In a televised speech on September 21, Russian President Putin called for a partial mobilization and the drafting of 300,000 Russian reservists in order to strengthen the Russian army’s battlefront capabilities. These moves came after the Russian army incurred heavy losses in several areas of eastern Ukraine, particularly Kharkiv—not to mention the Ukrainian army’s success in freeing many of its POWs from the Russian Army.
Putin’s announcement reflects a Russian foreign policy document issued in late August that affirms Russia’s right to defend itself against what it calls Western aggression and conspiracy. However, it also makes clear that Putin is committed to winning the Ukrainian war, even if it means ultimately resorting to nuclear weapons in the process.
Implications of the Announcement
The Russian president’s brief announcement sends several domestic and foreign messages, which can be presented as follows:
1. Moscow’s attempt to respond to its recent military losses: Putin’s announcement comes in reaction to the recent losses incurred by Russian forces in Ukraine. In the past few days, Ukrainian authorities announced that they had managed to regain nearly 6,000 square kilometers from Russian forces since the beginning of September. Of late, the largest Russian military losses have been in Kharkiv, the most important front in the war.
Within this context, Putin’s mobilization announcement aims to support human military capabilities in Ukraine. Intelligence reports indicate that Russia is facing a severe shortage of military forces stationed in Ukraine, especially since Moscow has described the situation as a miliary operation, not a war, which affects the size of the military capabilities that are used. This may explain why, in late August, the Russian president signed a decree increasing the number of troops in the armed forces by 137,000, bringing the total to 1,150,628.
2. Indirect acknowledgment of the Russian army’s declining performance in Ukraine: Putin’s recent speech is considered an indirect statement that the war he began last February has not gone as planned, namely, the disarmament and political neutralization of Ukraine and the elimination of what he calls the Ukrainian Nazi groups that threaten the presence of Russian minorities in eastern Ukraine. The speech also avoided the friendly tone the Russian president had previously adopted in his speeches on Ukraine, in which he was always eager to distinguish between Ukrainian citizens—whom he calls a fraternal people to the Russians—and the current Zelensky-led government that is working against Russian-Ukrainian unity. By contrast, in his latest speech, Putin described Ukrainians as mere pawns of the Western and American military machine that will shake the entire world.
3. Putin’s awareness of the dilemma of popular support for his military operation: Putin avoided announcing full or even partial mobilization earlier in the war. During the first six months, he relied primarily on regular Russian army forces, as well as people with criminal records and mercenaries—a strong confirmation that Putin is well aware that the current war does not have broad support from the Russian people.
The rush of young Russian men to leave the country and the unprecedented interest in visiting countries that still permit entry to Russian tourists, especially Turkey, is another indication of the lack of popular support for the ongoing Russian military operation. It also highlights an important logistical challenge that may contribute, one way or another, to increasing the Russian army’s current losses on the battlefield.
4. Attempt to emphasize the cohesion of Russian power centers: In one form or another, the decision for partial military mobilization reflects the confusion of Russian leadership and its fears that Ukraine is becoming a new quagmire for Russian forces, as happened to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It also signals Putin’s attempt to emphasize cohesion on the home front and within power centers, thus reinforcing Putin’s ties with the oligarchy and military class, who seem to realize that their fate is tied to Putin and his regime. Thus, they continue to support him. Accordingly, bets, particularly in the West, on the emergence of a group that will topple Putin, remain unrealistic, to say the least, according to current information.
5. Putin’s continued reliance on the rhetoric of Western humiliation: The Russian president continues to use the rhetoric of Soviet glory and legacy humiliated and insulted by the West. These words are used to strengthen the legitimacy of his decisions and his military incursion into Ukraine, as well as his call for partial mobilization. In the televised speech in which he announced the mobilization, Putin said that "the goal of the West is to weaken, divide, and ultimately destroy our country." He added that "they say outright that they succeeded in destroying the Soviet Union in 1991, and it is now time for Russia to be divided into several regions and conflicting parties."
6. Russian messages of deterrence to the West that the war is not over: President Putin’s speech redirected the attention of the global press and economic and academic writing back to the Russian-Ukrainian war. The media had been focusing on the death of Queen Elizabeth II, as well as delving into the analysis of President Xi’s upcoming foreign options and policies after China’s unprecedented military escalation in Southeast Asia. Some had begun to treat Russia’s war in Ukraine as if it were nearing an end, especially with the Ukrainian army’s broad and unexpected gains. Most analysts had become preoccupied with when the war would end and the possibility of escaping the worst-case scenario during the upcoming winter. However, in his latest speech, Putin confirmed that the Russian military operation in Ukraine would not end soon and that Europe remains on the cusp of the worst winter season in its history since the two world wars. The situation is not limited to an energy shortage, but also threatens to test Europe with an unprecedented nuclear risk.
Aside from Putin’s confirmation that there is more to come in the conflict between Moscow and other Western capitals, the recent announcement has already opened the door wide to several possible future scenarios, whether at the Russian domestic level or even at the level of Russian military operations in Ukraine. These can be addressed as follows:
1. Opening a new space for negotiation: This scenario assumes that Putin’s announcement of military mobilization, despite its apparent escalation, simultaneously implies the possibility of opening a negotiating space between Russia and the West. This scenario is based on key considerations, perhaps most importantly that the partial mobilization and call for reserve troops is, ultimately, a symbolic step to pressure the West. Under no conditions will the reserve troops have the fighting capacity of the troops that have been participating in the Ukrainian war since its outset last February, thus, they will have little impact on the course of the military operation.
Moreover, Putin may fear the domestic consequences of his decision to mobilize and the growing state of popular discontent. This is evidenced by reports that tickets for flights departing Russia quickly sold out after Putin announced the military draft on September 21. According to these reports, tickets are sold out for direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul, Turkey, and Yerevan, Armenia, two destinations that allow Russians to enter without a visa.
At the foreign level, despite the significant political support Putin received at the Shanghai summit last week, the conference highlighted Chinese and, to a greater extent, Indian dissatisfaction with the Russian war in Ukraine because of its dire impact on the economy and global energy prices. On the other hand, winter is approaching, and Europe has not been able to tap alternative energy sources capable of fully replacing Russian natural gas supplies. These are all indicators that Brussels may accept new negotiations with Russia.
The French president expressed this attitude in his speech before the UN General Assembly, when he said: "All that the European countries seek today is peace, even if there is a price for it. Some leaders in Europe would be willing to pay this price." By this he meant that Chinese-Indian pressure on Moscow, on one hand, and European-US pressure on Kiev, on the other hand, may eventually push the two parties to accept a cease-fire agreement, paving the way for a new round of Russian-Ukrainian negotiations.
Despite the incentives for this scenario, it still faces numerous problems, including the American reaction to the Russian mobilization announcement, the ongoing mutual escalation, and Washington’s continued policy of maximum pressure and isolation of Moscow, especially after Ukraine’s recent military gains.
2. Establishing new geographic lines of military engagement: According to this scenario, President Putin may seek to confirm through his mobilization announcement that the war is entering a new phase and to establish new geographic lines of military engagement focused on certain areas inside Ukraine, especially those with affiliated separatist forces.
This scenario took root when four Ukrainian areas loyal to Russia—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia—announced a referendum from September 23-27, with the goal of joining Russia. President Putin seems to support this referendum, seeing it as a tool to assert Russian gains in the war. Russia’s focus on certain geographic regions serves Moscow’s interests in several ways. First, it allows Putin to promote his gains in the war and avoid domestic criticism. Second, it gives Russian forces a greater opportunity to narrow the space for military confrontations rather than engaging in operations across Ukraine that will eventually end in the depletion of Russian forces.
Third, this approach gives Moscow bargaining chips and pressure points in any future negotiations. Moreover, the goal of total control over Ukraine is no longer realistic at the moment, given American’s continued support for Ukraine.
3. Threatening to use nuclear weapons: Some political analysts believe that President Putin hinted at the possibility of nuclear weapons as a tool to pressure and deter the Western countries and cause divisions in Europe over its commitment and desire to continue providing weapons to the Ukrainian government. However, others think that Putin may resort to the tactical use of nuclear weapons to halt the progress of Ukrainian forces, not to mention the possibility of using these dangerous weapons to strike NATO positions and supply lines to Ukrainian forces, whether these lines are inside Ukraine or in neighboring countries that are playing an important role in ensuring Kiev is supplied with all the advanced Western military equipment that has been a major factor in the Ukrainian army’s battlefield advances.
Although this scenario is possible, it remains unlikely, at least in the short term, according to the current data, because the results of Moscow’s use of nuclear weapons would not be guaranteed and could lead to brinksmanship and a direct confrontation between the West and Russia. If it uses nuclear weapons, Moscow may lose some international allies or even the neutral parties that have so far refused to comply with the West’s policy toward Moscow.
4. Expanding Russia’s scorched earth strategy: Nuclear weapons may not be a military option for Russia in the near future, but Moscow will certainly not exhaust its store of other military options, especially since it flatly refuses to accept a scenario that would restore the pre-military operation status quo. Hence, it can be said that the scorched earth strategy remains Russia’s first military option at this stage of the war. Indeed, several internal Ukrainian reports have begun to highlight Russian targeting of infrastructure, such as transportation networks and water and electricity lines, not to mention the targeting of government institutions and civilian buildings. This main objective of this strategy is to cut off supply lines to branches of the Ukrainian army engaged in direct confrontations with Russian forces, as well as to surround major cities and force the local resistance to deal with scarce supplies of energy and food, whose importance increases with the approach of winter.
In addition, Russia is expected to rely more on cyber attacks against both Ukraine and its European backers, especially since Moscow has a great deal of expertise and broad capabilities in this field, which it has not used extensively up to this point in the war.
5. Sudden change in the course of the war: This is a "black swan" scenario based on an unexpected change in the course of the war, such as the Ukrainian president’s absence from the scene or his assassination, or the overthrow of President Putin amid growing popular resentment toward the military operation and anger at the partial military mobilization, or the success of the "winter strategy" that Putin is betting will undermine Western military support for Kiev and allow Moscow to expand its military operation.
In conclusion, negotiations likely represent a good strategic option for the Russian president. On one hand, Putin could impose several political options on Ukraine that would enable him to avoid returning to square one, i.e., prior to Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. On the other hand, negotiations would present an opportunity to escape international accountability and prosecution on charges that Russian forces have committed many war crimes against Ukrainian civilians—not to mention the possibility of allowing Russia to annex parts of eastern Ukraine to its empire. However, the success of mediation depends largely on the amount of pressure brought to bear on the Zelensky regime and the degree of Chinese cooperation with the Western camp.