Commentary: With shock mobilisation, a desperate Putin has chosen to escalate
Russian President Vladimir Putin has mobilised some civilian reservists to fight his “special military operation” in Ukraine. It is an act of desperation that will prolong the war but won’t change its outcome, says Robert E Kelly.
SEOUL: In just a week in September, Ukraine’s lightning counteroffensives have rolled back much of Russia’s summer gains. How Russian President Vladimir Putin would respond has raised concerns.
Negotiate, in hopes of ending the war with at least some of his conquests, or escalate. The choice was made on Wednesday (Sep 21) when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia’s first wartime mobilisation of military reservists since World War II.
Already protests have broken out, and people are fleeing the country. One-way flights out of the country were selling out fast after the announcement, despite prices shooting up.
So far, the fighting has not involved Russian society much. Putin has variously relied on professional soldiers, non-Russian fighters, mercenaries and even pardoned criminals. All this insulated the Russian public from the costs of the war to prevent domestic discontent.
Now, the war will increasingly involve the core Russian population which has hitherto accepted political quiescence under Putin’s rule, as more fathers, husbands and sons of fighting age are thrust closer to the battlefield.
NEW RESERVES WON'T CHANGE OUTCOME OF UKRAINE WAR
But first, about 300,000 reservists must be trained, equipped, and moved to the front.
This is a large logistical operation and Russia has struggled throughout this war with logistical efficiency. It is doubtful they will be ready before winter hits and the war bogs down in the cold.
Putin was widely expected to give this speech on May 9, the anniversary of victory in World War II, but he chose not to, likely for fear of the domestic ramifications. That delay was a costly mistake.
Ukraine has a clear window to advance further before these new units arrive and the cold sets in. Another Ukrainian offensive will likely come soon, in an effort to take back as much territory as possible before a renewed stalemate. The front line between the two sides will likely shrink further by the time the reservists get there.
But crucially, their arrival probably will not alter the long-term arc of the war - toward a Russian defeat. Even a best-case scenario with these new fighters does not point toward a Russian strategic victory and the end of conflict, but rather toward a longer, harder slog - which Ukraine will still win, albeit after much more bloodshed.
Assume for a moment a highly positive (but very unlikely) outcome for the new Russian troops: They stop the Ukrainian advance, start conquering new swathes of territory and even march on in Kyiv again.
Even if the Russians got this lucky, it does not end the war. There is nothing in opinion polls of the Ukrainian public or in its elite discourse that suggests Ukraine will surrender, even if badly defeated.
If Russia somehow managed to conquer most of the country, the Ukrainians would probably launch an insurgency. In fact, many analysts expected this back in February and March when Russia looked militarily superior.
Just as the Ukrainians have put up a tough resistance for months, an insurgent effort will likely dog the Russian occupier for years, much as the Afghans did against the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s. Eventually, the Soviets tired of that war and went home; the outcome would likely be the same in Ukraine.
ESCALATION COMES WITH MASSIVE COSTS
Escalation brings the war closer to home for the Russian people. Besides encouraging human and capital flight out of the country and sparking domestic protests, it might even turn Kremlin insiders against the war and Putin. It underscores just how badly the invasion has gone awry.
The war has already alienated Russia from much of the world. Punishing Western-led sanctions are cutting Russia off from the world’s most modern economies, crippling it technologically.
Russian carrier Aeroflot has already started stripping down aircraft for spare parts they can no longer buy abroad. Global exports of semiconductor chips to Russia have plummeted. A former high-level finance official told Reuters that Russia could be in for years of decline in technology development.
Putin could turn to China and India, but both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi voiced their concerns about the war when they met recently in Uzbekistan. Russia’s desperation may even mean selling oil and gas at increasingly cutthroat prices.
HOW DOES VLADIMIR PUTIN GET OUT OF THE WAR?
A partial Russian mobilisation may give Moscow a short-term tactical boost – perhaps even a few operational victories - but it does not change the long-term strategic outlook: Russia is looking at a long, unwinnable war of attrition, so long as Ukraine stays tenacious and the West continues to send funds and arms.
What Putin really needs, then, is not more troops to fight a failing conflict, but for the Ukrainians to agree to territorial concessions to stop the war. This was former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s controversial advice over the summer - sharply rejected by the Ukrainian leadership.
Putin will not accept humiliation in front of his people by ending the war with no gains to show for it. So he needs Kyiv to at least recognise his control of Crimea and some of Donbas.
This is unlikely. Kyiv has insisted on completely pushing the Russians out, and Ukrainian public opinion is strongly supportive of that goal. One recent study indicated that Ukrainians would rather preserve political autonomy and restore its territory, even if it means more deaths and a nuclear threat.
All the new Russian reservists will do is prolong the conflict. But there is no strategic shift here. The new units are not likely to perform any better than previous, better-trained and equipped ones.
China will not suddenly support the war more; the West will not suddenly back off. And most importantly, the Ukrainians will not give up.
For now, the war is still Ukraine’s to win, even if it takes longer.
Robert Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University.