Putin is trying to up the ante in Ukraine. Here’s what that means

Seven months later, Putin’s language was even darker than in the early hours of February 24. Then he warned the West that Russia would immediately respond to those who stand in its way, with consequences that “will be such as you have never seen in all your history.”

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

The Russian leader has upped the ante dramatically — just as Russia embarks on a hasty process to expand what constitutes this “homeland” through hastily organized referendums in the occupied territories that are intended to absorb parts of Ukraine into Russia itself: Donetsk, Luhansk, much of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

The announcement of these referendums on Tuesday was both sudden and synchronized. The idea that they could be organized in a few days in areas where hostilities are continuing is a priori absurd, especially since some officials in these areas had proposed delaying votes on joining Russia until until security conditions improve. Equally absurd is the idea that joining Russia came spontaneously from the territories themselves.

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 Eurasia program at the Quincy Institute, says he wants to “persuade the United States and/or the Europeans to seriously negotiate a compromise settlement to end the war by showing that otherwise Russia will take action radically progressive moves that will not only force the West to step up in turn, but will also preclude any possible peace for a long time.”

Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Endowment puts it bluntly. In a series of tweets before Putin’s speech, he wrote that the message to Ukraine’s allies is: “You have chosen to fight us in Ukraine, now try to fight us in Russia itself, or, to be precise, what we let’s call Russia.”
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Schmidt says Putin’s main audience is the home front. He is trying to regain the initiative and boost the morale of Russian public opinion. He may also be hoping for a rebound in his popularity similar to the broad public support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. “The mobilization is not a military decision, but rather a way of trying to control the account of the war that he you realize he’s losing,” he told CNN.

Against the backdrop of bad news from the front lines, Schmidt notes, “Public morale is army morale.

“Putin has to say that greater Russia is under attack. He’s really struggling to sell it; it’s putting a strain on his leadership,” Schmidt adds.

Baunov believes the goal is to turn Russia’s invasion of a neighboring country into a defensive war, a distinction that “would make the conflict more legitimate in the eyes of ordinary Russians, leaving the Kremlin free to make all the decisions and to take all the measures it deems necessary. .”

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

Big challenges for Russian recruits

Moscow faces the same enormous logistical hurdles that have marred the past six months of war. His forces suffered such material losses that the Russian Defense Ministry, according to US officials, turned to North Korea for ammunition. Its latest setback in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine has severely depleted some of its elite tank units.

The “partial mobilization” announced by Putin also appears to draw on parts of the Russian population that would have already been under significant pressure to engage in Russia’s faltering war effort.

A billboard promoting contract military service with the image of a serviceman and the slogan

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said some 300,000 reservists would be available.

“These are not people who have never heard of the military,” Shoigu said. “These are those who have served, have a military registration specialty, have had military experience.”

Mobilization is limited, perhaps so as not to alienate public opinion, perhaps to leave room for other later movements. Shoigu claimed, “Those who have served and have a military specialty are nearly 25 million.”

Both Putin and Shoigu spoke specifically about a call for reserves – but the decree itself does not apply only to this group. It allows “the call [of] citizens of the Russian Federation for military service by mobilization in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

But Russia’s reliance on Chechen units, volunteer battalions, Luhansk and Donetsk militias and even convicts recruited by private military contractor Wagner denies the claim that there is a reserve of veterans ready to go to the front line.

Mobilization “will not provide the trained young officers who can carry out assault operations against an army that has been fighting for more than 3,000 days,” Schmidt told CNN, referring to the conflict between Ukraine and backed separatists. by Russia in the Donbass region since 2014, nor change a culture that has struggled with Ukrainian adaptability.

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

Go nuclear

Putin could not have upped the ante more drastically with his direct reference to nuclear weapons, but observers are not convinced that he would want, or even could, follow through on such a threat, despite his insistence on the makes sure he’s not bluffing.

In June 2020, I signed an executive order updating Russian nuclear doctrine that needs to be quoted in full. “The Russian Federation retains the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies…” But this sentence stands ends with an unusual statement: “… and also in case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened.”

Lieven of the Quincy Institute says it’s impossible to say whether Putin would agree to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, but it “seems doubtful that Russia will use them unless Crimea itself is in danger. to fall”.

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

But, he says, “Russia retains the means for a serious escalation short of nuclear weapons – including the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and the murder of Ukrainian leaders.”

Schmidt also thinks there is little risk of Putin turning to tactical nuclear weapons, “because that would bring NATO down for real and he would lose the Russian military, the source of his power.”

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

And although Putin made it clear that the partial mobilization would be used to defend newly occupied areas, 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 these nuclear weapons is obviously intended to complicate the calculations of the enemy.

For some observers, the formal absorption of parts of Ukraine into the Russian Federation risks making any negotiated end to the Ukrainian conflict – remote as that may already seem – nearly impossible.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Tuesday that once the republics are integrated into the Russian Federation, “not a future leader of Russia, not an official will be able to reverse these decisions.”

However, Schmidt points out that Medvedev is a surrogate, not the source of authority — and that both sides have defined maximalist positions that could eventually be adapted or swapped through negotiation. Yet such a moment seems more distant than ever.

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

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

Whether it is the timing of the offensive against Ukraine (and even if there would be one), its ultimate goals, the use of natural gas and oil as a political weapon, even the he potential use of nuclear weapons to protect the homeland, Putin has always been guided by a desire to unbalance his adversaries.

This last gambit is true to form. It likely dashes any slender hopes that this war will end soon, but it also demonstrates that Putin’s options are shrinking in the face of military shortcomings that defy a quick fix. As knowledge of the magnitude of the losses increases, he must match it with an equal magnitude of action.