the streets of Moscow. Even then, it takes months and months to train new troops.”

Michael Kofman, a Russia expert at CNA, a defense think tank, suggested Putin might opt ​​for “partial mobilization,” extending enlistment contracts for current soldiers and recruiting recent veterans with the necessary skills.

“Partial mobilization is possible, but they can be lousy troops,” Vershbow said.

As for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, most foreign policy and military experts say Putin is unlikely to use them unless his survival is directly at stake.

“The problem with most escalation options, even nuclear weapons, is that they can simply unify Europe, present Putin himself as a Hitlerian monster, and speed up the supply of Western weapons to Ukraine,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a former National Security Council official. now at Columbia University.

Putin’s other hope is to win the war not on the battlefield but in Western Europe, where Moscow has cut off natural gas supplies to squeeze Germany and other consuming countries that have shipped arms to Ukraine.

So far, the energy war has had surprisingly little effect. A recent poll revealed that 70% of Germans still supported aid to Ukraine, despite rising gasoline prices. In the United States, the Gallup Poll found a similar level of support, 76%.

The real test, however, will come this winter, when the need for gas to heat homes increases.

On both fronts, Putin hopes that inflicting pain on noncombatants can bring him victory. He believes that Russians are better fighters than Ukrainians and more resilient in winter than Europeans or Americans. The challenge for the West is to prove it wrong.

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