Ilya Pitalev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already made big bets on Ukraine.
In the first days of the war, he sent troops to storm the capital, Kiev, only to retreat a month later. He bet that the West and other countries would not act so quickly and in a coordinated manner to isolate Russia.
Despite that record, Putin’s latest gamble may be his biggest yet. Faced with battlefield setbacks, the Russian leader has doubled down. Russia is mobilizing 300,000 additional troops – a number larger than the original invasion force – and Moscow appears poised to annex Ukrainian territory under its control as well.
To drive home his intentions, Putin made his announcement on Russian national television on Wednesday, appearing just hours before President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the United Nations.
“Washington, London and Brussels are openly urging Kiev to bring the fight to Russian territory and defeat Moscow by any means,” Putin said in a speech that portrayed Russia as a country under siege by the “collective West.”
Putin’s move was aimed at growing criticism at home from warmonger Russian nationalists, who say Russia is in danger of being lost because it has not unleashed its full fighting power.
Yet Putin called it a “partial mobilization” and continues to call the conflict a “special military operation.” This appears to be a nod to the Russians, who have reservations about Ukraine’s military adventure.
Biden rebuffs Putin in his UN speech
Putin’s moves need time to play out on the battlefield.
But the Russian leader is already facing a new wave of international criticism, led by President Biden. In his address to the United Nations, Biden described the conflict in Ukraine as “one man’s chosen war.” He said Russia is “trying to erase Ukraine’s right to exist” and is committing a large number of war crimes.
The US president also said that Putin is “openly threatening” Europe with a nuclear threat. This was a reference to Putin’s remark that Russia has “various means of destruction”. Putin has issued covert nuclear warnings in the past. Now he says, “It’s not a bluff.”
In his speech, Zelenskyy said: “A crime has been committed against Ukraine and we demand punishment.”
“Ukraine wants peace, Europe wants peace, the world wants peace, and we have seen who is the only one who wants war,” added Zelenskkyy. “Among all the member states of the United Nations, there is only one entity that would say now, if they could cut me off, that they are satisfied with this war.”
Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images
Other Ukrainian officials say Putin is acting now because he knows he is in trouble and wants to change the narrative that has focused on Ukraine’s military progress in recent weeks.
Ballots that could lead to annexation
Putin’s military announcement also came with other risks.
The Russian leader expressed support for choreographed referendums in four partially occupied regions in eastern and southern Ukraine to formally join the Russian Federation.
Putin’s endorsement came just one day after leaders of Russia-backed Ukrainian separatists announced they would hold a five-day vote starting on Friday.
In recent months, Moscow has been working to lay the groundwork for a possible annexation. Key Kremlin advisers were sent through proxy governments to oversee integration efforts. But as the fighting continued, the vote was postponed.
Even now, Russia and its separatist allies in Ukraine have not publicly addressed any obvious issues. For example, how is it possible to organize a credible vote in the middle of a war zone, where a large part of the population has fled and everyday life has been turned upside down?
Ukraine and its supporters have dismissed the entire exercise as a sham, and the West has already made it clear that there is no way it will be internationally approved.
Ukraine says that Russia is holding these referendums so that it can officially declare these lands as Russian territory and then claim that it is Ukraine that is attacking Russian lands.
“This is a cynical attempt to respond to what is happening on the battlefield,” Zelensky’s top adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told NPR. “There is no legal basis for this. You cannot hold a referendum in a place that is currently under military occupation. This is to distract Ukraine from an effective counterattack.”
Russian military service can be a gradual mobilization
From Russia’s perspective, referendums and annexation could be carried out quickly, while mobilizing additional troops seemed an even greater challenge.
Almost immediately, Putin’s announcement sparked a debate over who and how many would eventually be drafted.
Aleksandr Baunov, senior Russia fellow at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, said Putin has essentially written an open ticket for his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu.
“Shoigu says he needs 300,000 people. Then it could be 100,000 more, and then another 100,000. So it’s not a ‘partial mobilization,’ it’s a gradual mobilization,” Baunov said.
The move sparked protests in dozens of cities across Russia as mostly younger Russians defied government warnings against criminal penalties.
By Wednesday evening, police had made more than 1,300 arrests nationwide, including at least 500 in Moscow.
Meanwhile, Russia’s parliament on Wednesday approved laws criminalizing the desertion and voluntary surrender of Russian troops. The punishment can be up to 10 years in prison.
Yet many US military analysts predicted that mobilization efforts would not provide a quick solution to Russia’s military problems.
They noted that many of Russia’s best soldiers have not fared well in combat with the Ukrainians over the past seven months, adding that reservists generally have not had the same level of training or experience.
Also, sending fresh troops into battle is unlikely to make much of a difference unless Russia can address Ukraine’s other chronic military problems, including poor leadership, logistical breakdowns, and massive equipment losses.
Greg Myre is NPR’s national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1. NPR’s Charles Maynes contributed to this report.