With few good options to save face, President Putin has now decided on the deeply controversial move of partial mobilisation.

It was the rout in Kharkiv that caused Vladimir Putin to panic. In the 29th week of the war, Ukrainian troops won a decisive battle, reclaiming an estimated 3,000 square miles of the north-eastern territory from Russian forces, inflicting a serious blow to Russian morale and convincing their Western allies that Kyiv could defeat Moscow. Such was the speed of retreat as the Russian troops ran for their lives that they left behind huge caches of weapons and ammunition for the Ukrainian troops to use. A joke quickly went viral on the internet that Russia is now the biggest supplier of arms to the Ukrainian forces. During the rout, Ukraine’s military intelligence intercepted phone calls of the Russian 202nd motorised rifle regiment while in retreat from Kharkiv. Left without any communications and commanders, who had fled, they asked relatives in Russia to contact the defence ministry hotline in Moscow to ask for instructions or extraction. Half the regiment was captured.

Evgeny Prigozhin

Russia, of course, claimed that this was a tactical retreat from the area west of the Oskil River, which now forms the new front line, but as evidence of a disorganised retreat, Ukraine’s general staff said that Russian forces were stealing civilian vehicles to escape. It said that about 150 soldiers “departed Borscheva and Artemivka on two buses, one truck and 19 stolen cars” on 11 September. Another Russian unit left Svatove in Luhansk oblast by stealing more than 20 cars from locals. According to Moscow, the “tactical retreat” aimed to prioritise the fight for Donetsk region in the east, but Ukraine’s advance to the Oskil now exposes all that Russia has gained in Luhansk and Donetsk to an attack from the North.
With few good options to save face, President Putin has now decided on the deeply controversial move of partial mobilisation. In a speech given at 9 a.m. Moscow time last Wednesday, Putin told the nation that “the decree has been signed and mobilisation activities will begin today, 21 September. Citizens who are currently in reserve, especially those who have served in the army, will be subject to conscription.” Shortly afterwards, Russia’s minister of defence, Sergei Shoigu, announced that 300,000 reservists will be called up, before again disingenuously claiming that “we are now at war not just with Ukraine but with the collective West too”.
The day before the announcement on conscription, the State Duma, Russia’s Lower House of Parliament, recognised the serious manpower problem by adopting measures to toughen punishments for soldiers who desert or refuse to fight. Deserters, who are away from their posts for more than a month, will face a maximum 10-year sentence, compared with the current maximum five-year term. Soldiers who refuse orders to fight or to deploy could be jailed for up to three years. Voluntary surrender could be punished by up to ten years in prison. Despite this, roads to Georgia, Lithuania and Finland were clogged with cars full of young men trying to avoid conscription. The price of tickets to Turkey also went through the roof as people tried to flee the Motherland. Many believe that it will be impossible to achieve the target of 300,000 unless Putin call a general mobilisation, a move which would seriously endanger his position.
The Kremlin’s dilemma is that its Army has been shattered in Ukraine, its Air Force has shown itself to be timid and ineffective and its Navy has not only lost its Black Sea flagship but also potentially the ability to operate out of its traditional base at Sevastopol. Russia’s stocks of equipment have been shown to be vitiated by corruption and even at their best, inferior to their Western counterparts. Russia’s soldiers have in some cases mutinied or fled the battlefield or refused to go in the first place. In a chilling video which appeared last week Putin’s friend, Evgeny Prigozhin, the boss of the notorious Wagner private army currently being used extensively by the Kremlin in Ukraine, is seen standing in a circle of convicts explaining how he will take on board sex criminals among other reprobates. He admits in the footage that the war is hard, tougher than past Russian wars, but “if you serve six months (in Wagner), you are free”, before warning that “if you arrive in Ukraine and decide that the war is not for you, we will execute you”. The depths to which their once-mighty Army has sunk has shamed many Russians.
While announcing the partial mobilisation, Russia also pushed ahead with plans to annex occupied regions of Ukraine. Moscow’s puppet authorities in the self-declared separatist “republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, together with the occupied regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia in southern Ukraine, announced “referendums” to be held from 23-27 September. These are illegal under international law and have been widely derided in the West as a sham and merely a precursor to annexation. As with all balloting under Putin, the result is widely known before any voting takes place. Russia does not have a firm military grip on any of the regions in question, and the quick staging of votes suggests Putin now aims to accomplish by political fiat what he has failed to do on the battlefield.
The absurdity of the process and the thin veneer of pretence that local officials were in control was illustrated last week when Moscow’s proxy leader in Kherson, Vladimir Saldo, appealed to Russia for help organising the referendum. When asked how he would carry out the referendum in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, the self-appointed leader in the region, said that police and members of his administration’s “electoral commission” would knock on people’s doors and “invite” them to vote, noting their choice for them. Expect a hundred percent vote in favour of joining Russia.
The urgent push towards annexation shows clearly how Moscow’s options are shrinking, following both the setbacks and rising criticism of the war internationally, including a stunning public rebuke of Putin by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Uzbekistan. “Today’s era is not an era of war”, said Modi face to face with Putin, “and I have spoken to you on the phone about this”. Russia has been hit hard by Western sanctions over the war and has been relying on continued trade with India and China, including sales of oil and natural gas, as a lifeline.
An alarming comment following Putin’s speech came in a veiled threat of nuclear escalation from former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of the country’s Security Council. Warning of severe consequences if Ukraine continues to attack the regions after Russia absorbs them, Medvedev said “an invasion into Russian territory is a crime, the execution of which will enable our use of all powers of self-defence”. This is a dangerous new path chosen by Putin. The sham referendums are seen by many as amounting to an unequivocal ultimatum from Russia to Ukraine and the West—either Ukraine retreats or nuclear war. Putin cannot win this war on the battlefield and therefore wants Kyiv to surrender without a fight.
This is the most dangerous moment so far in Russia’s war on Ukraine. Putin will inevitably find himself humiliated and cornered, and may very well look for a way to lash out. When he took to Russian television last Wednesday, Putin wanted to send three clear headline messages. The first is that partial mobilisation and rapid changes to military desertion laws are a sign of intent and a stepping stone to full mobilisation. The second is that Russian annexation of the occupied territories is non-negotiable, and the third is that the threat of nuclear war is credible and serious.
The Russian President has sometimes been called an expert in the strategy of “escalating to de-escalate”—averting conflict by threatening a massive retaliation. But this time he does not seem to want to de-escalate. As Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of state-owned broadcaster RT and vocal lobbyist for the war, said last week: “Judging from what is happening and what is about to happen, this week marks either the threshold of our immediate victory or the threshold of a nuclear war. I can’t see any third option.”
Putin is again flirting with the grim prospect of nuclear Armageddon—this time he might mean it.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.