Ukraine Situation Report: Russia’s Partial Mobilization, Nuclear Threats

In a move that had been widely anticipated, and which further entrenches Russia in its war in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin this morning announced a “partial mobilization” of hundreds of thousands of individuals while lashing out at the West, who he accused of wanting “to destroy our country.” In a television address that had been expected to happen yesterday, Putin also used the threat of nuclear retaliation in an effort to warn off Western and other nations from assisting Ukraine.

“Military service will apply only to citizens who are in the reserve, especially those who have served in the armed forces, have certain military professions and relevant experience,” Putin said, explaining who would be affected by the partial mobilization. The move was, Putin claimed, a response to the threat posed by the West, which he said wanted to “turn Ukraine’s people into cannon fodder” and that Russia required troops to shore up a frontline that now stretched over 600 miles across Ukraine.

Since its all-out invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, Russia has officially lost 5,937 personnel in a campaign that it has consistently described as a “special military operation.” The actual total is thought to be much higher, with the Ukrainian Armed Forces saying that Russian and pro-Russian forces have sustained more than 55,000 casualties. As of mid-August, U.S. officials estimated that around 20,000 Russian troops had been killed, from a total of between 70,000 and 80,000 casualties.

But with Ukraine continuing to regain significant areas of territory from Russian control, it’s clear that the war is not going well for Moscow and that its forces are worn down from the prolonged and floundering conflict. The partial mobilization reflects this reality. Putin’s decree means that around 300,000 Russians will now be called up to serve, starting today, according to the Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. Those with special skill sets with prior military experience, and especially combat experience, are of particular need. At the same time, so-called contract soldiers, who are volunteers not conscripts, already fighting in Ukraine will have their tours of duty extended, until the end of the partial mobilization. It’s unclear how long this measure will last and, equally, it’s questionable how fast Russia will be able to train and equip any of these additional personnel, even at the most basic level.

The latest decision reinforces the fallacy of the notion of a special military operation and will likely have significant repercussions across the Russian populace as the war becomes a more immediate concern to a large swathe of the population. Notably, Putin stopped short of actually declaring war or announcing a broader state mobilization. This was very likely also calculated for domestic consumption, to not make it appear that Russia is on a new war footing and lessening the blowback of mobilization of any kind. You can read all about what mobilization actually means to Russians in this recent explainer of ours.

Even ahead of this decision there has been plenty of indication that Russian commentators and society at large are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the way the campaign has been going. Indeed, there have been multiple reports that some of those people affected by the mobilization decree are already trying to leave the country or were so before the announcement came. Unconfirmed reports suggest that both railways and airlines in Russia may already be refusing to issue tickets to men of military service age, which would further limit options for those seeking to avoid military service. In response, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs has said his country will refuse to offer refuge to any Russians fleeing mobilization.

Outside of Russia, today’s announcement has been jumped on by ministers and policymakers as further evidence that the Kremlin’s latest Ukrainian adventure is foundering.

The Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak branded Putin’s decision a “predictable step,” while in Germany, vice-chancellor Robert Habeck condemned the move as “another bad and wrong step from Russia.” The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the mobilization order was “a sign of panic.”

In a speech to the UN General Assembly today, President Joe Biden Biden warned Putin that nuclear war “cannot be won and must never be fought,” and accused Russia of “shamelessly” violating the core tenets of UN membership by invading Ukraine in the first place. Biden added that, despite Kremlin claims to the contrary, no one had threatened Russia and that Russia had sole responsibility for starting the current conflict.

In the United Kingdom, Secretary of Defense Ben Wallace highlighted the fact that partial mobilization goes against Putin’s previous guarantee that this would not happen. “Putin’s breaking of his own promises not to mobilize parts of the population and the illegal annexation of parts of Ukraine are an admission that his invasion is failing,” Wallace said.

As well as announcing the new measure, intended to bolster the faltering military campaign in Ukraine, Putin called upon nuclear saber-rattling in an effort to ward off further Western involvement in the conflict, which has so far involved billions of dollars worth of military aid provided to Kyiv’s forces.

Putin referred to Russia’s own nuclear forces, stating that they had “lots of weapons to reply” to what he described as Western threats against Russian territory. Putin baselessly claimed that Russian forces were facing Western military operations on the Ukrainian frontline.

This is not a bluff,” Putin added, stating that he would use “all means available to us.” The Russian president also accused the West of using nuclear blackmail and that “In its aggressive anti-Russian policy the West has crossed all lines.” Putin added: “Those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the wind patterns can also turn in their direction.”

As supposed evidence of nuclear blackmail, Putin pointed to what he said was Ukrainian shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant that was “encouraged by the West.” He also claimed that “senior representatives of NATO countries” had made statements about “the possibility and permissibility of using weapons of mass destruction against Russia: nuclear weapons.”

While Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of shelling the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, it’s not immediately clear which statements by “senior NATO representatives” were being referred to. Seemingly, Putin’s vague claims of Western nuclear threats were deployed as a ruse for him to remind Western leaders — and Ukraine — that Russia “also possesses various means of destruction, and in some cases, they are more modern than those of NATO countries.” That last statement appears to be in reference to Putin’s so-called “super weapons,” unveiled to much fanfare in 2019 and in which he has since taken a keen interest. There has been much speculation that a new test of those weapons, the 9M730 Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, is imminent, based on satellite imagery.

“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.

The reference to Russian territory here is of particular interest. Normally, a mobilization would require a full state of war, with Russian territory under attack. Many observers had expected that a call to mobilization would therefore rely on Moscow first annexing areas within Ukraine that are occupied by Russian and pro-Russian forces, as a pretext for this. The partial mobilization may have been a way around this, but it appears that “referendums” will soon be carried out in these areas, regardless.

In his speech, Putin said that the Kremlin would give its “full support” to referendums on being annexed by Russia. These are now due to be held this weekend by Russian proxy authorities in occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia.

A photograph taken on September 20, 2022, showing a slogan on a wall in a school, written by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), which reads in Russian “Putin is our president.” The school in Mala Komyshuvakha, near Izyum, Kharkiv region, is used by Russian troops as a makeshift hospital. Photo by YEVHEN TITOV/AFP via Getty Images

Of these areas, Russia already considers Luhansk and Donetsk, which together make up the Donbas region, to be independent states, and these have been partially occupied by pro-Russian forces since 2014. Around 60 percent of the Donetsk region is controlled by the pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). The Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) has long maintained control of the whole region, although, in recent days, Ukrainian forces have regained territory here, too.

In the south of the country, the control of the territories of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia is far more hotly contested.

While the outcome of any kind of ostensibly public referendum in the areas will be highly dubious, it seems likely that pro-Russian authorities in these areas will call for them to join the Russian Federation. Should they then be formally annexed, it would potentially open the path to full mobilization in Russia. Such a move would then also provide Moscow with ‘proof’ that its territories are under attack (by Ukraine, and presumably also by “Western military operations”). That would open the door to a more robust response by Russia, including recourse to using, or threatening to use nuclear weapons.

The response from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky today focused on the planned referendums. “Our position does not change according to this noise or any other announcement,” Zelensky said. Kyiv has already said any such referendums would be a “sham” and has again vowed to “eliminate” threats posed by Russia. Even if those territories are declared Russian territory — whether by local authorities or by the Kremlin itself — Kyiv says its forces will continue their efforts to liberate them.

Before heading into the latest news from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can get caught up with our previous rolling coverage of the war here

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Whatever happens next, NATO countries bordering Russia are already announcing that their armed forces are on a heightened state of alert.

In Lithuania, for example, Minister of Defense Arvydas Anušauskas said that the country would put its rapid reaction force on high alert, with a view to potential Russian military activity centered on the exclave of Kaliningrad.

Outside of NATO, Finland, which applied to join the alliance in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is closely monitoring the situation in neighboring Russia, according to Minister of Defense Antti Kaikkonen. “Regarding Finland’s surroundings, I can say that the military situation is stable and calm,” Kaikkonen said, adding “Our defense forces are well prepared and the situation is closely monitored.”

Russia is meanwhile continuing its bombardment of objectives in Ukraine, including missile strikes overnight that targeted Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. At least some of these missiles struck residential buildings, injuring at least one person and leaving more trapped under rubble.

According to Kharkiv mayor Igor Terekhov, four projectiles struck the Kholodnogorsky district, where they hit two housing blocks, a building site, and civil infrastructure.

While discussions on the possible transfer of tanks to Ukraine continue, the country is still receiving a variety of other combat vehicles, from different sources. Examples of the IVECO VTLM Lince light tactical multirole vehicle seen in this video began to be supplied this summer, from Italian stocks. Interestingly, the Lince is essentially the Italian Army version of the IVECO LMV Rys that is used by the Russian Armed Forces, with some examples also having been captured by Ukraine.

In another move highly symbolic of the way the war is going for Russia, this photo shows T-62M tanks being transported by train, purportedly heading to Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Rumors that Russia was taking 50-year-old T-62s out of long-term storage for the Ukraine war began to surface in May and, since then, it’s become clear that these tasks have been widely deployed. As we have reported in the past, Russia is thought to have around 10,000 tanks and 8,500 armored vehicles, of which around 2,500 are T-62s. Once again, if Russia is reactivating these T-62s it suggests it is badly in need of additional armor.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.