Putin is trying to raise the stakes in Ukraine. Here’s what it means


In a speech as threatening as his declaration of a “special military operation” against Ukraine in February, President Vladimir Putin has called for a partial mobilization of the Russian population to help carry out a stunning military campaign.

After seven months, Putin’s language was even darker than in the early hours of February 24. He then warned the West that Russia would immediately respond to those who stood in the way, “with consequences that will be like never before”. seen throughout your history.’

In his last speech, he put flesh on the bones of that threat. “The territorial integrity of our homeland, our independence and freedom will be guaranteed, I will emphasize that again, with all the means available to us. And those who try to blackmail with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction,” he said on Wednesday.

Russia’s leadership has raised the stakes dramatically as Russia embarks on a rapid process of expanding what constitutes “that homeland” through hastily organized referendums in occupied territories intended to absorb parts of Ukraine into Russia itself: Donetsk, Luhansk, the lot. Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

The announcement of these referendums on Tuesday was sudden and synchronized. The idea that hostilities can be organized within days in areas where hostilities remain is preposterous, especially since some officials in those areas have suggested postponing votes to join Russia until security conditions improve. It is also absurd to think that the union with Russia came naturally from the territories.

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 the mobilization.

Putin has two audiences in mind. Anatol Lieven, director of the Quincy Institute’s Eurasia Program, says he wants to “convince the US and/or the Europeans to get serious about negotiating a compromise solution to end the war, otherwise Russia will take steps that are too big, and that means the West at the same time.” besides forcing it to increase, it will reject any possible future peace for a long time.’

Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Endowment puts it bluntly. in one series of tweets Before Putin’s speech, he wrote that his message to Ukraine’s allies is: “You chose to fight us in Ukraine, now try to fight us in Russia itself, or more specifically, what we call Russia.”

Schmidt says Putin’s main audience is the home front. He is trying to regain the initiative and harden the morale of the Russian public. In 2014, Russia hopes to see a rebound in popularity with the wider public in support of the annexation of Crimea. “Mobilization is not a military decision, but a way of trying to control the narrative about the war. he realizes he’s losing,” he told CNN.

Against the background of bad news coming home from the front lines, Schmidt declared: “The morale of the public is the morale of the army.”

“Putin needs to say that greater Russia is under attack. He has a very hard time selling that; it puts his leadership under great strain,” added Schmidt.

According to Baunov, the goal is to turn an invasion of a country near Russia into a defensive war, and this distinction would “make the conflict more legitimate in the eyes of ordinary Russians, leaving the Kremlin free to make decisions and take the measures it deems necessary.” “.

But mobilization is a big risk, says Schmidt. It takes time: training, equipping, organizing, and it does nothing to improve Russia’s biggest shortcomings.

Moscow faces formidable logistical obstacles that have marred the past six months of war. Its forces have suffered such material losses that the Russian Defense Ministry, according to US officials, has turned to North Korea for ammunition. Recent setbacks in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region have left some of its elite tank units severely depleted.

The “partial mobilization” announced by Putin is also based on the segments of the Russian population that would be under intense pressure to sign up for the Russian war effort.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said there would be about 300,000 reservists.

“These are not some people who have never heard of the military,” Shoigu said. “Those are the ones who have served, have the specialty of the military record, have the military experience.”

Mobilization is limited, perhaps not to alienate public opinion, perhaps to leave room for progress along the way. Shoigu said: “Those who have served and have a military specialty are almost 25 million.”

Putin and Shoigu spoke specifically about the call-up of reserves, but the decree itself does not apply only to this group. “The Call [of] Citizens of the Russian Federation for military service by mobilizing them in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”

But Russia’s reliance on Chechen units, volunteer battalions, militias in Luhansk and Donetsk, and convicts hired by private military contractor Wagner belies a ready supply of veterans to the front lines.

The mobilization “will not provide trained young officers who can lead offensive operations against an army that has been fighting for more than 3,000 days,” Schmidt told CNN, referring to the conflict with Russian separatists in the Donbas region since 2014. Changing the culture that has fought against Ukraine’s adaptability.

Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank in Novoselivka, Ukraine, on September 17, 2022.

Putin could not have raised the stakes more sharply with the direct reference to nuclear weapons, but observers are not convinced that he would follow through on that threat, or even that he would follow through on it, even though he is not bluffing.

In June 2020, he signed a decree updating Russia’s nuclear doctrine, which requires full citation. “The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons against itself and/or its allies in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction…” But that sentence ends with an unusual statement: “… and also. The Russian Federation the case of an attack against with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened.”

Liev, of the Quincy Institute, says it is impossible to say whether Putin would approve the use of tactical nuclear weapons, but “it seems doubtful that Russia would use them unless Crimea itself was in danger of falling.”

So far, Lieven told CNN, “Putin’s strategies have failed miserably, both in terms of military progress on the ground and economic pressure on the West to compromise with Russia.”

But, he says, “Russia maintains non-nuclear means of escalation, primarily destroying Ukrainian infrastructure and killing Ukrainian leadership.”

Schmidt also believes that there is little danger of Putin resorting to tactical nuclear weapons, “because that would really involve NATO and lose the Russian military, the source of its power.”

A destroyed Russian tank is seen in the town of Izium, which was recently liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on September 20, 2022.

And while Putin specifically said the partial mobilization would be used to defend the newly occupied territories, he chose not to extend his nuclear threat to the idea that Russia might consider its territory in the future.

But the very mention of these nuclear weapons is obviously designed to complicate the enemy’s calculations.

According to some observers, the absorption of parts of Ukraine into the Russian Federation risks making a formally negotiated end to the conflict in Ukraine almost impossible.

Former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said on Tuesday that once the republics are integrated into the Russian Federation, “no future leader of Russia, no official will be able to reverse these decisions.”

However, Schmidt noted that Medvedev is a substitute, not a source of authority, and that both sides have established maximalist positions that can eventually be adjusted or negotiated through negotiation. Such a moment, however, seems further away than ever.

People celebrate the result of Crimea's referendum on joining Russia at a market in Simferopol, Ukraine, March 18, 2014.

Still, of course, the Russian government has not said that it will officially recognize the results of the referendum. But it would be extraordinary if a process apparently synchronized and organized in Moscow was rejected in Moscow. The referendum organized in Crimea in 2014 was ratified by Russian parliamentarians within a week.

At the time of the aggression against Ukraine (and indeed there would be one), his ultimate goal, the use of natural gas and oil as political weapons, as well as the possible use of nuclear weapons to protect the homeland, has always been driven by Putin’s desire to keep his rivals off balance.

This last gambit is true to form. It likely dashes faint hopes that this war will end soon, but it shows that Putin’s options are shrinking in the face of military shortcomings that militate against any quick resolution. As his knowledge of the magnitude of the loss increases, he must match the action with an equal magnitude.