One week ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his first formal address to the nation since his February announcement of the “special military operation” in Ukraine. In this week’s edition of the Global Grid, members of the Grid global team look at how Putin’s Sept. 21 address to his nation has — in one week — changed the landscape of the war.
The main points of Putin’s address were his formal announcement of referendums in four areas of eastern and southern Ukraine, the order for what the Kremlin called a “partial mobilization” of 300,000 Russian reservists, and the thinly veiled threat to resort to his nuclear arsenal, a warning that Putin gave at the end of his remarks.
“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction,” Putin said, “and some components are more modern than those of the NATO countries.” He added that he was “not bluffing.”
One week later, those remarks and the referendums have been denounced not only by the U.S. and Western European governments, but also by many countries who had previously hewed closer to the Russian position. Meanwhile, the mobilization orders have sparked fury in many parts of Russia, and even calls to secede from the Russian Federation in some republics. The orders have also resulted in an exodus: More than 250,000 Russians have left the country since Putin gave his speech.
Grid Global Editor Tom Nagorski and Global Security Reporter Joshua Keating took up these and other questions raised by Putin’s remarks and their impact — including several questions sent by readers of Grid.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Nagorski: Josh, let’s start where the response has been most dramatic — the mobilization order. Give us a sense of what Vladimir Putin was trying to do. He had resisted a mass mobilization, which many had thought he needed to do to turn the tide of the war.
How can you explain the thinking and the strategy behind it?
Josh Keating: One question is just how “partial” this mobilization really is. The official order calls it 300,000 troops. There’s some reporting that there’s a redacted annex to this order that allows them to call up to a million people, a sign that it’s not so partial. And as you mentioned, there have been calls for the bigger mobilization for quite a long time.
Of course, Putin has refrained from even calling this a war. He’s used the phrase “special military operation,” and he’s tried to minimize the effect that this war is having on Russian society as a whole by not sending conscripts in large numbers into Ukraine.
And he’s mostly done that so far. But there’s been growing pressure as events have turned against Russia. The battlefield losses have led to calls to get Russian society more actively involved in this, and while the pressure from opponents of the war may not have been something he was so worried about — there were protests early on, but they didn’t have much of an impact — there was sort of a growing pressure from the right, from nationalists within the government, from the military blogger community that’s become very influential, from the Wagner group, which is private military contractors.
Putin was facing pressure to stop the bleeding, in a way, to take steps that would reverse some of these losses the Russian forces have been facing on the battlefield.
TN: When we look at the protests and all the people trying to leave Russia, it seems safe to say the Kremlin was not prepared for what would happened after Putin’s announcement. We have two questions about the exodus: How many Russians have actually left? And do they encounter any challenges from border guards?
I’ll address these. There are now north of 250,000 Russians who have left. Those are statistics coming from the countries that they have traveled to — Georgia, Kazakhstan and Finland have the highest figures. It’s a staggering number. Even if only half that figure are military-eligible, you’re talking about a third and maybe more than that of the 300,000 figure that Putin was looking for in the first place.
And to the second question, you have to think the Kremlin knew there would be people who would try to evade the order. One would have thought people would have been stopped and kept from leaving. They have not been, at least not yet. There are reports now of a beefing-up of the security presence along those frontiers. And reports that some people who are sitting in their cars along the border with Georgia in the south have been served their papers while they sit there waiting to leave.
Josh, from a practical military standpoint, what does this exodus mean for Russia right now?
JK: There are still large numbers of people getting called up, but there are other issues with this mobilization. There are reports coming out now that some of these conscripts are being sent to Ukraine immediately, with only a day or two of training. That indicates these are not going to be the most effective fighting forces being sent into combat. Presumably, a larger number are getting some training, and the numbers coming into Ukraine are going to increase in the coming months.
I’d say that for the time being, this is probably not a force that’s going to allow Russia to make major advancements in territory. The goal seems to be to hold the line, to beef up Russia’s ability to hold the territory it currently controls, not have any more massive Ukrainian counteroffensives like the one we saw around Kharkiv a few weeks ago. To hold things steady through the winter.
The Russian theory of victory still seems to be that sooner or later, Western support for Ukraine will go wobbly as the energy crisis starts to bite, as costs mount, as countries deplete their stocks of weapons and ammunition that they’ll send to Ukraine. Putin probably still thinks that there’s a certain point that Western countries will tire of this fight, so the idea is to not lose any more territory before that happens, and maybe in a few months, these numbers will start to matter. He’ll start to bolster the forces and actually allow the Russians to start to fight back.
There’s a quote that I’ve seen a few analysts cite in the last few days that’s attributed to Joseph Stalin, who said [about troops] that “quantity has a quality of its own.” So that may give some idea here that at a certain point, it really is a numbers game.
TN: You were talking about support going wobbly, and that being a Kremlin hope for the West. Let’s talk about support going “a little wobbly” inside the Russian Federation itself.
We’ve had several questions about the protests. It’s worth noting, as one of our contributing writers, Stanislav Kucher, pointed out in a piece for Grid this week, that the anger and panic that the mobilization has catalyzed seems to be particularly profound in the far reaches of the Russian Federation. There are 21 republics in Russia, areas where ethnic Russians are a minority. They already felt that their populations had been serving and dying at higher rates. The Republic of Dagestan has been the most extreme example of that, where the majority of the population is Muslim. Now in Dagestan there have not only been demonstrations against the mobilization and the constrictions, but also calls for secession from Russia.
Josh, one reader asks, When was the last time Russia did a troop call-up like this? And was it met with resistance?
JK: It’s an interesting question. There hasn’t been a call-up like this in the post-Soviet era. Mobilization as a concept was a big part of the military doctrine in the Soviet era, units intentionally kept at skeleton strength with the understanding that in the event of a major crisis, they would bulk up with mobilized troops.
In the post-Soviet era, there have been efforts to reform the armed forces, but Russia in recent years has not really been built to fight protracted superpower land wars. The idea has been to fight smaller wars, like the intervention in Syria. There was a CSIS study a few years ago which estimated Russian reserves were about 900,000 recent veterans, and of those, about 4,000 to 5,000 were actually combat-ready. So compare that number to the 300,000 they’re looking for, and you get some idea of the kind of shortfalls.
In terms of the post-Soviet experience, it’s also important to remember the Chechen wars in the 1990s, in which conscripts were sent. It wasn’t a massive mobilization, but Russia does have a conscript army and those conscripts were being sent into combat in Chechnya and dying in very large numbers. This actually did provoke a lot of protests and a lot of public anger in Russia, and a lot of backlash. Vladimir Putin, whose rise to political power came directly as a result of these Chechen wars, probably internalized the lessons of that, and that was one reason why he was probably so reluctant to send conscripts into the fighting until now.
TN: Let’s go to the referendums in Ukraine. Russia now says they’re complete. Give us the latest on what’s happened.
JK: The so-called referendums have been held. Not surprisingly, the numbers coming out show overwhelming support for Russian annexation. People voting clearly didn’t have much of another option. People who declined to vote or voted “no” are taken note of by the authorities. So the numbers for approving annexation were, again, not surprisingly in the high 90s in Donetsk and Luhansk, which were already partially under Russian control, and in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, which are parts of Ukraine that Russia has partly taken over since the war began.
The important thing to remember is Russia now is going to claim, and to annex, all of these territories despite the fact that many are not actually under Russian control, including the city of Zaporizhzhia, the capital of that region.
The event to watch in the next couple of days: Vladimir Putin is set to address both houses of the Russian parliament on Sept. 30. The widespread thinking is he’s probably going to use that speech to officially announce this annexation.
TN: Let’s talk about attitudes and support for the Kremlin outside of Russia. Putin and his aides for months have noted the approval they’ve had from other corners of the world, far from the U.S. and Western Europe. I don’t see a whiff of support for what Putin is doing in terms of the referendums, and now the annexations.
JK: If we go back to 2014 with Crimea, that [Russian] annexation was only recognized by a handful of countries. Some of them were close Russian allies like Syria, some were small island countries in the Pacific that were doing it in exchange for economic concessions from Russia. I wouldn’t expect to see any kind of groundswell of support now. Countries like Kazakhstan, which were thought of as close Russian allies, have now come out and said that they won’t recognize the annexation. I would be surprised to see China come out and officially recognize it. This is probably going to come up for a vote in the U.N. General Assembly, and people are going to keep an eye out. Will Venezuela vote with Russia or will it abstain? Which countries will do what? But the bottom line is, I wouldn’t expect many countries to stand behind this.
TN: You raise a really interesting geopolitical question. What happens if leader X goes into country Y, says “that’s my territory now,” and no one in the rest of the world agrees? Does it matter in any practical way?
JK: These places are still going to be battlefields. It matters politically in Russia when there are some restrictions on where and how conscripts can be used outside of Russia’s borders. So if Russia annexes these territories, all of a sudden that’s, according to Russian law, within Russian borders, so that a lot of those restrictions go away.
It also means that the populations of these new territories can themselves be conscripted. Since the beginning of this war, Russia has been using irregular troops from Donetsk and Luhansk, and it’s probably going to try to conscript more men from these areas, which will add to its morale problems. But then again, the point here is just getting more bodies out on the front line.
And then there’s the question of the nuclear threats. Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and now chairman of Putin’s national Security Council, laid out his logic that Russian nuclear doctrine says that if there’s a threat to Russian territory, that that allows for the use of extreme measures. So now, all of a sudden, according to Russian law, these annexations will mean that fighting is taking place not in another country, but in Russia itself. So I’m not saying that that’s inevitably going to lead to nuclear use, but that the menu of options that Russia can use is going to increase.
TN: Let’s turn to that nuclear threat. First of all, have we seen any upgrade in terms of activity or alert levels in terms of the Russian nuclear arsenal itself?
JK: The answer is no. According to U.S. officials, there are no signs that Russian nuclear weapons are being moved or prepared for use in that respect. Beyond the rather alarming rhetoric coming out of Moscow, there’s no sign that the nuclear alert level has actually gone up.
TN: It seems that the United States has been most forceful in terms of the global response to the nuclear threat. Talk a bit about the parade of top officials who spoke about this publicly over the last few days.
JK: All the quotes are along the lines that any nuclear use would be unacceptable. They don’t really say what the response would be if it happened. And that makes sense — you want to leave some options. There’s long been the thought that any first use of nuclear weapons in a war like this would probably lead to a nuclear response. That was the conventional wisdom during the Cold War. I think that’s changed somewhat, dating back even to the Obama era. The nuclear doctrine has shifted a little bit.
The idea is, if Russia used nuclear weapons in Ukraine, it would probably lead to an increased conventional response from the NATO countries backing Ukraine. It’s interesting. This would be a massive change in the nature of warfare, it would a major event in world history if nuclear weapons were used here, but I don’t think we should be immediately assuming that it would lead to a nuclear exchange. Which is of course a truly terrifying prospect to contemplate.
TN: How does any of this change what you’re looking at in the weeks and months ahead? What should we all be looking at, and worried about, given the events of the past week?
JK: This mobilization is a sign that Vladimir Putin is preparing for a long war. Despite all the well-documented problems we’ve seen, they still have means to keep this fight going for a while. They are preparing to stick it out. I don’t see any signs that there’s a settlement on the table. I’m not sure there’s anything that would be acceptable to Ukraine at this point, short of full withdrawal of Russian troops from their country.
Putin is in it for the long haul. And I’m not sure how this ends in Russian defeat with Putin still in power. Russian propaganda paints this as an existential fight for Russia. That’s highly misleading, but for Putin himself, this may very well be a fight for his political, if not actual, life. I wouldn’t expect him to leave options on the table.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.