Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday announced that he will activate 300,000 reservists to bolster his disastrous campaign in Ukraine nearly seven months after his professional army has produced little more than a quagmire there.
READ:China Snubs Russia on Ukraine ]
Shortly after the president delivered the news of his precarious gamble in a seven-minute speech – which included unsubtle references to nuclear weapons – the Russian Ministry of Defense insisted that it could draw from as many as 25 million eligible Russians for the new call-up but would limit itself to only 1% of those, chiefly those with combat and military experience.
The move represents a dramatic decision and one that Putin has conspicuously avoided until now. Analysts believe he feared turning public opinion away from a war that, despite harsh Western sanctions, has so far not significantly affected the average citizen. And a mass mobilization for a campaign he insists on calling only a “special military operation” also amounts to a tacit acknowledgment that he is losing, or at least not winning, against what he and the West considered an inferior military power in Ukraine.
Despite the latest assertions and others from Russian officials insisting that somehow the war is going their way, passenger flights out of Russia almost immediately became fully booked as one of the first signs the local population is now swiftly losing confidence in what the White House routinely calls Putin’s “war of choice.”
Putin is betting that his decision to draw troops from within the Russian public will break the momentum Ukraine has systematically gathered in recent weeks following surprise twin offensives that have routed Russian forces from among their most strategically critical positions in the war zone.
“Putin just put the noose around his own neck. Mobilization isn’t a military decision, so much as a way to try to control the narrative about the war that he realizes he’s losing,” Matthew Schmidt, a professor at the University of New Haven and an expert on strategic national security analysis, said in an email.
The embattled Russian leader has failed to hide his military’s disastrous losses in Ukraine, so his high-profile speech served as an attempt to recast the enemies Russia faces as not just what he considers the neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv but rather NATO as a whole.
“As the knowledge of the magnitude of the losses mounts, he has to match it with an equal magnitude of action by declaring a mobilization against an enemy [that] can explain the losses according to his narrative,” Schmidt said. “Mobilization is the act that is supposed to sell that lie to the Russian people.”
“Putin doesn’t have 300,000 men with combat experience. The students should worry. The question isn’t men, it's how many trained junior officers can he produce fast enough to plan and lead offensive operations. The answer is not enough,” he said.
Among the most consequential factors facing Russia now lies not within its own reserves but the extent that its increasingly skeptical partners will be willing to support the new escalation. Officials and sources of information in China, which has so far held off full-throated endorsement of Putin’s military action, were remarkably quiet on the news on Wednesday morning, with only indirect references to Russian opposition to NATO among its top officials.
Western leaders, predictably, blasted Putin’s comments immediately and the new escalation it represents.
President Joe Biden’s administration announced he would make a “firm rebuke” of Putin’s new threats in a speech to world leaders at the ongoing U.N. General Assembly in New York – which the Russian leader chose not to attend.
Other officials in the European Union warned of new consequences against Russia for the escalation but did not offer specific details on how the economic bloc planned to attempt to curtail it.
Others targeted new plans from Russia to initiate so-called referendums in parts of Ukraine it occupies – a move it orchestrated in the Crimean Peninsula shortly after occupying it in 2014 that officials and analysts considered little more than a sham to manufacture supposed local support. Public votes around Kherson, Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia are expected to start on Friday.
MORE:Kremlin Shielding Putin From Ukraine ]
These moves “are signs of weakness, of Russian failure,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Bring said. She added the country will “never recognize Russia’s claim to purportedly annexed Ukrainian territory.”
In many ways Putin’s announcement on Wednesday shows the increasingly autocratic leader is becoming more dangerous, or at least more reckless as he seeks ways to break the stalemate in a conflict that has put the corruption, rot and dysfunction of the supposedly mighty Russian army on display for all the world to see.
Within his remarks Putin stated the West is actively engaged in “nuclear blackmail” and noted “statements of some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO states about the possibility of using nuclear weapons of mass destruction against Russia,” without providing details of such statements.
“To those who allow themselves such statements regarding Russia, I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and for separate components and more modern than those of NATO countries and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin said, before concluding, “It’s not a bluff.”
Analysts fear Putin is only creating new problems for himself, particularly if Wednesday’s decision does not produce the kinds of battlefield victories Russia needs to show it still has a chance of achieving any of its goals in Ukraine.
“Here is my concern and why the stakes are increasing now: if the Kremlin's annexation gambit fails to stop the fighting and support to Ukraine, the Kremlin will need to lash out to show it is serious,” the RAND Corp. think tank’s Dara Massicot wrote on Twitter. “That means escalation that could come in different forms.”
Such escalation could come in the form of new missile strikes on Ukraine, cyberattacks on its infrastructure or even the use of nuclear weapons – beginning with exercises and new movements of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
“Russia's options are narrowing,” Massicot wrote, “stakes are increasing, pressure mounting to show any victory.”