Op-ed: Putin is becoming more aggressive with the Russian mobilization 

In the early morning of Sept. 21, Russian state television broadcast a recorded speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the public. Its message revealed disturbing facts about the Kremlin’s motivations and its response to the dire situation of its special military operation in eastern Ukraine.

This televised address was the first to the public after the declaration of the start of Russia’s military operation in late February, a surprising change for a government who repeatedly assured its citizens that everything was going according to plan in Ukraine. There was much preparation for this speech both on TV, where scheduled program times were amended, and on the ground, where Ukrainian Air Force Spokesperson Yuriy Ignat reported over 700 Russian Air Force aircraft units were moved to the Ukrainian border. Mass airstrikes (such as the ones that took out most of eastern Ukraine’s power and rail infrastructure) were expected right after the speech, however no reports of such strikes were confirmed.

The address has major implications for the future of the seven-month-old conflict in Ukraine. The first statement in Putin’s speech was the partial mobilization of the nation’s reserve units. The Russian Ministry of Defence released a separate statement asking the Federal Duma (Russian Senate) to allocate 300,000 reservist troops to the front line to replenish losses and create new battalions. Three hundred thousand troops theoretically represent around 1.2% of Russia’s full mobilization potential of about 25 million troops. Realistically, however, Russia could only call upon a small fraction of that theoretical number as many civilians avoid the draft and up to 50% of the rest are deemed unfit for service when called up.

These troops will be given only a month’s training before being shipped off to the front lines. This is in stark contrast to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO’s, training policies, which require at least 14 weeks of general training followed by a few more months of specialist training. Russia, however, simply does not have that much time. Recent gains for Ukraine along the north of the front line are too big for the Russians to ignore. Should Ukraine make any further pushes, existing supply lines for the Russians in the Donbass, or DPR, and Lugansk, or LPR, regions will be cut off. The Russians are spread too thin, and Ukraine’s mass mobilization early on in the war is paying its dividends. Contrary to the beliefs of Putin and Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation Sergei Shoigu, Russian artillery and high-precision missiles cannot close the manpower gap with Ukraine.

How these 300,000 troops will be deployed is anyone’s guess. “According to plan” is what Shoigu remarked in a televised meeting with Putin released later on Sept. 21. What is clear is that these troops will not be coming anytime soon, but when they do, they will represent a massive increase in the forces available to Russia and the Lugansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic forces on the ground. Putin made sure to indicate that no students or conscripts would be recruited. Whether this is actually being followed in practice cannot be determined.

The second major announcement in the Sept. 21 broadcast — and the one with the most implications for Ukraine — is the referendums for annexation to be held in the four oblasts (states) that Russia currently administers. These are: LPR, DPR, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. These referendums began on Sept. 24 and lasted until Sept. 28. In the case of the DPR and LPR, these referendums had one question — whether or not to request Russia to annex these territories. Given that the parliament voted unanimously to hold these referendums, the outcome should be no surprise. In Kherson and Zaporizhzhia however, the referendum included two questions. The first had to do with succession from Ukraine to become an independent republic. The next question was about annexation to Russia. For Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, Russia will need to recognize these independent republics before they can accept the request for annexation. Again, it should be no surprise that Russia offered the self-proclaimed republics a swift recognition.

Russia only controls the entirety of the territory of Lugansk. The DPR, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, are still contested between Ukraine and Russia. These referendums change what seems like a very minute, semantic part of the conflict. However, this change brought about very real consequences. Previously, any Ukrainian attack (such as the one being conducted in Kherson) was considered an attack on Russian-occupied Ukraine. However, after the referendums passed, these attacks are now considered an attack on Russia proper. This gives the Russians, who claim to have been “holding back” in Ukraine, an excuse to pull out the heavy weaponry in their arsenal, up to and including nuclear weapons. This is something that Putin said he was not afraid to do.

The United Nations adopted resolution ES 11/4 condemning the annexation — but that is irrelevant. Russia will make decisions solely based on what it believes to be true. The question then lies in whether Western nations will respond by upping the amount of military aid given to Kiev, something that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made sure to comment on in his response to Putin’s statement. Europe in particular will be hesitant to add fuel to the fire given the dire situation it faces this winter.

In the early morning of Oct. 5, to much praise from his supporters, Putin signed the annexation into law, creating four new subjects of the Russian Federation. How Russia’s new troops will be deployed in these areas and how this will affect the war will be determined in the next few weeks. If this sounds scary — it should. In my opinion this is a devastating escalation of the situation, and Russia has now crossed the point of no return in Ukraine. The sheer lack of recognition of the potentially devastating consequences of these actions amongst both politicians and civilians is alarming. 

Senators in the United States continue to push for more military equipment to be provided to Ukraine. While this is theoretically a sign of support, it only provokes a harsher Russian response, resulting in the death of more Ukrainian, and Russian citizens. Similarly, supporters of the military operation in Russia, such as Ramzan Kadyrov, push Putin to deliver harsher responses to Ukraine and Russia has clearly shown that it is ready to continue escalating the situation as it sees fit. The result of this continued brinkmanship from both sides will only be an extension of the conflict, and the death of many more civilians. 

Finding a peaceful solution to the conflict will take a round of uneasy talks between leaders. Many compromises will need to be made. However, the longer those talks are delayed, the more casualties the war will create. As civilians, we have the responsibility to urge our politicians to stop the armed escalation in Ukraine and aim instead for a peaceful solution to the problem. Some argue that a peaceful solution is not possible. However, I think this is a dangerous route to take if one has any consideration for the lives of the men and women, both civilian and military that are lost each day deciding which areas of the former Soviet Union should go to Russia and which should go to Ukraine.

Rahul Rao is a third-year computer science and political science combined major. He can be reached at [email protected].