Vladimir Putin’s decision to mobilize 300,000 military reservists marks a major gamble in the Russian president’s war in Ukraine, which could be reaching a make-or-break stage as he faces rare and intense criticism at home and abroad.
Putin’s announcement comes as the Ukrainian armed forces have succeeded in ousting the Russian military from key areas in the east of the country, while the U.S. and allies have maintained unity in their military and economic support for Kyiv.
The military failures have sparked rare pushback from Russian lawmakers, allies in Chechnya and talking heads on state television, where the Kremlin’s narrative on the war is typically strictly enforced.
Putin’s televised address early Wednesday morning therefore appeared as an effort to silence those critics, railing against Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO for forcing his decision to invade, while also issuing blunt threats to use nuclear weapons.
“When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we, of course, will use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said in his translated remarks.
“This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.”
President Biden on Wednesday reacted to Putin’s remarks during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, saying that the Russian leader’s war “is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple, and Ukraine’s right to exist as a people.”
“Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe, that should not — that should make your blood run cold,” he added.
The White House is taking Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons seriously, if also skeptically.
“It’s irresponsible rhetoric for a nuclear power to talk that way, but it’s not atypical for how he’s [been] talking the last seven months,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “We have to take it seriously. We’re monitoring as best we can their strategic posture, so that if we have to, we can alter ours. We’ve seen no indication that that’s required right now.”
There are early signs that Russian citizens increasingly view the price of Putin’s war in Ukraine as too high.
Civilian flights leaving Russia reportedly jumped in price and sold out quickly following Putin’s address, as Russian citizens already feeling the squeeze of sanctions and visa restrictions faced the grim prospect of potentially being forced to join the fight.
Hundreds of Russians were arrested on Wednesday at anti-war protests across the country.
“I think what Russians are fearing is that they see this as a sign of weakness,” said Evelyn Farkas, the executive director of the McCain Institute at Arizona State University who previously served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Eastern Europe and conventional arms control in the Obama administration.
“They understand the president needs more men in arms. … He’s calling up these additional, basically, non-volunteers, because they’re in a bind. And so the Russian people are thinking to themselves, ‘Well, what’s next? If this doesn’t work, he’s going to call for mass mobilization, and that means me, or my son or my husband.’ So I think they’re booking flights to try to avoid a future mobilization that might include them.”
Regional watchers say the mobilization, and signs that Putin is likely to formally annex occupied Ukrainian territory, is a signal that the Russian leader is doubling down to project a victory in Ukraine, but is risking key political capital that could trigger wider backlash in his own country.
“It is a clear indication from Putin that he knows the war is not going the way he wants it to be,” Rob Lee, a senior fellow with the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Wednesday in a Twitter Space event discussing the latest developments in the war.
“He’s making a very significant risky decision here, probably riskier than almost anything he’s done in his career, other than maybe starting this war.”
The mass number of 300,000, and the steps being taken toward annexation, shows that Putin is “principally now staking the regime on this war,” Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the Virginia-based think-tank CNA, said during the Twitter Space event.
The U.S. and its allies have preemptively rejected Putin’s expected annexation plans, which are expected to include Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine including Donetsk and Luhansk in the east in Zaporizhzhia — where Russia is occupying Europe’s largest nuclear power plant — and the region of Kherson in the south.
Kofman likened such an action to “crossing the Rubicon.”
“Annexation is a point of no return,” he continued. “After that, there will be nothing possibly left to negotiate with Ukraine. … And mobilization, to an extent, is too, because this is de facto enacting wartime measures, without declaring it, but it has the same effect.”
U.S. officials and allied governments are using Putin’s military mobilization as a chance to pile on the criticisms that his campaign in Ukraine is a failure.
“It’s definitely a sign that he’s struggling,” Kirby said in his “GMA” interview.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Putin’s video speech is “an admission that his invasion is failing,” while German Chancellor Olaf Sholz called Putin’s mobilization “an act of desperation.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Putin’s decision to mobilize more troops is a result of poor morale among his forces, telling the TV station of Germany’s Bild newspaper on Wednesday that “he needs an army of millions. … He sees that a large part of those who come to us just run away.”
And Putin is increasingly growing isolated among even countries that have withheld full-throated criticism of his war.
Ahead of a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Uzebkistan on Sept. 15, Putin said that Russia understands “your questions and your concerns” related to Ukraine.
The next day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in remarks alongside Putin that the two men had spoken “many times on the phone,” and that “now is not an age of wars.”
National security adviser Jake Sullivan responded to Modi’s remarks saying, “We would like to see every country in the world making that case.”
And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has positioned himself as a mediator between Putin and Zelensky, said in an interview with PBS on Sunday that Russia must retreat from the territory it occupies.
“The lands which were invaded will be returned to Ukraine,” Erdoğan said.
Farkas of the McCain Institute said the increasing public criticism from these countries are “signaling to Putin that this war is costly. And they are signaling that they’re not convinced Putin’s gonna win.”
She added that the solidarity of the international community against the use of nuclear weapons is further pressure to keep Putin from taking such a devastating action.
“Everything would change, and Vladimir Putin has to know that,” Farkas said.
“He has to know that he would face conventional attacks and that he would face an attempt to maneuver him out of the Kremlin, out of office, by the international community. Because the international community would say, ‘Anyone who would actually use nuclear weapons for the first time, in anger, since World War II, cannot remain in power.’”