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All The World's A Stage: What To Watch For In Putin's Big Speech

Honor guards open the doors for Russian President Vladimir Putin followed by Crimean leaders entering the hall for the signing ceremony of a treaty for Crimea to join Russia in the Kremlin in March 2014.
Honor guards open the doors for Russian President Vladimir Putin followed by Crimean leaders entering the hall for the signing ceremony of a treaty for Crimea to join Russia in the Kremlin in March 2014.

The last major speech that Vladimir Putin delivered live came in the early hours of February 24, when the Russian president announced he was ordering tens of thousands of troops to invade Ukraine in what has become the biggest war in Europe since World War II -- and the biggest test for Putin in his 23 years in power.

His next speech, scheduled for September 30, comes at one of the most critical junctures in Putin's four terms as president.

The planned address, announced just one day in advance, dovetails with legislation moving at lightning speed through parliament aimed at annexing four regions of Ukraine that are partially occupied by Russian forces.

Putin will deliver a "voluminous speech" at a ceremony in the regal St. George's Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. The ceremony will feature the Russian-installed administrators in the Ukrainian regions signing agreements to make them, in Moscow's eyes, part of Russia.

The annexation efforts, based on referendums denounced by Kyiv and the West as a sham, will signal that the Kremlin is doubling down on the war against Ukraine even as battlefield setbacks have showcased major institutional problems with Russia's armed forces.

Putin's planned address also comes nine days after he used a prerecorded speech to announce the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of men to fight in Ukraine. The order has roiled Russian society in a way not seen in a generation, setting off protests in a growing number of regions and sparking an exodus of Russians fleeing the prospect of being sent to wage a war that is going badly for the Kremlin.

As many as 260,000 Russians have fled the country since Putin announced the mobilization on September 21, according to Russian news reports.

Putin "found himself in a situation from which there is no good exit, so it's really not possible to guess what he is going to [say]" in his speech, said Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin and political consultant who now lives outside of Russia.

"Maybe he will [say]...that the aims of our operation are achieved, and we suggest to the other side to stop [the] war," he said in a message to RFE/RL. "And If they continue, we will use nuclear weapons."

Here's what you need to be watching for in Putin's speech.

Annexation Breakdown

As early as May, less than three months after the invasion, Russia's puppet administration in the southern Kherson region announced it intended to seek annexation and unite with Russia.

At the time, the war was already in its second phase, as Ukrainian forces thwarted a Russian attempt to seize the capital, Kyiv, and Russian commanders withdrew and shifted troops to the east for an offensive in the Donbas.

Much of Kherson and part of the neighboring Zaporizhzhya region, meanwhile, had been seized and occupied by Russian troops. Over the summer, Russian government officials traveled repeatedly to the regions, signaling that they intended to conduct a referendum vote, as early as September.

Ukraine, however, interfered. Bolstered with high-powered Western rockets and artillery, commanders began targeting Russian forces on the west bank of the Dnieper River, and Russia shifted a sizable number of units from the Donbas to the south, in preparation for a Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Russian officials then announced that the referendums that had been expected to be held in Kherson and Zaporizhzhya would be postponed -- until last week, when the authorities suddenly announced the votes would go forward in those two regions plus the two main Donbas regions, Luhansk and Donetsk.

The effort by Russian authorities to claim sovereignty over the four regions under highly dubious circumstances mirrors the seizure of Crimea. In March 2014, Russia sent unidentified soldiers to the Ukrainian peninsula, armed men took over regional administration officials, and independent media outlets were shut down. Authorities later held a vote that was dismissed by most countries around the world, and the Kremlin now considers Crimea part of Russia.

In this case, the process is even more tendentious: Among other things, the so-called referendums were held amid fierce fighting, and Russian forces control only one of the four regions, Luhansk, in anything close to its entirety.

When Putin speaks, listen closely to how he describes the war -- which Moscow still officially calls a "special military operation" -- and for the unlikely possibility that he signals how badly it is going for Russian forces.

Mobilization Machinations

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Putin's mobilization order called for bringing up to 300,000 men to join the fight in Ukraine; at least two Russian-language media outlets -- Novaya Gazeta and Meduza -- have reported that authorities in fact are seeking to draft around 1 million or more.

Either way, it's a mobilization of military personnel on a scale that Russia hasn't tried since World War II -- or even since 1904, when the imperial army launched a partial mobilization as Russia fought and lost a war with Japan.

Judging by the flood of news reports, social media posts, and interviews -- and the flood of Russian men trying to leave the country -- the effort has been chaotic and haphazard. It has also been met with increasing resistance in some places, like Daghestan in the North Caucasus, and in Yakutsk in the Far East.

Nearly two dozen recruitment stations across Russia have been firebombed; one recruitment officer was shot and wounded at a station in Irkutsk. And videos and photographs have flooded Telegram, the Russian social network VK, and other places, showing fistfights among new conscripts, substandard housing, a lack of equipment, and other examples of disorganization.

One video that circulated widely on September 27 showed a military logistics officer yelling at new conscripts and telling them they'd have to supply their own equipment like sleeping bags and tourniquets.

The chaotic nature of the call-up has prompted some criticism from prominent public figures, like acerbic pro-Kremlin TV host Vladimir Solovyov, who blamed local recruiting officials.

"The sudden mobilization announcement and its rocky execution reflect the poor state of affairs within Putin's war machine," said Kevin Ryan, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general who is now a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School.

"But they also demonstrate the speed and extent to which the leadership is adjusting that machine to correct problems," he said in an e-mail. "The result of the mobilization decree, and laws passed by the Duma a few days before, is that the unsustainable loss of troops from the ranks has stopped and is being reversed. Whether this can be accompanied by a similar fix of materiel shortages and fighting ability remains to be seen."

Speaking to reporters on September 26, Kremlin spokesman Peskov said that "all the errors will be corrected" in the mobilization process.

The large numbers of Russians leaving the country has drawn attention, and criticism, from government figures as well. Ella Pamfilova, a former human rights activist who is now the head of the Central Election Commission, likened those leaving to "rats."

"Let the rats who are running run. The ship will be ours," she told a meeting of election officials on September 26. The ship is "gaining strength and clearly moving towards its target."

Watch to see if Putin will order the closure of the country's borders, in an effort to stem the outflux of working-age and military-age Russians. The speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, signaled this week that this was under consideration.

Nuclear Bluff?

In his speech announcing the mobilization, Putin also claimed without evidence that Western countries had made nuclear threats against Russia -- and he issued a clear threat of his own.

"I would like to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction," he said. "And in the event of threats to the territorial integrity of our country, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff."

This isn't the first time Putin or other Russian officials have banged the nuclear drum. In fact, Putin has repeatedly threatened to potentially use nuclear weapons in certain circumstances since Crimea's annexation.

Still, by punctuating his comment with the statement "this is not a bluff," for many observers served as a reminder that Putin's past threats were largely seen as hollow.

"The idea was probably to reinforce the message" of Russia's nuclear might, said Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russia's strategic armed forces who works at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, "but it is difficult to know if it worked."

Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and prime minister who has become a bellicose public commentator, later echoed the threats, reiterating how Russia's nuclear doctrine justifies use of the weapons: if the existence of the Russian state is under threat.

Pentagon officials last week said the United States had not seen any Russian moves that would trigger a change in U.S. nuclear posture.

Still, military experts point out that while U.S. intelligence would likely be able to detect a movement of, say, an intercontinental ballistic missile from its silo, it would be harder to detect preparations for a "tactical" nuclear weapon, which are intended for small-scale battlefield use.

Watch to see if Putin repeats the nuclear threats, escalates his rhetoric, or -- worse yet -- orders some sort of visible deployment of nuclear forces.

Economic Fallout

The West has pummeled Russia with unprecedented sanctions since the February 24 invasion, freezing bank accounts and assets of Kremlin insiders, imposing export restrictions, curtailing Russian energy exports, and other measures.

To date, however, Russia's economy has held up surprisingly well. Forecasts by both Russian and Western experts say the economy may slide between 4 and 4.7 percent this year, well above the 10 to 12 percent decline that had been predicted earlier in the spring.

Credit for that success has gone largely to the head of the Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, and conservative fiscal planning that had given Russia one of the largest sovereign rainy-day funds in the world.

Unemployment has hovered at around 4 percent, though economists say that strong number is due to oddities of Russian employment practices, where employers don't lay off employees, but merely cut their working hours, or wages, drastically.

But the sanctions are now rippling through the economy more deeply, and more widely, particularly as European countries slow purchases of Russian oil and gas, as well as coal. The government's budget surplus has shriveled, as oil and gas revenues have declined.

And Russia's workforce is about to decline noticeably. Tens, possibly, hundreds of thousands of working-age men are being mobilized to fight in Ukraine. And hundreds of thousands of Russian men and women have fled the country.

In his September 21 speech, Putin said he had also ordered state defense manufacturers to increase production of weaponry and equipment for the newly mobilized troops. That will provide a jolt of investment to ramp up production, though it's unclear what the multiplier effect of that will be.

More broadly, the Kremlin is looking to markedly increase defense and security spending over the next two years, according to a three-year fiscal plan seen by Bloomberg.

In the speech, listen to see if Putin tries to prep Russians for more austerity and economic hardship in the coming months, to try and gird the population for a further decline in living standards.

Political Future

Until he ordered the invasion of Ukraine, one of the biggest clouds hanging over the Kremlin, and all of Russia, was Putin's political future.

Two years ago, the Kremlin orchestrated a substantive rewrite of Russia's constitution, pushing through amendments that gave Putin the possibility of staying on far beyond the end of his current six-year term, which ends in 2024.

Last year's Duma elections cemented the ruling party's dominance of the legislature, giving the Kremlin legislative cover to push through further legal changes.

But Putin, who turns 70 on October 7, has stayed mum on his intentions.

His popularity has slipped from highs recorded a few years ago, according to tracking polls by the Levada Center, one of the few remaining reliable pollsters in Russia. But he remains popular and peerless and other would-be contenders for the presidency -- Medvedev, Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, top presidential aide Sergei Kiriyenko, to name a few -- have nowhere near the same approval ratings.

The war has scrambled that calculus. And Putin's silence has kept would-be contenders guessing.

It's unlikely that he will use the September 30 speech to signal his political intentions.

Watch, however, how he frames the annexation of the Ukrainian regions and the move toward a deeper war footing, as well as how he frames his role in leading Russians into a war that has upended their lives and Russia's entire post-Soviet existence.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.