Vladimir Putin has gone nuclear.
Admittedly, things have not been going well. Kyiv’s counter-offensive has retaken thousands of kilometers of Russian-held territory in eastern Ukraine; Moscow’s troops have fled the front lines; dissent from previously loyal pundits has increased; and criticism (oblique though it may be) has even emanated from his pals in Beijing and New Delhi.
Faced with the prospect of a humiliating climb-down, the Russian president on Wednesday sought to escalate the war by announcing a partial mobilization of Russia’s reservists, and threatened Ukraine and its allies with atomic annihilation. At the very least, that’s an open admission that things have been going very badly and, for all his bravura, Putin will now need to tread carefully in sending men from safe lives in Russia to go and die in trenches in Ukraine.
Here’s what the move means for both Ukraine and Russia, and what might happen next.
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Rebuilding the steamroller
When Putin first launched what he disingenuously calls a “special military operation” against Ukraine in February, much was made of the Russians’ superior strike-power.
But despite vastly outnumbering Ukrainian forces, after almost seven months of fierce resistance, the Russian steamroller was clearly running out of steam. On the battlefield, the Russians were struggling to crack Ukrainian troops supplied with billions of dollars-worth of Western equipment (not to mention Western intel). Russia also massively miscalculated the morale gap and underestimated how hard soldiers fight when they know they are facing an existential struggle against a genocidal enemy that resorts to torture, rape and murder.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is often associated with the quip that “quantity has a quality all its own,” when explaining Russia’s willingness to accept huge casualty numbers. Even if he didn’t use those exact words, the sentiment goes back a long way. According to legend, when confronted with the scene of a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Swedes in the Battle of Narva in 1700 in the Great Northern War, Czar Peter the Great was reassured by an aide, who said: “Russian mothers will produce more sons.”
Putin seems to have embraced that approach, last month restoring the million-ruble “Mother Heroine” award established by Stalin in 1944 for women who give birth to and raise 10 or more children.
But it’ll take some time for those kids to reach military age — so what was Putin to do in the meantime, to replenish his cannon-fodder?
Reports have emerged of Russia using a mix of coercion and bribery to attract more people into its armed forces — including summonses sent to veterans, reduced health and age requirements for military service, recruitment drives at prisons and increasing incentives offered to those who sign up for the war effort. But benefits such as pensions, free apartments and early release from prison lose their appeal when weighed against the increasing odds of not returning from the front to enjoy them.
In the lead-up to Wednesday’s mobilization announcement, pundits and political figures had increasingly been calling for Putin to announce a general mobilization, which would allow Russia to call up all reservists and introduce conscription, and declare a war economy, which could see the Kremlin compel companies to manufacture military supplies, and force people to work overtime for the war effort.
On Tuesday, the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, adopted a bill that included references to mobilization and martial law (though it did not impose these emergency measures, but rather ramped up punishments if crimes are committed during periods of “mobilization” and martial law”). The bill also proposed replacing unserved jail terms with forced labor for prisoners, and established liability for looting and voluntary surrender.
Many correctly sensed that bill was the first step toward mobilization — Russians of fighting age among them.
On Tuesday, with reports that Putin was going to deliver an address that night (an address that was ultimately delayed till Wednesday morning), flights filled in minutes and airfares out of Russia spiked. A Saturday ticket to Turkey soared to €2,870 while before Putin’s announcement, a one-way ticket cost about €350.
Pitfalls of mobilization
Putin’s decision to “partially mobilize” is a fraught one, not least because it may not be the answer to his woes. Many of Russia’s problems are due to technological gaps with a NATO-armed enemy and morale, not sheer numbers.
Earlier this month, Alexander Khodakovsky, previously a leader in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic who now oversees the pro-Russia Vostok Battalion, said in a post on Telegram that he was against a general mobilization, and gave his assessment of the problems facing the Kremlin’s forces in Ukraine.
The reason for Russia’s losses isn’t due to a lack of military personnel, Khodakovsky argued, but rather of the “careless use” of those forces, as well as poor intelligence and insufficient equipment. If things continue as they have been going, “the shortage [of personnel] will be constant, no matter how much you mobilize the people, and Russia will be overwhelmed by a wave of funerals, without the desired result.”
By confessing the need for mobilization — even a so-called “partial” one — Putin had to pretend that Moscow was fighting an improbably large enemy. In his Wednesday address, the president insisted Russia’s armed forces were “fighting on a line of contact that is over 1,000 kilometers long, fighting … the entire military machine of the collective West.”
The uncomfortable truth underlying his statement was that Russia could actually lose the war.
And it’s one thing to mobilize when you’re being invaded and facing an enemy that seems hell-bent on genocide — the scenario facing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy when he called up Ukrainian men earlier this year. It’s another to call up reservists who won’t be defending their homeland, but attacking someone else’s, with many inevitably returning home in zinc coffins, like the “Zinky Boys” of the Soviet Union’s disastrous Afghanistan war.
If things have to go even further and Putin has to recruit the children of prosperous families in Moscow and St Petersburg to keep throwing men at the fronts, his regime could face serious internal dangers.
The Kremlin has long hinted that it could deploy nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Putin ordered his military to put Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces on high alert just a few days into the war.
But with Russian forces on the ropes, Putin’s nuclear threat on Wednesday became much more explicit.
Making false claims about supposed NATO nuclear threats against Russia, Putin boasted of Moscow’s superior atomic weaponry.
“To defend Russia and our people, we will doubtlessly use all weapons resources at our disposal,” Putin said. “This is not a bluff.”
How might Putin justify going nuclear? He has to create the fiction that the threat is against Russia itself.
On Tuesday, Russia’s proxy states in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Luhansk (LPR) and Donetsk (DPR), declared they would hold referendums this week on being recognized as part of Russia. Earlier on Tuesday, Kremlin-installed officials in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region also indicated they planned to hold a referendum, with pro-Russian authorities in the Zaporizhzhia region also indicating they would do the same.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is now the deputy chairman of the Security Council, hinted at one reason behind these moves: After the sham referendums are run, if Russia was to recognize these regions of Ukraine as its own territory, it could deploy nuclear weapons under the guise of self-defense.
“Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime, which allows for the use of all forces of self-defense,” Medvedev said in a post on Telegram. “This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the West.”
Putin doubled down on that message in his Wednesday address: “I want to emphasize that we will do everything necessary to create safe conditions for these referendums so that people can express their will,” he said. “We will support the choice of future made by the majority of people in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions,” he added.
The news of the impending referendums, announced in quick succession on Tuesday, came after Ukraine said it had recaptured Bilohorivka, a suburb of the city of Lysychansk in the Luhansk region, and was preparing to take the rest of the province. Ukrainian forces also appear to be on the cusp of retaking the key Donetsk city of Lyman, near Izium, which Ukraine retook earlier this month.
In his address on Wednesday, Putin insisted that “the main goal” of his war, “to liberate the whole of Donbas, remains unaltered.”
If a cornered Putin does decide to go nuclear under the pretext of “defending” the Kremlin-aligned breakaway regions, he has several options. He could fire a warning shot designed to cause few if any casualties; deploy shorter-range “tactical” weapons against military targets; attempt to nuke Kyiv to take out President Zelenskyy and those close to him in the hopes that this would break the country’s resolve; or he could seek to destroy a Ukrainian city, causing massive civilian casualties to force Kyiv to concede, as the U.S. did when it bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.
Whichever nuclear path Putin takes, it’s likely the U.S. would be tracking the nukes as the Russians ready them for deployment. The question then is, what would President Joe Biden’s administration do in response.
Biden has repeatedly said the use of any nuclear weapons in Ukraine would be “completely unacceptable” and “entail severe consequences,” without specifying what these would be. Ultra isolation for Russia would be the bare minimum, again eroding support for Putin at home.
So, would Putin be willing to risk the U.S. or NATO responding to the use of nuclear weapons by entering the war directly, rather than just continuing to supply and support Ukraine’s forces?
In a post on Telegram on Tuesday, Margarita Simonyan, the pugilistic head of Kremlin-directed RT media, said darkly: “Judging by what is happening and is about to happen, this week marks either the eve of our imminent victory, or the eve of nuclear war. I can’t see a third option.”
If mobilization fails to turn the tide and actually deploying his nukes proves too risky, Putin could look to his friend and weapons-supplier in Pyongyang for inspiration and embrace North Korea’s model of a forever war.
What would that look like? Much like Russia’s pre-February invasion status quo, but without any trace of plausible deniability.
Putin could pull out from areas of Ukraine his forces can’t hold and consolidate troops around Luhansk, Donetsk, parts of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson and Crimea. He could then declare the war won, eliminate any last ounce of dissent within Russia, embrace his pariah status on the global stage and weather the economic cost of ongoing sanctions. His hope will be that Western European resolve will break and that Germany will forgive him his genocidal sins just to buy his gas.
If Putin does decide to go down this path, it will be a familiar one from his playbook of festering frozen conflicts. It would create the instability over democratic development and Western investment that he always craved to keep Ukraine weak.
The difference now, though, is that he is still facing a Ukraine that’s emboldened, well-armed, battle-hardened, and has the momentum. Kyiv is far from appearing content to roll over and accept Russian troops on its territory.
Of course, there is still the prospect of peace talks with Kyiv.
However, with Ukraine buoyed by its victories on the battlefield and Zelenskyy repeatedly stating that any peace deal would be predicated on the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from all Ukrainian territory, including the Donbas and Crimea, an agreement would likely require significant concessions from Putin.
The danger is that any sign of weakness from Putin now would undermine his political position. And that could end with an “accidental” fall out of a window or a date with a vial of Novichok nerve agent.
Worse still, at least in Putin’s books, would be the prospect of having to face a war crimes tribunal, like former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević did, or suffering the fate of his one-time friend, the deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who died begging for mercy after being captured by rebels in 2011.
At the time, Putin said he felt “disgust” watching the footage that emerged of Gaddafi’s final moments. “Almost all of Gaddafi’s family has been killed, his corpse was shown on all global television channels — it was impossible to watch without disgust,” Putin said. “The man was all covered in blood, still alive and he was being finished off.”
For Putin, that would be a fate worse than mutually assured destruction.