Russian President Vladimir Putin committed to partial military mobilization in a speech on Wednesday, where he is threatened nuclear retaliation against the West. It was a sign of Putin’s willingness to escalate the war in Ukraine, as well as Kiev successful counteroffensive in the Kharkiv area recaptured the territory and suppressed the Russian front lines.
Putin stopped short of decreeing full national mobilization, instead only conscripting the military reserve, a move he said “necessary and urgent.” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu later confirmed that Russia would call up around 300,000 reservists with previous military experience.
Putin also made explicit threats to the West again. “If its territorial integrity is threatened, Russia will use all means at its disposal,” he said. “This is not a bluff.” Putin warned that Russia “also has various means of destruction” — in other words, nuclear weapons — “and some components are more modern than those in NATO countries.”
This is a particularly chilling threat, as Putin’s address on Wednesday came shortly after Russian-backed officials in four Ukrainian regions partially occupied by Russian troops launched a referendum on formally joining Russia. Western countries support Ukraine they have already said they will not recognize any votes, calling them total shams. Russian army too does not have full control over any of these territories — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporozhye and Kherson — but Moscow will almost certainly use these referendums as an excuse to formally annex the territories. If this happens, as expected, some experts fear it Moscow will interpret any Ukrainian efforts to recover these lands as bringing the fight directly against Russia. The West did not support Ukraine’s attack on Russian territory, but they made it clear that these referendums were illegitimate.
All of this—referendums, partial military mobilization, and Putin’s renewed nuclear saber rattling—is part of an effort to shake up the faltering war effort and preserve your domestic reputation.
“This was not unexpected, because at this moment, [Putin] was pushed into a corner. He had to do something,” said Natia Seskuria, a Russia expert and fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “I don’t think today’s statement comes from a position of strength; it’s more of a show of weakness, because I think he feels like he’s under a lot of pressure.”
Western leaders have echoed this sentiment: A European Union official described Putin’s statement as “a dangerous nuclear gamble“, and the US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink called the referendums and mobilization “a sign of weakness, of Russian failure”.
Fake referendums and mobilization are signs of weakness, of Russian failure. The United States will never recognize Russia’s claim to allegedly annexed Ukrainian territory, and we will continue to stand by Ukraine as long as necessary.
— Ambassador Bridget A. Brink (@USAmbKyiv) September 21, 2022
However, there is still much uncertainty about what Putin’s announcement might mean at this particular stage of the war. Experts have questioned how much partial mobilization could mean in the near future, even when they do warned not to be too obnoxious. Putin has made nuclear threats to the West before, but now he and the war he started are in a much more precarious state.
And then there’s how Ukraine and the West, which supports Ukraine’s efforts, might respond. The West has so far condemned Putin’s move, but it is not clear how it could affect financial or military support for Ukraine.
“There is no easy push of a button and you get war decisions that Putin needs to make in all circumstances. That’s clear,” said Gustav Gressel, senior political associate at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “He basically has to choose between a lot of possible negative scenarios, which one is the least negative for him. He chose escalation to preserve his domestic status and power and prestige, but it is not guaranteed that he will get it.”
Putin’s desperation game is still serious
In recent weeks, the Russian war in Ukraine entered a new phase.
The Kremlin began its war in February, with the goal of seizing all of Ukraine and seizing Kiev. Ukrainian resistance has forced Moscow to scale back its ambitions, resetting its focus to the east, in the Donbass, where Russia has been fueling a separatist conflict since 2014. Russia and Ukraine have engaged in a fierce artillery battle, but Russia has also been slowly gaining territory. However, advanced Western weaponry helped bolster Ukrainian troops, and in September Kiev launched a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region and has since pushed back Russian forces city by city.
Russia has now suffered a series of humiliating defeats and is recording ever-increasing casualties more than six months into the war. At the same time, it is still in control about 15 percent of the territory of Ukraine. Ukraine’s recent victories, while impressive, are far from completely ousting Russia.
Putin’s announcement is still likely a direct response to the momentum shifting toward Ukraine on the battlefield, and potential change in public sentiment at home against the conduct of war.
But Putin’s announcement Wednesday still doesn’t offer too many clues about how he will approach this next phase of the war — or what it might mean on the ground.
Partial military mobilization is significant, but for now it is limited to reservists and is not sufficient for full mobilization. At the same time, Putin’s mobilization decision also prevents most Russian soldiers from leaving the service or suspending their contracts, an acknowledgment that manpower problems have plagued the performance of Russian forces.
But experts questioned how quickly these personnel could make a difference on the ground — or if they could make a difference at all, given reported low morale among Russian troops and real questions about training and readiness for these reservists. As Gressel said, just having a lot more labor isn’t everything; Russia still needs structure, it needs officers, it needs equipment, it needs supply chains.
And then there is the nuclear threat – which represents Ukraine, and indeed the rest of the world. Putin has issued nuclear threats to the West before, but as pointed out by experts, this speech featured subtle but potentially alarming shifts in his rhetoric. In his speech, Putin pledged to protect and defend Russia’s territorial integrity and said he would “use all means at our disposal” to do so. As experts have pointed out, Russia’s nuclear doctrine—that is, its principles about when to deploy such weapons—is historically rested on the existence of the state, and not specifically on the integrity of the territory. “So there’s a bit of uncertainty about how he basically reframed Russia’s principles of nuclear deterrence,” Gressel said.
This speech, then, may be Putin proposing a much more expansive view of Russia’s nuclear doctrine. That change, if real, could become even more unpredictable with Russia possibly illegally annexing parts of Ukraine. Seskuria pointed out that Putin has repeatedly used nuclear weapons as a threat – at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, but also in 2014. Still, it was a warning, if not of the immediate risks, at least of Putin’s commitment to this war. “He is willing to escalate the conflict to a new level,” Seskuria said. “But I don’t think the real prospects for escalation at this point are that high.”
For Ukraine, the nuclear threat from Russia is not new. Simon Schlegel, a senior Ukraine analyst at the International Crisis Group, spoke to Vox from Kiev, where he said he did not see Putin’s announcement as an immediate game changer, even if officials took Russia’s escalation seriously — and could respond by stepping up their own counteroffensive efforts. .
“It might even create an incentive for the Ukrainian side to move faster now to put more effort into getting the territory back so that the Russians would have more trouble claiming it as theirs by right,” Schlegel said.
But again, a lot of pressure will fall on the West. Ukraine depends on Western financial and armed support; this counteroffensive, and any chance of recapturing and holding territory, depends on Western arsenals. Before Putin’s announcement, some Western partners were reluctant to hand over more advanced weapons.
Putin, trying to up the ante, is trying to signal to the West that maybe it’s time to back off — “accept that Russia has won at least some territory and not deepen support for Ukraine.” At least rhetorically, allies and partners rejected Putin’s threats, but even the United States, with its billions in support of Ukraine, was careful to avoid provoking Putin. The question for supporters of Ukraine is whether they see Putin’s latest moves as a real threat or the bluff of a guy who feels his own victory is slipping away—and that’s an unpredictable gamble.