Western experts predicted on Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new troop mobilization would prolong the war but not change the balance on the ground, and warned against downplaying his new nuclear threat.
Putin announced the call-up of 300,000 reservists — up from the nearly 200,000 mobilized to invade Ukraine in February — after his troops lost significant swaths of territory seized at the start of the war.
It came as Moscow signaled its determination to hold on to occupied territories in eastern and southern Ukraine by holding local referendums to absorb them into Russia.
But analysts say it is a politically risky move for the Russian leader, with increased domestic resistance to the war and a structure for military mobilization that has atrophied over the past decade.
“They’re not going to be able to do it very well,” said Dara Massicot, a Russian defense specialist at Rand Corp who has researched the mobilization process.
“They’re going to lump people together and send them to the front with old training, bad leadership, equipment that’s maintained in even worse condition than the active forces, and send them piecemeal because they don’t have time to wait.”
Michael Kofman, a defense specialist at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, cautioned against dismissing the effort.
This will help Moscow strengthen the current battle lines under heavy pressure from Ukrainian fighters backed by Western weapons.
“It’s clear that the Russian military is very vulnerable in the winter, and it actually looks even worse when 2023 comes out,” Kofman said on Wednesday.
“So what it does is it can expand Russia’s ability to kind of sustain this war, but not change the overall trajectory and outcome.”
But Putin’s challenge is to build replacement forces with adequate training, equipment, leadership and motivation.
“If you train these reservists … it’s still not that much. The quality of the training is still going to be questionable. Who’s going to lead them? All those other things are still open questions,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute. .
“This war will increasingly be fought by volunteers on the Ukrainian side who are motivated … and on the Russian side we will see a greater proportion of people who don’t want to be there,” he said.
Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general and defense analyst, says Putin still wants to “prolong the war and wait for the Western nations”.
“Given the reduction in combat performance from 3-4 four months, this is a depleted force in need of rotation,” he said on Twitter.
“The numbers being called for are not enough to make any decisive contribution or change the outcome of the war… This is more about rotation and substitutions,” he said.
More worrying was Putin’s threat to use nuclear force against any threat to Russia’s “territorial integrity”.
“We will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff,” Putin said, adding: “Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the wind can also turn in their direction. “
White House national security spokesman John Kirby, while calling Putin’s words “irresponsible rhetoric,” said: “We take it very seriously.”
While some analysts dismissed Putin’s speech as a multi-faceted bluster, others said Putin changed Russia’s long-standing policy on the use of nuclear weapons, including leaving it unanswered if it is applied to occupied Ukrainian territories that Moscow wants to annex.
“By threatening to use a nuclear bomb that goes beyond Russia’s declaratory policy, Putin shows his desperation over the failed war in Ukraine,” tweeted Hans Christensen, a nuclear policy expert at the Federation of American Scientists.
“This sounds like another round of chest-beating, but it is clearly the most explicit nuclear threat Putin has made so far,” he said.
“It is essential that NATO does not take the bait and feed its false narrative with explicit threats of nuclear retaliation.”
Andrey Baklitskiy of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research said Putin’s statements “go beyond Russia’s nuclear doctrine, which only suggests Russia’s first use in a conventional war when the very existence of the state is threatened.”
“Coming from the person who has the sole decision-making power regarding Russian nuclear weapons, this will have to be taken seriously,” he said.