The Russian president Vladimir Putin’s speech this morning, announcing partial mobilisation and warning of possible retaliation for western actions against Russia, will renew fears of reckless nuclear blackmail. But overall, it should be seen as more reassuring than troubling.
The good news here is that Putin’s announcement of emergency measures shows he recognises Russia is losing in its war of imperial expansion. The less good news is that if he believes even a tiny fraction of the lies and fantasies he reeled off during the speech, his grip on reality is even shakier than we previously suspected.
Russia says it plans to mobilise an additional 300,000 soldiers. That raises the question of whether Putin is fully aware that his army is already unable to train and equip the much smaller numbers of reinforcements it has received to date. Coming as Russia’s parliament passes laws for severe prison sentences for those evading military service, the new measures seem likely to set up a comical game of musical chairs: thrown into prison for not going to war, Russian prisoners can then be recruited to go and fight with the promise of their sentence being annulled.
In fact, few of Putin’s contradictory storylines stand up to even a moment’s critical thought: we are winning in Ukraine – but the forces of the west aligned against us are so powerful that now we need to dig deeper to stay in the fight; our proxy regimes in Ukraine need to hold referendums to join us – but we already know they all want to join; we’re protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia itself – but to do this requires incorporating part of another country; our war aim has always simply been to “liberate” Donbas – but to do that we’ve also taken so much of Ukraine that we have a 1,000km frontline.
For long-term Russia watchers, the most striking aspect of Putin’s speech was how little his claims about Ukraine and the world had moved on since his last major speech at the launch of his invasion in February. The central myth that the west wants to destroy Russia has now been embellished with the notion that the country has been threatened with western weapons of mass destruction. But otherwise, it was as though the collision with reality Russia’s military has experienced over the past six months had had no impact at all on Putin’s outlook.
The speech was primarily for a domestic audience, one that is preconditioned to accept, or at least tolerate, the looking-glass version of the world that Putin presents. But it also contained the familiar nudge and wink nuclear half-threats, designed to give western leaders the excuse they may be looking for to slacken support for Ukraine. Even here, though, there was an edge of desperation. “It’s not a bluff,” said Putin – a recognition that all his previous threats against the west, nuclear and non-nuclear, have been shown to be hollow as successive Russian “red lines” have evaporated in the face of western determination.
The speech is a further recognition that Russia has been unable to win on the battlefield – so, to defeat Ukraine, it has to win elsewhere. That win, Putin hopes, will come through undermining Ukraine’s international support. It’s a dare to the west and a play for the fearful among western leaders – especially those who read Russian nuclear intent from Moscow’s propaganda rather than from its doctrine, which lays out a far more limited set of circumstances where nuclear weapons can be used or even be useful.
The hastily planned referendums in the occupied territories are another sign of Russia scrambling to find ways of dissuading Ukraine’s supporters from helping it liberate its people. Being able to claim that the occupied territories of Ukraine are now part of Russia will allow Moscow to frame any attempt by Ukraine to free its citizens from Russia’s savage occupation as an attack on Russia itself.
The outcome of the referendums is, of course, in no doubt. The “correct” figures will be ensured by adding in absentee voting from within Russia itself – and it is very likely that, just as with the same exercise in Crimea in 2014, the choices presented on the ballot paper will, in reality, be no choice at all.
The reaction in Russia itself has been fearful, and rightly so. A tumble in the stock market has been accompanied by a spike in air fares and searches for how to leave Russia, as the implications of increased mobilisation hit home. And Putin’s speech is also likely to further erode support for Russia in the rest of the world. Last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit saw both implicit and explicit rebukes to Putin over the war. Even President Erdoğan of Turkey has told Putin that the occupied territories must be returned to Ukraine. This process can only accelerate as more countries recognise the fever dream that has led the Russian leader on his doomed crusade to restore the empire.
The answer for the west is clear: to keep up the pressure by supporting Ukraine so Russia continues to lose, while keeping a wary eye on Moscow’s real nuclear posture, not the rhetorical frothing on television.
Keir Giles works with the Russia and Eurasia programme of Chatham House; he is the author of Russia’s War on Everybody