Accessibility links

Breaking News

Amid Setbacks In Ukraine, Putin Moves Toward Escalation And Raises The Threat Level. Is It A Bluff?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) said his decision for a partial military mobilization was made on the recommendation of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (right) and the General Staff. (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) said his decision for a partial military mobilization was made on the recommendation of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (right) and the General Staff. (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking steps to escalate the invasion of Ukraine and his standoff with Kyiv and the West, including a “partial mobilization” that he announced on September 21, following a stunning military setback in Kharkiv that has sparked nationalist backlash at home and raised the prospect of defeat.

After months of reported delays, the Kremlin-designated leaders of Ukrainian regions that are partially controlled by Russian forces abruptly announced on September 20 that they will hold so-called referendums on joining Russia from September 23-27, even as fighting rages.

The statements came as the Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament quickly passed amendments that stiffened punishments for soldiers who surrender, desert, or refuse to fight during a period of mobilization or martial law. The words “mobilization” and “martial law” were added to the law for the first time.

The next morning, Putin said that a mobilization affecting “only citizens who are currently in the reserve…and primarily those who served in the armed forces [and] have a certain military specialty and relevant experience” would begin immediately.

The moves may be part of a Kremlin plan to start recasting Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine as a war, a word it has essentially banned, and ratchet up threats – including nuclear saber-rattling – amid growing concern over Ukraine’s advances in the east.

Putin swiftly dialed up the nuclear threat in his address aired on September 21, saying that Russia would use all the means at its disposal to protect its territory and adding, “This is not a bluff.”

The votes that Russia is organizing in Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions add an important new twist to that threat. They have been widely condemned abroad as illegal – they are being imposed on a foreign country during a war initiated by the nation that is holding them -- and there are fears that Ukrainians will be forced to support joining Russia.

But Putin, who turns 70 next month, could use the referendums to turn his invasion on its head, claiming that “Russian” territory is now under attack and partly occupied by Ukrainian forces, analysts said.

WATCH: A Ukrainian man said 62 people hid in a basement used as a bomb shelter during World War II. Izyum was captured by Russian forces in March and retaken by the Ukrainian Army in early September.

Izyum's Residents Describe Desperate Life Under Russian Occupation
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:04 0:00

“Foreign troops crossing Russia’s borders – even if the border has just moved – will be used by Putin to justify…moving toward mobilization, targeting Ukrainian sites it had previously avoided, [and] making its nuclear threats less abstract,” Aleksandr Baunov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote on Twitter on September 20, after the referendum announcements but before Putin’s address was aired.

“Moscow hopes that that distinction will make the conflict more legitimate in the eyes of ordinary Russians,” he wrote.

WATCH: In his first address to the nation about Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, President Vladimir Putin announced on September 21 that he had signed a decree ordering a partial mobilization.

Putin Declares Partial Mobilization
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:00:46 0:00

Dara Massicot, a military analyst at the Washington-based think tank RAND Corporation, said the Kremlin is hoping to spark fear in Kyiv and those Western nations whose military support has been critical to Ukraine’s battlefield success.

“They hope annexation shocks the [international] system, and their nuclear threats over ‘Russian territory’ will compel a cease-fire, or slow down support for Ukraine,” Massicot wrote, also on September 20.

The United States and its Western allies have been concerned about provoking Russian military escalation even prior to its invasion, and the pace of military aid to Ukraine has frequently caused consternation in Kyiv.

The Kremlin’s latest moves underscore Putin’s concerns over his hold on power if he loses the war, said Rob Lee, a military analyst.

Also writing before Putin’s address was aired, Lee said Putin faces the question: “What is the bigger risk for him: mobilization, use of tactical nuclear weapons, or losing the Donbas and other occupied areas of Ukraine?”

Putin’s announcement of a “partial mobilization” suggests he is still trying to hedge and to keep his options open – something analysts say he does very often when presented with a dilemma.

Ukrainian Victories

The Kremlin’s latest moves come as Ukrainian forces push ahead with their lightning counteroffensive in the northeast and amid mounting complaints at home over the Russian military’s poor performance.

Ukraine’s military routed Russian forces in the Kharkiv region earlier this month, taking back large swaths of territory and dealing another embarrassing blow to the Russian military following the sinking of the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet and the partial destruction of a major navy air base on Crimea.

WATCH: Ukrainian security services say "people were tortured" by Russian troops at a local police station in the recently liberated city of Kupyansk.

Ukrainian Forces Say Russians 'Tortured People' In Occupied Kupyansk
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:01:59 0:00

The speed of Ukraine’s counteroffensive angered Russian nationalists, who have stepped up their criticism of the Kremlin’s war effort. They have called on Putin to declare a general mobilization, bomb Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, and even deploy nuclear weapons.

Putin launched the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24 under the belief, analysts say, that Russian forces would capture Kyiv within days and install a pro-Moscow government. He staked Russia’s economy on the gambit, knowing Western nations would impose additional sanctions.

By most accounts, he seriously underestimated the capability of the Ukrainian military, the unity of Ukrainians and their determination to maintain independence, and the resolve of the West.

Now, with the war about to enter its eighth month and with Ukraine on the march, Russia is on the verge of relinquishing its minor military gains, which have come at the cost of Western isolation and a steep decline in its economy, potentially undermining Putin’s support at home.

Ukraine’s latest successes reportedly stunned the Kremlin, and analysts said it prompted the sudden moves on September 20-21.

Holding the referendum in days instead of months, as had been expected, is “not a plan, it's a failure of the plan,” R.Politik, an analytical organization headed by Russian expert Tatyana Stanovava, wrote in a tweet on September 20.

Massicot warned that the Kremlin could “lash out,” including launching missile strikes, cyberattacks, or flaunting its nuclear weapons during exercises or movements, if its annexation strategy fails to end the fighting and Western support for Ukraine.

'Massive Political Risks'

Russia’s setbacks on the battlefield are partially due to its limited access to manpower.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu released what he said were casualty figures for the first time since late March on September 21, saying that 5,937 Russian troops have been killed in Ukraine since February 24.

But Western intelligence agencies say that the Russian death toll is far higher than that, estimating that tens of thousands of its soldiers have been killed, wounded, or captured. And there is abundant evidence that the military is struggling to replace them.

At the same time, a growing number of soldiers are refusing to fight amid a combination of what they say is poor leadership and fierce Ukrainian resistance.

The Kremlin has so far refused to call the invasion a “war” – which would allow the military to draft citizens – amid fear of popular backlash.

Instead, the Kremlin has launched a covert campaign to recruit fighters, including offering large financial incentives, extending age limitations, and freeing criminals upon their completion of a tour of duty.

Russian rights activists say hundreds, if not thousands, of troops are balking at orders to deploy, to keep fighting, or to remain on the battlefield without rotating out or home.

The latest amendments are aimed to address that issue.

Lee wrote on September 20 that Putin would face “massive political risks” if he called a general mobilization as there is “no guarantee” it will help Russia’s war effort.

He also wrote that claiming that the Russian-held parts of Ukraine are Russian would enable Moscow to deploy conscripts to the front “legally” – under Russian law, though clearly this would not be recognized as legal abroad -- without calling it a war.

It would also allow Russia to use conscripts from the occupied territories, he wrote – but he added that such moves would not offset Ukraine’s advantages in manpower, morale, leadership, precision weapons, and strategic goals.

“A large number of poorly trained and motivated [Russian] soldiers isn't a huge advantage,” Lee wrote.

  • 16x9 Image

    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.