In a speech like his announcement of a “special military operation” against Ukraine in February, President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of Russian citizens to help wage a faltering military campaign.
Seven months later, Putin’s language is darker than it was in the early hours of February 24. He then warned the West that Russia would immediately retaliate against those who stood in its way, with consequences that “will be like they never did.” It has been seen in your entire history.”
In his last speech, he laid the flesh on the bones of this threat. “The territorial integrity of our homeland, our independence and our freedom will be guaranteed, and I will affirm it again, by all means at our disposal. Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction,” he said on Wednesday.
The Russian leader has raised the stakes dramatically—just as Russia embarks on a hasty process of expanding what constitutes that “homeland,” through hastily organized referendums in the occupied territories aimed at absorbing parts of Ukraine into Russia itself: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia.
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The announcement of these two referendums on Tuesday was surprising and simultaneous. The idea that it could be organized in a matter of days in areas where hostilities continue is at face value absurd, especially since some officials in these areas have suggested postponing the vote on joining Russia until security conditions improve. Also absurd is the idea that joining Russia came automatically from the same regions.
But that’s not the point. Matthew Schmidt, associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven, says Putin is using the referendum call to justify mobilization.
Putin has two audiences in mind. Anatole Levin, director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute, says he wants to “convince the United States and/or the Europeans to be serious about negotiating a compromise settlement to end the war by showing that otherwise, Russia will take drastic escalatory steps not only forcing the West to escalate in turn.” Rather, it would also rule out any possible peace for a long time to come.”
Alexander Bunov of the Carnegie Endowment says so frankly. in Tweet thread Before Putin’s speech, he wrote that the message to Ukraine’s allies is: “You chose to fight us in Ukraine, now you are trying to fight us in Russia itself, or precisely what we call Russia.”
Schmidt says Putin’s main audience is the home front. He is trying to regain the initiative and raise the morale of the Russian public. He may also have been hoping for a rebound in popularity along the lines of broad popular support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. “The mobilization is not a military decision, as much as it is a way to try to control the war narrative that he realizes he is losing,” he told CNN.
Against the backdrop of bad news seeping inward from the front lines, Schmidt notes: “Public morale is Army morale.”
Putin should say Greater Russia is under attack. He finds it hard to sell that; “He’s putting his leadership under a lot of pressure,” Schmidt adds.
Baunov believed that the goal was to turn a Russian invasion of a neighboring country into a defensive war, a distinction that would “make the conflict more legitimate in the eyes of ordinary Russians, and leave the Kremlin free to make any decisions and take whatever actions it deems necessary.”
Schmidt says mobilization is a big risk. It takes time: to train, to equip, to organize – and it does nothing to improve Russia’s biggest shortcomings.
Moscow faces the same formidable logistical hurdles that have blighted the past six months of the war. Its forces have suffered losses in materiel, and the Russian Defense Ministry, according to US officials, has even turned to North Korea for ammunition. Its most recent setback in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine has left some elite tank units severely depleted.
It appears that Putin’s “partial mobilization” also depends on parts of the Russian population that would already have been under great pressure to join the faltering Russian war effort.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said there would be 300,000 reservists available.
“These are not some people who have never heard of the military,” Shoigu said. “These are the ones who have served, have a major in military registration, and have military experience.”
The mobilization is limited, perhaps so as not to alienate public opinion, and perhaps to make room for more moves in the future. Shoigu claimed: “Those who have served and have a military specialty number approximately 25 million.”
Both Putin and Shoigu specifically talked about the recall of reserves – but the decree itself applies not only to this group. It allows ‘summon [of] Citizens of the Russian Federation for military service by mobilization in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
But Russia’s dependence on Chechen units, volunteer battalions, militias from Luhansk and Donetsk, and even convicts recruited by private military contractor Wagner belies the claim that there is a ready supply of war veterans to head to the front line.
Schmidt told CNN that the crowd “will not provide trained young officers who can lead offensive operations against an army that has been fighting for more than 3,000 days,” referring to Ukraine’s conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region since 2014, nor change the culture that has struggled against Ukrainian adaptation.
Putin could not have raised the stakes with his direct reference to nuclear weapons, but observers are not convinced that he will persist, or even be able, to pursue such a threat, despite his insistence that he is not bluffing.
In June 2020, he signed a decree updating the Russian nuclear doctrine that requires citation in full. “The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against itself and / or against its allies …” But this sentence ends with an unusual statement: “… as well as in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is under threat.
It’s impossible to say whether Putin would endorse the use of tactical nuclear weapons, says Levin, of the Quincy Institute, but “it seems doubtful that Russia would use these weapons unless Crimea itself is in danger of falling.”
So far, Levin told CNN, “Putin’s strategies have failed overwhelmingly, both in terms of military advances on the ground and economic pressure on the West to seek a compromise with Russia.”
But he says, “Russia retains the means for serious escalation away from nuclear weapons – in particular, the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and the killing of the Ukrainian leadership.”
Schmidt also believes there is little risk that Putin will switch to tactical nuclear weapons, “because that would bring NATO in real and the Russian military, its source of strength, would lose.”
While Putin was specific to say that the partial mobilization would be used to defend the newly occupied territories, he did not choose to extend his nuclear threat to the same expanded idea of what Russia might consider its territory in the future.
But the mere mention of those nuclear weapons is clearly intended to complicate the enemy’s calculations.
For some observers, the formal absorption of parts of Ukraine into the Russian Federation threatens to make any negotiated end to the Ukraine conflict—however remote that may seem—almost impossible.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Tuesday that once the two republics are incorporated into the Russian Federation, “no future leader of Russia, and no single official will be able to reverse these decisions.”
However, Schmidt points out that Medvedev is an alternative, not a source of power – and that both sides have developed extreme positions that can eventually be adapted or traded off through negotiations. However, this moment seems more distant than ever.
So far, of course, the Russian government has not said that it will officially recognize the results of the referendum. But it would be unusual for a seemingly simultaneous and orderly operation to be rejected in Moscow. Russian lawmakers ratified the referendum held in Crimea in 2014 within a week.
Whether regarding the timing of the attack against Ukraine (and indeed whether there will be an attack at all), its ultimate goals, the use of natural gas and oil as a political weapon, and even the potential use of nuclear weapons to protect the homeland, Putin has always been guided by a desire to unbalance his opponents.
This last maneuver is correct in form. It likely dispels any slim hope that this war will end anytime soon, but it also shows that Putin’s options are narrowing in the face of military shortcomings that challenge any quick fix. As the knowledge of the scale of losses grows, he must match them with an equal volume of work.