Just as leaders from across the world gathered in New York to address challenges to global peace and stability, the Russian president Putin declared mobilisation in Russia for the third time in its history. This step, which had formerly was ruled out by Russian officials, indicates that the Kremlin does not have any viable options but to escalate. Even though Putin still prefers to call the war a “special military operation”, he has virtually introduced martial laws across the entire spectrum of Russian economy and society, doubling down on the only gamble that he thinks can still pay off.
On July 7th, 2022 when asked about the state of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, Putin answered that “Russia has not yet started anything in earnest” there. Just two months later, after a painful retreat in Kharkiv Oblast, he announced what he called ‘partial’ mobilisation in Russia. He did so without admitting any mistakes or miscalculations and despite formerly asserting that everything goes ‘according to the original plan’. On top of that, he reversed the decision not to carry out referenda in the occupied oblasts in Ukraine, none of which Russia fully controls. The most immediate question this decision raises is whether these regions would be fully incorporated into the Russian Federation in their existing administrative borders or whether the annexation would be limited to territories that are currently held by (pro-) Russian occupying forces. By annexing these territories, Russia attempts to achieve two goals. First, it most probably, in the words of Thomas Friedman, wants to ‘stop the panic’ among pro-Russia Ukrainians in occupied regions and assure them that they will not be abandoned. And second, Putin wants to intimidate Kyiv and the West, since attacking these territories could then be interpreted as direct attack on Russia. Even if declaration of mobilisation and annexation of occupied territories is unlikely to impress Ukraine and could, on the opposite, urge it to intensify its counter-offensive before Russian reservists arrive, it is an indicator of bigger developments in this war. Mobilisation is arguably one of the last escalation levels that the Kremlin has in its toolbox short of the use of nuclear weapons.
Can the Kremlin turn the tide?
By announcing mobilisation in Russia and annexation of the occupied territories, the Kremlin demonstrates that it is ready to raise the stakes. Should one expect a new Russian offensive like in February and March of 2022? The Russian defense minister Shoigu announced that the aim is to carry out a ‘partial’ mobilisation and call up ca. 300 000 reservists to arms (to replace officially reported 5 937 causalities). According to Shoigu that is roughly 1 per cent of the entire military reserve that Russia officially has (ca. 30 million people). The word ‘partial’ however, should be taken with a grain of salt. According to Michael Kofman from the Institute for the Study of War, Russia needs all the manpower it can get since it has suffered from an acute shortage of manpower since the very beginning of the war. This problem has only become worse in the lead up to the current, and for the Russians, disastrous, autumn campaign of 2022. The problem is, however, that even if Putin really wanted to implement full mobilisation the existing military infrastructure is just not in a state to process such a number of potential soldiers.
Apart from lack of officers and facilities that can provide for necessary military training, Russia is currently not even in a position to properly equip those soldiers that are already fighting in Ukraine. Given the reported shortage of basic equipment like helmets and vests, it is far from certain that the defense ministry can adequately equip additional 300 000 men (assumed that the defense ministry manages to get the numbers in the first place). Finally, even if the troops are equipped, they should not be expected to arrive or fight until early winter, military analysts say. Practically, this means that in the foreseeable future, Russia will not be able to turn the tide on the battlefield in its favour. More realistically, the Kremlin aims to stabilise the frontline. If successful, it might then try to reoccupy some parts of Donbass. But in the given situation even this seems overly optimistic.
If the Kremlin realises that immediate changes on the battlefield are rather unfeasible, might there be another reason for the timing of the mobilisation and the referenda? At the end of his speech, aired on September 21st, Vladimir Putin said: „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“. Many take these words seriously. The CIA Director William Burns said that “none of us can take [messages like these] lightly”. Likewise, the Lawrence Freedman argued that “This is not a possibility [of nuclear weapons use] that should be dismissed in a cavalier fashion”. Rose Gottemoeller, a former top US nuclear policy-maker and NATO’s deputy secretary general until 2019, also feared that Putin might ‘strike back now in really unpredictable ways that may even involve weapons of mass destruction’.
Yet, it seems that many in expert and political communities in the West increasingly perceive Putin’s nuclear rhetoric as a mere sable-rattling. Anne Applebaum, for instance, forcefully argued that the goal in Ukraine should not be a truce or long-term resistance, but an outright Ukrainian victory. Eliot Cohen agreed, saying that a Ukrainian victory would lead to a new balance in Europe and that “the West must aim to break Russia’s societal will through the grinding up of its army and the devastation of its economy.” The Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte called out Mr Putin’s „rhetoric on nuclear weapons” as “something we have heard many times before“, adding that it left him ‘untroubled’. Even though it is impossible not to empathise with the calls for more action in Ukraine aimed at preventing further loss of innocent human lives in Ukraine, the growing perception that Putin will not resort to weapons of mass destruction after everything he has done to Ukrainians in the last half a year is truly distressing.
Nuclear Blackmail or Signal of Intentions?
I argue that Putin’s nuclear threatening is far more than just about blackmail and sable-rattling. On the one hand, Putin indeed might hope to use the nuclear threat as blackmail to make Ukraine surrender or get the West to pressure Ukraine to do so. But since Ukraine has shrugged off this possibility early in the war and refused to negotiate with Putin on any territorial concessions, the reasoning in the Kremlin has undergone considerable change too. Putin has long been convinced that Russia cannot afford to lose the war, since his own survival as president defines Russia as a modern state. Now he seems to have become convinced in the course of this war that it is literally a struggle for Russia’s existence. In his address on September 21st, he said: “The goal of the West [in this war] is to weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country”. With this in mind, it is not far-fetched to assume that Putin would be ready to go to great lengths to prevent a defeat, even if it implies risking a nuclear war. To put it bluntly, Putin would rather have mutual destruction than military defeat. After all, Putin did also once (in)famously say: “Why do we need a world if Russia is not in it?”.
At the same time, Putin has not yet gone all-in, keeping in reserve a few steps on the escalation ladder. He still does not call the conflict a ‘war‘, preferring the term of “special military operation”, albeit claiming to fight the ‘entire collective West’ in Ukraine. Unlike commonly assumed, the Kremlin has also proven capable of adjusting its already ambiguous goals from the original regime change strategy and essentially reducing it to ‘liberating Donbass’ alongside ‘complete demilitarisation and denazification’. ‘The main goal is the liberation of the entire territory of Donbas’, Putin said in Samarkand during the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisations summit, although without specifying what exactly he understands as ‘Donbas’. And if one to take serious account of Turkey’s president Erdogan, Putin is “willing to end this as soon as possible”, indicating Russia’s readiness to start at least preliminary negotiations. The most recent prisoners’ swap (including captured fighters from Azovstal’ plant) might be another indicator of that.
Partial mobilisation is unlikely to change much on the battlefield for Russia. If anything, it can only help Moscow stabilise the front, but even this scenario is far from granted. Moscow now has changed tactics from invading new territories to retaining what it has already occupied and is ready to pay the high price for it. Politically, however, apart from trying to buy himself some time, these threats might be also indicating that Putin is indeed ready to consider stopping the active part of the military conflict and start preliminary cease-fire negotiations, but do it from a position of strength, indicating that he is ready to increase the stakes if need be.
This is exactly the opening that the West can use now to seek a relatively fast end of the war at the negotiating table. Discarding for the time being the Ukrainian military victory that won’t be achieved at the negotiating table and cannot be expected in the foreseeable future, the West, given that it wants to end this war as soon as possible, has two options. The first is a dirty deal with Putin that secures a cease-fire and stops the destruction, but risks splitting the Western allies and enraging many Ukrainians. Even if Putin might go for it, thinking that his best move to save a shred of dignity and “expose the divisions in the West”, this would clearly be a no-go for Ukrainians. The second one is a somewhat less distasteful deal, namely, going back status quo ante before February 24, which, however, would only be possible with significant shifts within Russia first. This is the solution that the Ukrainians might learn to live with, but big questions remain if Russians would agree to such a deal. In this scenario Putin would need to admit his miscalculations, probably announce the real scale of causalities and acknowledge that sanctions have significantly undermined Russian economy. This, in turn, probably would lead to a popular protest movement or coup d’état with Putin taking the blame. It is a lot of ‘ifs’ to assume, and probably does not go as far as some in the West currently advocate, but if the West and Ukraine indeed aim to end this war in the foreseeable future, these are the only major options that are currently on the table.
If the West should decide to go on, and ‘humiliate Russia on the battlefield’, they should be ready for more serious consequences than formerly assumed. Unlike in 1991, when the communists gave power to the newly elected democratic leader, this time, even if Putin does (miraculously) step down after a military defeat, there are not many democrats to fall back on. Sudden change of power and command in a nuclear-capable state is a very risky scenario on its own, but pushing an authoritarian nuclear state after a lost war on the verge of disintegration might prove lethal for everyone involved. It is the likes of Partushev and Bortnikov that the elites might choose as successor in order to try to preserve the spoils accumulated during Putin’s rule. And they would definitely not be ready for concessions. This makes it more dangerous to second-guess the remaining ‘red lines’ of Russian elites. Given the shortage of conventional weaponry that has been destroyed in Ukraine, the nuclear weapons and their possible limited use is increasingly becoming Putin’s only fall-back option. Michael Kofman and Anya Loukianova Fink convincingly showed that at least in theory the Russian military do not believe that limited nuclear use necessarily leads to uncontrolled escalation. So, to use Freedman words: “Because he [Putin] has already done some really stupid things who can say for sure that he won’t do anything even stupider”.