Russia has taken action. What will happen now?
Putin will have to tread lightly when it comes to moving troops from their secure life in Russia to the trenches in Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin went nuclear.
To be sure, things haven’t been going well. Kyiv’s counter-offensive has retaken thousands of kilometres of Russian-held land in eastern Ukraine; Moscow’s forces have deserted the front lines; discontent among hitherto supportive commentators has grown; and criticism (however veiled) has even come from his friends in Beijing and New Delhi.
Faced with the prospect of a humiliating retreat, Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to intensify the battle on Wednesday by declaring a partial mobilization of Russia’s reservists and threatening Ukraine and its allies with nuclear devastation. At the very least, it’s an open acknowledgment that things have been going extremely badly, and Putin, for all his bravado, will now have to step lightly in sending troops from their safe lives in Russia to die in Ukrainian trenches.
Here’s what the move means for Ukraine and Russia, as well as what may happen next.
The steamroller is being rebuilt.
When Putin first initiated what he deceptively refers to as a “special military operation” against Ukraine in February, much was made of Russia’s greater attack capacity.
Despite significantly outnumbering Ukrainian forces, the Russian steamroller had plainly run out of steam after nearly seven months of strong opposition. On the battlefield, the Russians were straining to break Ukrainian forces armed with Western weapons worth billions of euros of equipment (not to mention Western intel). Russia also grossly overestimated the morale gap and how hard soldiers fight when they know they are fighting an existential battle against a genocidal adversary who resorts to torture, rape, and murder.
When describing Russia’s readiness to accept massive fatality figures, Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin is commonly connected with the adage that “quantity has a quality all its own.” Even if he didn’t use those precise words, the message is timeless. When confronted with the image of a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Swedes in the Battle of Narva in the Great Northern War in 1700, Czar Peter the Great was soothed by an advisor who said: “More sons will be born to Russian moms.”
Putin appears to have adopted that approach, reviving the million-ruble “Mother Heroine” prize created by Stalin in 1944 for mothers who give birth to and nurture ten or more children last month.
But those children will not reach military age for some time, so what was Putin to do in the meantime to keep his cannons firing?
According to reports, Russia is using a combination of coercion and bribery to recruit more people into its armed forces, including sending summonses to veterans, lowering the health and age requirements for military service, holding recruitment drives in prisons, and increasing the incentives offered to those who sign up for the war effort. However, benefits such as pensions, when measured against the rising likelihood of not returning from the battlefield to enjoy them, free flats, and early release from prison, lose their attraction.
In the run-up to Wednesday’s mobilisation announcement, pundits and political figures urged Putin to declare a general mobilisation, which would allow Russia to call up all reservists and implement conscription, as well as a war economy, which would allow the Kremlin to compel companies to manufacture military supplies and force people to work overtime for the war effort.
The Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, passed a bill on Tuesday that mentioned mobilization and martial law (but did not impose these emergency measures). but rather increased penalties if crimes are committed during “mobilisation” and “martial law” periods). The measure also advocated replacing unserved jail sentences with forced work for inmates, as well as making looting and voluntary surrender illegal.
Many people, even Russians of fighting age, correctly perceived the measure as the first step toward mobilization.
With indications that Putin was scheduled to deliver an address that night (an address that was eventually postponed until Wednesday morning), flights filled in minutes and tickets out of Russia skyrocketed. A one-way ticket to Turkey on Saturday cost €2,870, up from around €350 before Putin’s declaration.
Putin’s choice to “partially mobilize” is risky. Not least because it may not be the solution to his problems. Many of Russia’s issues stem from technology disparities with a NATO-armed foe, as well as morale, rather than overwhelming numbers.
Earlier this month, Alexander Khodakovsky, a former commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic who now leads the pro-Russia Vostok Battalion, indicated in a Telegram message that he was opposed to a mass mobilization and discussed the issues confronting the Kremlin’s forces in Ukraine.
The cause of Russia’s defeats, according to Khodakovsky, is not a shortage of military manpower but rather “careless use” of those forces, as well as bad information and insufficient equipment. If current trends continue, “the deficit [of “Regardless of how much you organize the people, Russia will be inundated by a tsunami of funerals with no desired outcome.”
Putin had to pretend that Moscow was battling an absurdly enormous adversary by admitting the necessity for mobilization, even if it was “partial.” In his presentation on Wednesday, Putin emphasised Russia’s military units were “fighting on a 1,000-kilometer line of contact, confronting… the whole military machine of the collective West.”
The unsettling fact underpinning his comment was that Russia may lose the war.
It’s one thing to mobilize when you’re being attacked and confront an opponent that appears hell-bent on extermination, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy did earlier this year.
It’s quite another to call up reservists who will be fighting for someone else’s nation rather than protecting their own, with many surely going home in zinc coffins, like the “Zinky Boys” of the Soviet Union’s tragic Afghanistan war.
If things have to become worse and Putin needs to enlist the children of wealthy families in Moscow and St. Petersburg to keep throwing troops into the front lines, his dictatorship might face major internal threats.
The escalation of nuclear weapons
The Kremlin has long threatened to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Just a few days into the battle, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces to be placed on high alert.
With Russian forces on the defensive, Putin’s nuclear threat became much more public on Wednesday.
Putin bragged about Moscow’s superior atomic armament while making misleading assertions about alleged NATO nuclear threats against Russia.
“Without a doubt, we will use all of our military services to protect Russian and our people,” Putin stated. “This isn’t a ruse.”
How might Putin rationalise going nuclear? He must create the illusion that the threat is directed at Russia itself.
Russia’s proxy republics in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas area, the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Luhansk (LPR) and Donetsk (DPR), said on Tuesday that they will hold referendums on being recognised as part of Russia this week. Earlier on Tuesday, Kremlin-installed officials in Ukraine’s southern Kherson area hinted that a referendum would be held, as did pro-Russian authorities in the Zaporizhzhia region.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is now the Security Council’s deputy chairman, hinted at one rationale for these moves: if Russia recognises certain parts of Ukraine as its own territory after the fake referendums, it may deploy nuclear weapons in self-defense.
“Encroachment on Russian land is a crime that permits the employment of all self-defense forces,” Medvedev stated in a Telegram message.”Which is why, in Kyiv and throughout the West, constitutional revisions are dreaded.” Putin emphasised this issue in his statement on Wednesday: “I want to emphasise that we will do so.” all possible to make these referendums secure for people to voice their will,” he added.
“We will promote citizens’ political choices in Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, as well as Zaporizhzhia and Kherson,” he continued.
The imminent referendums were announced in rapid succession on Tuesday, just after Ukraine declared that it had recovered Bilohorivka, a suburb of Lysychansk in the Luhansk area, and was ready to seize the remainder of the province. Ukrainian forces looked to be on the verge of retaking Lyman, an important Donetsk city near Izium that Ukraine retook earlier this month.
In his speech on Wednesday, Putin reiterated that “the basic purpose” of his campaign, “liberating the whole Donbas,” remained unchanged.
If a cornered Putin decides to go nuclear under the guise of “defending” Kremlin-aligned separatist areas, he has a few alternatives. He could fire a warning shot with few, if any, casualties; use shorter-range “tactical” weapons against military targets; try to nuke Kyiv to take out President Zelenskyy and those close to him in the hopes of breaking the country’s resolve; or try to destroy a Ukrainian city, causing massive civilian casualties to force Kyiv to concede, as the US did when it bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII.
Whatever nuclear course Putin chooses, the US will very certainly be monitoring the nukes as they are prepared for deployment. So the question is, what might the administration of President Joe Biden do in response?
Without elaborating, Biden has stated repeatedly that the deployment of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be “absolutely unacceptable” and would “entail grave repercussions.” Russia would be isolated to the nth degree, further undermining domestic support for Putin.
So, would Putin be ready to risk the US or NATO responding to the deployment of nuclear weapons by actively entering the conflict rather than simply supplying and supporting Ukraine’s forces?
Margarita Simonyan, the pugilistic head of Kremlin-directed RT media, stated grimly in a Telegram message on Tuesday: “Judging by what is occurring and is going to happen, this week marks either the eve of our approaching victory, or the eve of our imminent defeat.”
We are on the precipice of nuclear war. “I don’t have a backup plan.”
Stalemate on the horizon?
If mobilisation fails to change the tide and actually deploying his nukes proves too hazardous, Putin may take inspiration from his buddy and weapons supplier in Pyongyang and embrace North Korea’s concept of a never-ending conflict.
What would that entail? similar to Russia’s pre-February invasion status quo, but with no plausible deniability.
Putin might withdraw his forces from areas of Ukraine where they are unable to retain and consolidate troops around Luhansk, Donetsk, sections of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, and Crimea. He might then proclaim the war over, destroy any remaining dissent within Russia, accept his pariah status in the world arena, and bear the economic cost of prolonged sanctions. His aim is that Western European resolve will crumble and Germany will forgive him for his genocidal misdeeds in order to buy him gas.
If Putin chooses this road, it will be a familiar one from his repertoire of festering frozen wars. It would cause the volatility over democratic progress and Western investment that Putin has always desired in order to keep Ukraine weak.
The difference now is that he is still confronting an empowered, well-armed, battle-hardened Ukraine with momentum. Kyiv does not appear to be content to roll over and accept Russian soldiers on its soil.
Of course, there is still the possibility of discussions with Kyiv.
However, with Ukraine buoyed by battlefield victories and Zelenskyy repeatedly stating that any peace deal would be contingent on Russian troops withdrawing completely from all Ukrainian territory, including the Donbas and Crimea, an agreement would almost certainly necessitate significant concessions from Putin.
Putin’s political position might be jeopardized if he shows signs of weakness now. That might lead to an “accidental” fall out of a window or a date with a Novichok nerve agent vial.
Worse, in Putin’s opinion, would be having to face a war crimes trial, as former Yugoslav President Slobodan Miloevi did, or facing the fate of his erstwhile ally, Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi, who died pleading for forgiveness after being kidnapped by insurgents in 2011.
Putin expressed “disgust” upon seeing the film of Gaddafi’s dying moments at the time.”Almost all of Gaddafi’s family were killed, and his body was shown on all international media networks—it was difficult to view without feeling hatred,” Putin said. “He was injured but conscious, and he was being murdered.” That, according to Putin, would be a destiny worse than mutually assured devastation.