Experts react: Putin is playing by intensifying his war in Ukraine. What will happen next?

Seven months after his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken another perilous step: mobilizing his military reserves.

Amid a series of battlefield setbacks – and the announcement of accelerated “referendums” that could allow the Kremlin to annex territory it has held in eastern Ukraine – Putin has also reiterated its threats to use nuclear weapons to defend what Russia considers its own territory. We asked Atlantic Council experts for their reactions to Putin’s actions. This post will be updated as they are analyzed.

Click on a link below to access an entry:

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: mobilization will not solve Russia’s failures on the battlefield

Melinda Haring: Annexation in eastern Ukraine is a step towards nuclear blackmail

Mobilization will not solve Russia’s failures on the battlefield

The partial mobilization of reservists is a sign of Russia’s failure to achieve its operational objectives in Ukraine, both in its use of regular forces and in the call for volunteers. This is an important indicator that the Russian military is exhausted and has recognized its inability to defeat Ukraine. I do not believe that the situation will change significantly with the mobilization.

First, mobilized soldiers will need substantial new training even if they have previously served in the Russian military. Most reservists are former conscripts who have previously served in the armed forces. For the vast majority, compulsory military service was a daunting and largely unproductive experience; thus, the quality of their training was low. As a result, they were unprepared for a real war, especially one as intense as today’s.

Second, personnel are only part of the capability structure, and Russia has problems with all the components of capabilities: doctrine, organization, leadership, and weapons. Russia is in dire need of experienced battlefield officers. It also struggles to renovate and deliver new weapons.

Finally, the mobilization will be very unpopular in Russia. The government plans to push the “defensive war” narrative with its propaganda. He will announce the idea of ​​defending Russia against NATO. The problem is that the Russians do not perceive the newly occupied regions of Ukraine as Russia, and the motivation to die for the newly annexed regions will be very low. If Russia annexes new regions, that will not prevent Ukraine from taking them back. How Putin will explain the loss of these territories to his citizens right after their annexation is unclear, but it certainly won’t boost his popularity.

I believe this will be another unsuccessful escalation attempt for Putin. Ukraine will continue its fight no matter what. Of course, sending more people means a potential escalation of the war. We encourage our allies to continue supplying arms and ammunition to Ukraine. We will win this together.

Andriy Zagorodnyuk is a distinguished member of the Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council and served as Minister of Defense of Ukraine from 2019 to 2020.

Annexation in eastern Ukraine is a step towards nuclear blackmail

Putin is playing a weak hand with few good options. His decision to partially mobilize is a bow to his inside right-wing critics who have urged him to be more aggressive in Ukraine and an acknowledgment that he is still determined to destroy Ukraine.

Putin’s decision to mobilize could be unpopular. But so far he has designed it to avoid enlisting the elite youth of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and he may be able to get away with it.

The bottom line is that mobilization won’t make an iota of difference on the battlefield immediately. Newly mobilized soldiers will have to undergo extensive training.

As the mobilization grabs the headlines, focus on Putin’s promise to annex part of eastern Ukraine. The annexation decision may be geopolitically more important than the mobilization decision. With annexation, Putin will likely extend the Russian nuclear umbrella over four oblasts of Ukraine – a decision Ukraine will never accept. What happens when Kyiv tries to take back territory in eastern Ukraine that Moscow illegally annexed? This could be the first step towards potential nuclear blackmail over what Moscow considers its territory. Nuclear blackmail raises tough decisions for Western leaders and the prospect of uncomfortable risk potential.

Melinda Haring is Deputy Director of the Eurasia Center.

Further reading

Associate specialists:
Andriy Zagorodnyuk and
Melinda Haring

Image: A man smokes while walking past a mural, which was painted on a multi-storey building in support of the Russian military, in Moscow, Russia September 21, 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

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