President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization in a pre-recorded TV ad on the morning of September 21, upping the ante in the war with Ukraine and bringing a direct conflict between the West and Russia one step closer.
Putin had to do something. The military campaign in Ukraine was not going well before Kyiv launched its spectacularly successful counter-offensive two weeks ago, which swept Russian forces from the Kharikiv region and in recent days also recaptured villages in the Luhansk region, which had been fully occupied. by Russia.
The incursions into Luhansk are a major strategic blow because Putin’s only publicly stated war goal is the “liberation” of the Donbass region, which includes Donestsk and Luhansk. Understaffed and with low morale, the war is going badly for Putin. And it’s an existential fight for the Russian strongman. If he loses on the battlefield, chances are he will face a palace coup and be ousted.
By declaring a mobilization, Putin has upped the ante and hopes to change the narrative. The practical result is that the armed forces can tap into a pool of 2 million military reservists and solve their manning problem. But Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the same day that the Kremlin would only call up 300,000 of these men, those with the most experience, and that groups like students are exempt.
The decision was extreme and carries real political risks. Most Russians support the war, but only passively. According to the polls, few are actually ready to go to Ukraine and fight. This is the reason for the partial mobilization – to keep the numbers manageable and avoid the political backlash that a general mobilization might cause.
The mobilization comes a day after the Duma dramatically toughened sentences for avoiding national service to a maximum prison term of 15 years which comes into effect on Wednesday.
On the same day, the various Kremlin proxies in Donetsk and Lugansk and other occupied Ukrainian regions announced a snap referendum on Ukraine’s succession and membership in the Russian Federation. Those of Donbass will take place this weekend and the region could become part of Russia by Monday. The other regions, including Kherson, will hold their votes next week.
If Donbas joins Russia, it changes the narrative from a “special military operation” in another country to “protect” Russian citizens living there, to “NATO-backed Ukraine attacks Russian sovereign territory” .
According to Russia’s security manifesto, if an attack on Russia is deemed an “existential threat” to the country, the Kremlin is allowed to use nuclear weapons. Putin raised exactly this point on his morning show and added the conclusion: “It’s not a bluff”.
Putin generally always means what he says, even if his subordinates constantly lie or prevaricate, and this threat should be taken seriously. What is remarkable about this conflict is that Putin has repeatedly shown that at every stage he is willing to go to shocking extremes – starting with the invasion itself.
He sees the Ukraine issue as an existential issue of securing Russia’s national security and is ready to do anything to guarantee it. Ironically, that means destroying Russia’s economy and undoing nearly all the material progress it has overseen over the past two decades. He also united NATO forces against him and pushed Sweden and Finland into the arms of NATO. But Putin doesn’t seem to care. As Ukraine borders the European part of Russia where 80% of the population lives, the settlement of the question of the status of Ukraine has become a obsession for the Russian president.
NATO will have to be more careful now that Putin has laid the groundwork for the claim that the West is indirectly attacking Russian soldiers not only by sending powerful weapons to Kyiv, but that the West is now attacking the territory Russian sovereign in the Donbass, via its Ukrainian territory. proxy, and this is an act of war by the West.
Will the mobilization turn the tide of the battle in the Donbass? It’s possible, but new recruits will take time to arrive and deploy, and in the meantime, soldiers from Kyiv continue to retake more territory. However, with so much territory still under Russian control, it seems unlikely that Ukraine will achieve its goal of driving Russian forces out of its country before these new reinforcements arrive.
The mobilization decision shows that Putin will do whatever he thinks it takes to achieve his goals, no matter the cost to Russia, Ukraine or the peoples of either country.