Seven months into his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a new, perilous step: mobilizing his military reserves.
Amid a string of battlefield setbacks—and the announcement of fast-tracked “referendums” that could enable the Kremlin to annex territory it has occupied in eastern Ukraine—Putin also reiterated his threats to use nuclear weapons to defend what Russia considers its own turf. We asked experts across the Atlantic Council for their reactions to Putin’s moves. This post will be updated as their analysis rolls in.
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Andriy Zagorodnyuk: Mobilization won’t fix Russia’s battlefield failures
Melinda Haring: Annexation in eastern Ukraine is a step toward nuclear blackmail
Mobilization won’t fix Russia’s battlefield failures
The partial mobilization of reservists is a sign of Russia’s failure to achieve its operational objectives in Ukraine through both its use of regular forces and the call-up for volunteers. It is an important indicator that the Russian army is exhausted and has recognized its inability to defeat Ukraine. I do not believe that situation will significantly change with mobilization.
Firstly, mobilized soldiers will need substantial new training even if they have previously served in the Russian army. Most of the reservists are former conscripts who previously served in the armed forces. For the vast majority, the compulsory army service was a daunting and largely unproductive experience; thus, the quality of their training was low. As a result, they were unprepared for real war, particularly not one as intense as today’s.
Secondly, personnel is only a part of the capability structure, and Russia has problems with all components of capability—doctrine, organization, leadership, and weapons. Russia severely lacks experienced battlefield officers. It also struggles with renovating and delivering new weapons.
Finally, mobilization is going to be very unpopular in Russia. The government plans to push the “defensive war” narrative with its propaganda. It will advertise the idea of defending Russia from NATO. The problem is that Russians do not perceive newly occupied regions of Ukraine as Russia, and the motivation to die for recently annexed regions will be very low. If Russia annexes new regions, that will not stop Ukraine from taking them back. How Putin will explain the loss of those territories to his citizens just 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 intensification of the war. We encourage our allies to continue to supply weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. We will win this together.
—Andriy Zagorodnyuk is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and served as Ukraine’s minister of defense from 2019 to 2020.
Annexation in eastern Ukraine is a step toward nuclear blackmail
Putin is playing a weak hand with few good options. His decision to partially mobilize is a bow to his internal critics on the right who have urged him to be more aggressive in Ukraine and an acknowledgement that he is still determined to destroy Ukraine.
Putin’s decision to mobilize may be unpopular. But so far he’s designed it to avoid conscripting the elite youth of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and he may be able to get away with it.
The bottom line is that mobilization will not make an iota of difference on the battlefield immediately. The recently mobilized soldiers will need to undergo extensive training.
While mobilization will make the headlines, focus on Putin’s pledge to annex some of Ukraine’s east. The annexation decision may be more important geopolitically than the mobilization one. With annexation, Putin is likely extending the Russian nuclear umbrella over four oblasts of Ukraine—a decision that Ukraine will never accept. What happens when Kyiv attempts to retake the territory in eastern Ukraine that Moscow has illegally annexed? It could be the first step toward potential nuclear blackmail over what Moscow considers its territory. Nuclear blackmail raises thorny decisions for Western leaders and the prospect of some potential, uncomfortable brinkmanship.
—Melinda Haring is deputy director of the Eurasia Center.