As he addressed the nation on Wednesday morning to announce a “partial mobilisation” of 300,000 reservists, President Vladimir Putin framed Russia’s war in Ukraine in stark, existential terms.
The nation was defending itself against a west that wanted to “weaken, divide and destroy Russia” and it was prepared to use nuclear weapons in response.
The apocalyptic threats are intended to coerce Ukraine and its western allies to accept Russia’s gains in the conflict. The hasty staging of “referendums” in occupied areas this weekend is supposed to set a line that Ukraine and the west must not cross.
By in effect annexing large parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, Putin wants to dissuade Kyiv and its western allies from attacking what the Kremlin now considers “Russian territory” — laying the groundwork for full mobilisation or even nuclear conflict if they persist.
Putin’s escalation is a gamble that underscores his shrinking room for manoeuvre on the battlefield in Ukraine and domestically in Russia.
“The whole world should be praying for Russia’s victory, because there are only two ways this can end: either Russia wins, or a nuclear apocalypse,” Konstantin Malofeyev, a nationalist Russian tycoon, said in an interview.
“If we don’t win, we will have to use nuclear weapons, because we can’t lose,” Malofeyev added. “Does anyone really think Russia will accept defeat and not use its nuclear arsenal?”
On the defensive after losing thousands of square kilometres of territory to Ukraine in recent weeks, Wednesday’s announcement is an attempt to change the calculus at a time when Moscow has even fewer options, said Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
A successful Ukrainian counter-offensive this month has not only pushed it out of the Kharkiv region in north-eastern Ukraine but is also now threatening territories Russia seized in the Donbas — the eastern industrial heartland whose “liberation” Putin has defined as the main goal of the war.
“If they start losing territory that they just gained there, it raises all sorts of questions and there’s no way they can easily brush it off. It quite clearly is a military and political failure if that happens,” Lee said.
By declaring these areas Russian territory, Putin is probably hoping he can halt Ukraine’s advance and deter the west’s appetite for sending more weapons, because it would demonstrate that “any offensive here by Ukrainian forces or by Nato weapons will get interpreted as an attack on Russian territory”, Lee said.
Western leaders have instead condemned the referendums, reiterated their support for Ukraine’s attempts to recapture its territory and restated their willingness to provide Kyiv with high-tech weapons.
Russia’s gamble is unlikely to pay off, said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation. “I don’t think Putin fully internalises the consequences of this,” he said. “What happens when Ukraine ‘occupies’ ‘Russian territory’?” Then the next step is declaring war if Ukraine retakes it.”
Many analysts are also sceptical that a partial mobilisation will have a rapid impact on the battlefield, because it could take several months to train reservists and to create new units with commanders and logistical support.
Seven months since Putin first sent troops into Ukraine, Russia’s heavy losses put its forces at a manpower disadvantage, particularly in terms of well-trained soldiers. Moscow originally deployed about 180,000 troops for its invasion of Ukraine, according to western estimates.
Defence minister Sergei Shoigu said only 5,937 Russian soldiers had died in the conflict — less than a tenth of the casualties Moscow claims were suffered by Ukraine. The US said in August that Russia had suffered “probably ... 70,000 or 80,000″ killed and wounded since February.
The Russian reserve has a notional 2mn former conscripts and contract soldiers, according to the Institute for the Study of War, but few are actively trained or considered ready to fight.
A 2019 Rand study estimated that Russia only had 4,000 to 5,000 reservists in the western sense of receiving regular monthly and annual training, although in 2021 it launched an initiative to create a standing reserve force.
“If this is meant to scare Ukraine and the west into capitulating, it’s not going to work. When it fails, Putin will have even worse choices,” Charap said.
But even as Russia escalated its stand-off against the west, the Kremlin attempted to reassure Russians that life would mostly go on as normal.
In a pre-recorded statement aired immediately after Putin’s speech, Shoigu said Russia would only call up reserves, rather than deploy the conscript army, and stressed that students would be exempt.
Throughout the invasion, Moscow has avoided introducing martial law or conscripting Russians into the armed forces and insisted on calling it a “special military operation” — a term evoking far-off conflicts rather than stirring Russians’ memories of brutal wars.
The attempt to project calm for the domestic audience — presenting the war as a necessary but distant battle — has been successful so far.
“Over the past six months, an adaptation has taken place to the new conditions, people calmed down,” said Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, an independent pollster in Moscow. Spending increased, and polls showed Russians increasingly saying that the situation was developing in the right direction.
But the announcement of even a partial mobilisation brings the war closer to home. “I think if the Kremlin could have avoided it, it would have,” Volkov said. “But the conflict has its own logic, and it has led them to take an unpopular decision.”
Some Russians have already voted with their feet: flights to Yerevan and Istanbul, two of the few available destinations after western countries closed off their airspace to Russia, were sold out within minutes of Putin’s announcement.
The effect on public sentiment will be gradual, however, said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik.
“Mobilisation will be gradually expanded. Society will slowly become irritated and indignant — do not expect mass protests, but rather waves of indignation,” she said. “This is the erosion of Putin’s power in its purest form.”
Additional reporting by Ben Hall in Kyiv
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022