Putin’s escalation gamble

Russian President Vladimir Putin places two of his biggest political and strategic bets ever in one week.

Why it matters: With his forces being routed into northeast Ukraine and their footholds slipping elsewhere, Putin eschewed a strategic retreat in favor of risky escalation. He is mobilizing an estimated 300,000 civilians and preparing to declare 15% of Ukraine into Russian territory — buoyed by a blatant nuclear threat.

Send the news: The announcement of Putin’s mobilization was followed by scenes of protests in dozens of cities, military-age men crowding airports and border checkpoints to flee conscription, and long lines of expectant soldiers being herded onto buses and planes – especially in provinces far from Moscow.

  • Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that only about 1% of Russia’s available reserves — about 300,000 military veterans with relevant expertise or combat experience — would be called up.
  • But if Sergey Radchenko of Johns Hopkins notesPutin’s actual decree is vague enough that “just about anyone” could be recruited, and the total number could well exceed 300,000. Soldiers on short-term contracts will also be forced to remain on active duty.
  • There have been numerous anecdotal reports of men called up regardless of military experience and age. Those who resist face jail time and some anti-mobilization protesters have been immediately conscripted, according to the monitoring group OVID-Info.

The big picture: The specter of conscription could potentially bring war to millions of Russians in a way that nothing else has.

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  • Support for the war has remained static since its inception, with about 45% of Russians firmly behind it, a further 30% supporting the war “with some reservations” and only a small proportion willing to pay the high price of protest to pay, says Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, Russia’s leading independent pollster.
  • Lately, more Russians say they overheard the news, which Volkov attributes to fatigue or “psychological protection.” Economic sentiment improved and many Russians wanted to move on.
  • Now, says Tatiana Stanovaya of consultancy R. Politik, Russians frantically search the Internet for news about mobilization and “get much more than just information about who will be called up.”
Police arrested a protester in Mosow on Wednesday. Photo: Alexander Neemov/AFP via Getty

Military analysts have also expressed doubts on the ability of the Russian military to integrate, train and equip hundreds of thousands of soldiers, many of whom probably have no desire to fight this war.

  • “One thing we’ve seen from the Russian military during this war: it didn’t do most things right,” he said. say Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an expert on the Russian military. “So will the mobilization be done so well? Will these units be well trained and equipped when deployed? Probably not.”
  • “Russia can try to deal with the quantity aspect of the force, but they cannot solve the quality,” added Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at CNA, noting in particular the lack of experienced officers and advanced equipment.
  • Kofman believes the mobilization order is unlikely to change the course of the war, which currently favors Ukraine, but thinks it could allow Russia to hold out for longer.

So-called “referenda” in four regions of Ukraine under total (Luhansk), near-total (Kherson) or partial (Donestk, Zaporizhzhia) Russian control will run from Friday to Tuesday.

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  • The White House expects statements that large majorities want to join Russia, possibly followed by an announcement from Putin granting that “wish”.
  • Needless to say, those steps would lack international support or legitimacy.
  • Further, Ukraine is conducting a major counter-offensive in Kherson and a surprise attack in Kharkov, threatening Russian positions in the Donbas. In effect, Putin would be announcing that the land he is in danger of losing is in fact Russia.

Breaking Down: Analysts believe this is part of an effort to turn the war into a defensive one – a struggle to free people and countries that are truly Russian – and to capture Russia’s gains.

  • Putin warned on Wednesday that Russia would use “all means at our disposal” to protect its territory, and could now bring the four Ukrainian regions under Russia’s nuclear umbrella.
  • The decision seems “almost a kind of superstitious attempt to rid itself of a curse,” due to a deep-seated belief that Russia will always prevail on its own soil, writes Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Endowment.
  • The message to the West, according to Stanovaya, is “either Ukraine pulls out, or nuclear war.”

The other side: Ukrainian and Western officials have been quick to insist that they will not let their resolve be weakened by nuclear threats. But some have also warned that Putin’s warnings cannot be dismissed.

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  • “We think it’s just bluff,” but that could change if Putin feels “pressed into a corner,” a senior European official on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly told Axios.
  • The problem is that if Putin is going to feel this way, we may not know, the official said.

It comes down to: ‘He is now focusing his regime on this war,’ says Kofman.

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