When he addressed the nation Wednesday morning to announce the “partial mobilization” of 300,000 reservists, President Vladimir Putin framed Russia’s war in Ukraine in clear, existential terms.
It is defending itself against a West that wants to “weak, divide and destroy Russia” and it is ready to use nuclear weapons in response.
Doomsday threats aimed at coercion Ukraine and Western allies accept Russia’s interests in the conflict. The hasty holding of “referendums” in the occupied areas this weekend is expected to set a line that Ukraine and the West must not cross.
In fact, the annexation of large parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, Putin wants to prevent Kyiv and its Western allies from attacking what the Kremlin now considers “Russian territory” – laying the groundwork for full mobilization or even nuclear conflict if they persist.
Putin’s Escalation was a gamble that underscored his shrinking maneuverability on the battlefield in Ukraine and domestically in Russia.
“The whole world should pray for Russia’s victory, because this can only end in two ways: either Russia wins, or a nuclear apocalypse,” said Konstantin Malofeyev, a Russian oligarch. nationalism, said in an interview.
“If we don’t win, we will have to use nuclear weapons, because we cannot lose,” added Malofeyev. “Does anyone really think that Russia will accept defeat and not use its nuclear arsenal?”
On the defensive after losing thousands of kilometers of territory to Ukraine in recent weeks, Wednesday’s announcement was an attempt to change the situation, said Rob Lee, a fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies. change the calculation at a time when Moscow has even fewer options.
One Ukraine’s successful counterattack This month has not only pushed it out of the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine, but is also threatening Russian-held territories in the Donbas – the eastern industrial hub whose “liberation” Putin has identified as main goal of the war.
“If they start to lose the territory they just won there, it raises all sorts of questions and there’s no way they can easily dismiss it. Obviously it would be a military and political defeat if that happened,” Lee said.
By declaring these areas Russian territory, Putin may hope he can halt Ukraine’s advance and stave off the West’s covetousness in sending more weapons, because it would prove that “any attack here by Ukrainian forces or NATO weapons will be construed as an attack on Russian territory,” Lee said.
Instead, Western leaders condemned the referendum, reiterating their support for Ukraine’s attempt to retake territory and reaffirming its readiness to supply high-tech weapons. for Kyiv.
Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, thinks the Russian gamble is unlikely to succeed. “I don’t think Putin has completely internalized the consequences of this,” he said. “What happens when Ukraine ‘occupies’ ‘Russian territory’?” Then the next step is to declare war if Ukraine does it again.”
Many analysts also suspect that partial mobilization will have a rapid impact on the battlefield, as it can take months to train reserves and form new units with command and post-support. need.
Seven months since Putin first sent troops into Ukraine, Russia’s heavy losses put its forces at a disadvantage in terms of manpower, especially in terms of well-trained soldiers. According to Western estimates, Moscow initially deployed about 180,000 troops to the invasion of Ukraine.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said only 5,937 Russian soldiers were killed in the conflict – less than a tenth of the casualties Moscow claims were borne by Ukraine. In August, the US said Russia had suffered “probably so. . . 70,000 or 80,000” killed and wounded since February.
According to the Institute for War Studies, Russia’s reserve force has about 2 million former conscripts and contract soldiers, but very few are actively trained or considered combat-ready.
A 2019 Rand study estimated that Russia has only 4,000 to 5,000 reservists that receive regular monthly and annual training, although by 2021 the country has launched an initiative to create one. permanent reserve.
“If this is meant to get Ukraine and the West to surrender, it won’t work. When that fails, Putin will have even worse options,” said Charap.
But even as Russia escalates against the West, the Kremlin has managed to reassure Russians that life will mostly go on as normal.
In a pre-recorded statement aired shortly after Putin’s speech, Shoigu said Russia would only call up reservists instead of deploying conscription troops, stressing that students would be exempted.
Throughout the invasion, Moscow avoided martial law or forced the Russians to join the armed forces, insisting on calling it a “special military operation” – a term that evokes conflicts more distantly than in the past. arouse the Russian memory of the cruel wars.
The attempt to project calm to a domestic audience – seeing war as a necessary but distant battle – has been successful so far.
Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, an independent probe in Moscow, said: “For the past six months, adaptation has taken place to new conditions, people calm down. Spending is up, and polls show Russians increasingly say the situation is moving in the right direction.
But the declaration of partial mobilization brought the fight even closer to home. “I think if the Kremlin could have avoided it, it would have happened,” Volkov said. “But the conflict has its own logic, and it led them to make an unpopular decision.”
Some Russians voted with their feet: flights to Yerevan and Istanbul, two of the few destinations available after Western countries closed their airspace to Russia, were sold out in minutes after Putin’s announcement.
However, Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consulting firm R.Politik, says there will be a gradual impact on public sentiment.
“The mobilization will be gradually expanded. Society will slowly become uncomfortable and indignant – don’t expect mass protests, but instead waves of outrage,” she said. “This is Putin’s erosion of power in its purest form.”
Additional reporting by Ben Hall in Kyiv