analysis: Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilisation exposes a weakness in his war effort and his threats of nuclear conflict

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Vladimir Putin’s announcement of an escalation in Ukraine tells us a few things about how the war is going for Russia.

The Russian President announced a “special military operation” in February and declared Ukraine needed to be “demilitarised” and all its people given a chance to join “their historical homeland”.

Then in April, when Kyiv failed to fall to the invaders, he announced the war was becoming an eastern offensive and the focus would move to the Donbas region.

And now, as gains made by the Ukrainian resistance make headlines around the world, Mr Putin has again confused the narrative. 

He has announced a “partial mobilisation” of reserve military forces. 

He’s also made an old threat.

Vladimir Putin wearing a suit with a dark red tie leans over a microphone.
Vladimir Putin has declared a partial mobilisation of Russian troops amid a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive.(Reuters: Sputnik/Konstantin Zavrazhin/Pool)

His address to the nation was an opportunity for Mr Putin to change the Ukraine story, but it was also a chance for him to again turn attention to the risk of nuclear war and, on that point, little was lost in translation: “This is not a bluff.”

“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,” he said.

For Vladimir Putin the only option is victory.

But according to analysts, how he defines — and redefines — what victory looks like, as well as how he can sell it to the Russian public, will dictate what happens next. 

‘Signs of weakness’

United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York
World leaders gathering at the UN watched on as Putin announced the escalation. (Reuters: Lucas Jackson)

When Putin announced his “special military operation” and Russian tanks rolled over the Ukrainian border, the UN Security Council was meeting and watching in real time.

Now, as the world reels from his most recent announcement, the United Nations General Assembly is meeting in New York, and world leaders and senior officials have been quick to both condemn his actions and offer their analysis on what it means.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said: “The latest decision by the Russian government is an act of desperation.”

“Russia cannot win this criminal war and with the latest decisions Putin [and] Russia are only making everything much worse.

“He completely underestimated the situation from the beginning.”

NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said: “The speech of President Putin demonstrates that the war is not going according to President Putin’s plans. He has made a big miscalculation.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said it was “a sign of panic”.

“His rhetoric on nuclear weapons is something we have heard many times before, and it leaves us cold. It is all part of the rhetoric we know. I would advise to remain calm.” 

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Perhaps more importantly to him, Mr Putin is also being criticised inside Russia. 

Professor of Russian politics at King’s College London and director at the Centre for European Policy Analysis Sam Greene said there had been discussions in Russian politics and press about “the need to step up the war effort”. 

“In many ways, Putin was facing more criticism from pro-war Russians than from anti-war Russians in recent weeks,” he said. 

“Particularly as the Ukrainian counteroffensive met with some success, quite considerable success actually.”

A close up of a destroyed building covered in debris with a hole in the roof.
The town of Izium was recently liberated by Ukrainian armed forces.(Reuters: Gleb Garanich)

Putin does not want to accept he has started a war he may not be able to win, so the challenge for him now is to change what victory looks like. 

His messaging is now less about seeking “to demilitarise and de-nazify Ukraine”, and more about protecting Russia from the West.

“So much of President Putin’s speech is a recognition that Russia has failed, that even with this constant redefinition of what it wanted to get from the war, it’s still not meeting its objectives,” said Chatham House’s key Russia analyst Keir Giles. 

“Because if you need to call up a larger number of soldiers than were in your armed force to start with, it’s a plain recognition that your war is not going your way.

“And that, of course, means that Putin has to step back from some of the rhetoric that we saw earlier in the conflict to explain what’s happening, what Russia wants from it, what the end state should actually be.”

The threat of nuclear war  

Since his address on February 24, Mr Putin has referenced Russia’s nuclear arsenal, but his address yesterday has not had the chilling effect he might have hoped. 

Instead, some world leaders and Russia experts have started to suggest Putin’s rhetoric around nuclear weapons is losing its potency. 

“Certainly President Putin would like us to think that the nuclear threat has increased but, in fact, it hasn’t,” Mr Giles said. 

“All of Russia’s successive so-called red lines, where it was warning the West of consequences if it continued to defend Ukraine, have been shown to evaporate. And all of these threats have been hollow.”

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Dr Greene agreed the real nuclear threat had not necessarily increased because ultimately any engagement of these weapons would be “catastrophic” for Putin’s standing among his own people. 

“I remain convinced that Putin is fundamentally guided by a desire to stay in power. And if you’re interested in staying in power, you have to have something to stay in power of. So full-scale, global nuclear conflagration is not in his interest.”

But even making the threat is a problem. 

“There’s an unwillingness to be blackmailed, to set the precedent that any country that has a significant nuclear arsenal can essentially do what it wants to another country to another population and there’s nothing that anybody else can do about it,” Dr Greene said.

“I’m hearing increasing voices in Washington, in London and other places in Brussels that this is not a line that should be heeded from Putin.”

Side view of man seated at table, holding a piece of paper.
Experts say world leaders are increasingly unwilling to believe Putin’s rhetoric.(Reuters: Alexandr Demyanchuk, Sputnik)

The timing of the partial mobilisation is significant too. 

Soon, referendums will be held in the occupied territories during which voters will be asked whether they are in favour of joining the Russian Federation.

“I think there is some hope that by going through this sham process of organising votes — that cannot possibly be free and fair under military occupation during wartime — that he might at least legitimise this to a certain extent in the eyes of the Russian population,” Dr Greene said. 

“It allows him to tell Russians that he is essentially fighting for Russian territory.” 

It also allows Putin to talk about another red line because if these territories are legitimised as Russian territory, any incursion on them could give him the pretext to escalate the war. 

“I think we do have to be worried,” Dr Greene said. 

“But we also have to think about what options do we do we really have? If the option for Western policymakers is to say, ‘OK, nuclear war is possible and so we should just submit to Russia’s right to wipe a sovereign nation off the face of the planet,’ that will not feel like it’s worth the risk to a lot of people.”

What Putin can sell as a victory

A woman is held by four police officers and carried away.
Moscow and St. Petersburg have seen anti-mobilisation protests with dozens of people arrested. (Reuters)

There have been rumours Putin will move to a full mobilisation model — and full conscription — since early in the war. 

Russians who did not want to fight and who wanted to openly protest against the war fled abroad. 

Overnight, seats on flights out of Moscow were selling out and there were dozens of arrests at anti-mobilisation protests in Moscow and St Petersburg. 

Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian politics analyst and the founder of the firm R Politik, predicted via Telegram the “mobilisation will be gradually expanded, society will slowly become irritated and outraged” and “the regime will increase its repressions”. 

She went so far as to say: “This is the erosion of Putin’s power in its purest form.”

Vladimir Putin has backed himself into a corner. 

He needs reservists to help secure some level of victory in a war he convinced his people he was already winning.

“He can be stopped on the battlefield, but that won’t keep him from fighting and pouring more resources and more Russian lives and more Russian treasure into this war,” Dr Greene said. 

“He will make a decision eventually about when it’s time to end this war. That decision, I think, will be based on his reading of domestic politics. 

“What’s going to stop him is when the pain and the risk and the danger in domestic politics becomes a threat to his ability to stay in power.”

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