Ilya Pitalev / Sputnik / AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already made a big bet on Ukraine.
He sent troops to attack the capital Kyiv in the first days of the war, only for them to retreat a month later. He said the West and other countries would not act in such a swift and coordinated manner to isolate Russia.
Despite this track record, Putin’s latest gamble may be his biggest gamble to date. In the face of setbacks on the battlefield, Russian leaders have doubled down. Russia will Raising 300,000 additional troops – a larger number than the original invasion force – and Moscow is also prepared to occupy Ukrainian territory under its control.
To carry out his intentions, Putin made his announcement on Russian national television on Wednesday, speaking hours before President Biden and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the United Nations.
“Washington, London and Brussels are openly urging Kyiv to bring the fight to Russian territory and defeat Moscow by any means possible,” Putin said in a speech.
Putin’s move addressed growing criticism from pro-war Russian nationalists at home, who say Russia is in danger of losing because it has not unleashed its full fighting power.
Yet Putin called it “partial mobilization” and continued to call the conflict a “special military operation”. It points to the Russians who have doubts about a military adventure in Ukraine.
Biden slams Putin in his UN speech
Putin’s moves need time to play out on the battlefield.
But Russian leaders are already facing a new wave of international criticism led by President Biden. In His remarks at the United Nations, Biden described the conflict in Ukraine as a “one man-chosen war”. He added that Russia is “trying to destroy Ukraine’s right to exist” and is committing a large number of war crimes.
The US president also said that Putin was “openly making nuclear threats against Europe”. This was a reference to Putin’s remarks that Russia has “various means of destruction”. Putin has already issued an indirect nuclear warning. Now, he says, “it’s not a hoax.”
“A crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand punishment,” Zelensky said in his remarks.
“Ukraine wants peace, Europe wants peace, the world wants peace and we’ve seen who wants war,” Zelensky said. “There is only one unit of all the member states of the United Nations, which will now say, if it can interrupt my speech, it is happy 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 story, which has focused on Ukraine’s military progress in recent weeks.
A ballot that could lead to a merger
Putin’s military announcement had other risks as well.
The Russian leader expressed his support for a choreographed referendum in four partially occupied territories in eastern and southern Ukraine to formally join the Russian Federation.
Putin’s support comes just a day after Russia-backed separatist leaders in Ukraine announced that they would vote for five days Which will start on Friday.
In recent months, Moscow worked to lay the groundwork for the eventual merger. Key Kremlin advisers were sent through proxy governments to oversee integration efforts. But as the fighting intensified, the voting was postponed.
Even now, Russia and its separatist allies in Ukraine have not publicly addressed any obvious questions. For example, how is it possible to cast a credible ballot in the middle of a war zone, where most of the population has fled and daily life is turned upside down?
Ukraine and its supporters have dismissed the entire exercise as a sham, and Western countries have already made it clear that it is unlikely to gain international approval.
Ukraine says that Russia is holding these referendums so that it can formally declare the land as Russian territory – and then argues that it is Ukraine that is invading Russian land.
“This is a cynical attempt to respond to what is happening on the battlefield,” said Mykhailo Podolik, a top adviser to Zelensky. NPR, “It has no legal basis. You can’t have a referendum on a place that is currently under military occupation. It’s to divert attention from Ukraine’s effective counter-attack.”
Russia’s recruitment could be a gradual mobilization
From Russia’s point of view, the referendum and annexation could have been carried out quickly, while the mobilization of additional troops was an even greater challenge.
Almost immediately, Putin’s announcement sparked a debate about who and how many would eventually be called to serve.
Alexander Banov, a senior Russian fellow at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, says Putin has essentially written an open ticket for his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu.
“Shoigu is saying it needs 300,000 people. Then it could be 100,000 and then another 100,000. So it’s not a ‘partial mobilization’, it’s a gradual mobilization,” Bounov said.
The move sparked protests in dozens of cities across Russia, mainly as young Russians defied government warnings of criminal penalties.
As of Wednesday night, police had made more than 1,300 arrests nationwide, including at least 500 in Moscow.
Meanwhile, Russia’s parliament on Wednesday approved laws criminalizing abandonment and voluntary surrender by Russian troops. The punishment can be up to 10 years in prison.
Yet many military analysts in the US predicted that the mobilization effort would not lead to a quick solution to Russia’s military problems.
He noted that many of the best Russian soldiers in the past seven months have not done well in combat with Ukrainians, adding that reservists generally do not have the same level of training or experience.
Furthermore, sending new troops into the war is unlikely to make much difference if Russia cannot solve other chronic military problems in Ukraine, including poor leadership, logistical failures and the loss of large amounts of equipment.
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. follow him @gregmyre1, NPR’s Charles Maines contributed to this report.