Russia’s war in Ukraine seemed to have escalated this week when, in a videotaped address to the nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the partial mobilization of the country’s military and made an indirect threat of nuclear weapons use. Anticipating the unpopularity of the mobilization, Putin clarified that “only military reservists, primarily those who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialties and corresponding experience, will be called up.”
Accusing the United States and its allies of engaging in “nuclear blackmail,” Putin noted darkly that “I want to remind you that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have.”
Putin’s address comes at a critical juncture in his war in Ukraine, with Russia’s military facing setbacks, heavy casualties, logistical problems, and declining morale. Earlier this month, Ukrainian forces stunned Russia—and the world—with a swift offensive in the northern region, regaining over 1,000 square miles of territory from the occupying Russian forces. Ukraine also has been pushing a counteroffensive in the southern Kherson region, although with limited gains. In the latest indication of the growing offensive capability of Ukrainian forces, UK intelligence reported that the Russian Navy has removed some of its submarines from the port of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea, apparently out of concerns about their vulnerability to Ukrainian long-range missiles.
Since the start of the war, Russia has increasingly relied on the use of mercenaries through a private military company called the Wagner Group—the existence of which Russian officials have denied until very recently. The group has been hiring broadly, even enrolling convicts from prisons, to compensate for the lack of Russian military personnel in Ukraine. These efforts, however, seemed to have been insufficient to avoid the partial military mobilization Putin announced.
Putin’s address seemed to be more than merely a response to military challenges on the battlefield. It was also an apparent attempt to reassert his domestic authority as he faces increased criticism at home for his handling of the war in Ukraine. Since the start of his “special military operation” in February, the Russian president has tried to keep life as unchanged as possible for Russians, despite the unmissable economic consequences of sanctions. But Ukraine’s counter-offensive in recent weeks has changed the contours of the war. Claiming at a summit in Uzbekistan last week that Ukraine was attempting to carry out “terrorist acts” inside Russia, Putin threatened to escalate the war in response if his “warning strikes” on Ukrainian infrastructure were not taken seriously.
Even then, some interpreted Putin’s decision to go for a partial—not a general—mobilization and his renewed—but vague—nuclear threats as a clear indication of a weakened position. But many experts believe that’s precisely when Russia’s leader may be the most dangerous. A stubborn Putin, cornered on the ground, and whose authority is increasingly questioned at home is more likely to be willing to reaffirm—and use all—his power.
Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, wrote on Twitter that “today’s developments are disturbing because they suggest that Russia may not be willing to lose in Ukraine.” But military analysts say a mobilization would take several months—even up to a year—before it leads to any significant operational benefit on the ground. It is not clear how much time Putin thinks he has left to reverse the course of his war before events overtake him—politically or militarily.
Russia also changed the contours of the war this week when proxy officials installed in four occupied regions in Ukraine—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizka—announced their plans to hold referendums on formally joining Russia. If annexed—even if not recognized by the international community—this move could potentially lead to a stark escalation of the war. Any future military operation by Ukraine in those regions could be seen as an attack on Russia itself. On his Telegram channel, Dmitri Medvedev, the former Russian president and vice chairman of Russia’s Security Council, wrote that the “encroachment on the territory of Russia is a crime and allows to use all the forces of self-defense,” which would include nuclear forces.
During his address, Vladimir Putin renewed his nuclear threats accusing the West of engaging in “nuclear blackmail” against Russia. “I am referring to the statements made by some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO countries on the possibility and admissibility of using weapons of mass destruction – nuclear weapons – against Russia,” Putin said. However, several analysts immediately questioned such accusations, saying they were not documented. Putin did not provide the names of the officials who supposedly discussed using nuclear weapons against Russia or details of the supposed “nuclear blackmailing” the West was conducting.
But Putin went on and bluntly unrolled his threat: “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”
As if anticipating such an unfolding of events, US President Biden sent a direct message to Putin on television last week, referring to the risk that Russia may use chemical weapons or tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II,” Biden said.
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