President Putin in a Tight Corner—Can Russian Forces Be Revived?
In face of the Ukrainian offensive, the Kremlin seeks to strengthen forces and tighten domestic control by annexing four provinces, declaring martial law, and partial mobilization. Yet, forced to withdraw from Kharkiv province and Kherson city, Russia has few strategic options. To reposition the war effort, would it order a general mobilization, or go nuclear?
Nine months have passed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with no signs of an end to the war. Rather, there are concerns of escalating warfare, including the use of nuclear weapons. With the prolonged battle, both sides have ballooning casualties. The offensive continues by the Ukrainian forces which have the lead, and the inferior Russian forces remain defensive. As the war situation worsens significantly for Russia, President Putin has played four cards in a succession—(1) “annexation” of four provinces in east and south Ukraine, (2) partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists, (3) military threat of nuclear use, and (4) imposing “martial law” on “annexed” regions.
Forced “Annexation” of Four Provinces after Recapturing Eastern Region
In early September, Ukraine forces recaptured the eastern strategic city of Izium as well as the majority of the Kharkiv province. They succeeded in a lightning attack in the thinly manned eastern area by posing a reverse offensive in the south and luring elite Russian troops away from the east. Since July, the Ukrainian forces effectively destroyed Russian military bases on the southern front using High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and other equipment provided by the U.S. In August, they caused a series of explosions in the Crimean Peninsula, where Russian forces had a rear base. In hindsight, these moves were also part of an adept “diversionary tactic” to attract Russian attention to the south. The Russians fled on the surprise attack, and the abandoned tanks and other equipment fell into the hands of the Ukrainian army.
As Ukraine recaptured the eastern region, from September 2022, Putin suddenly forced the voting dubbed “referendums” which had been put off several times. The four provinces subject to “annexation” are not entirely controlled by Russia. Instead, Ukrainian forces are increasing moves to regain the regions. In the areas occupied by Russia, authorities holding transparent ballot boxes visited each home with armed soldiers to force voting, and the “sham referendum” with the overwhelming majority of the residents voting to become part of the Russian Federation was conducted.
In response, on September 30, Putin declared to “annex” the four provinces into Russia. He stated in his speech, “We will defend our land with all the powers and means at our disposal,” showing he does not hesitate to use nuclear weapons for homeland defense, which includes the four provinces claimed to be “annexed.” Behind Putin’s haste for the “annexation” was the deteriorating war situation, in which he wanted to promptly prevent Russian-controlled regions from scaling down. The original goal must have been “annexation” through complete control up to the province border, but he rushed to action before setting the borderline of the “annexed” territories.
Domestic Unrest with the First “Mobilization” since World War II
On October 12, 2022, Russian independent media reported that, according to an incumbent officer and a former special unit officer of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), over 90,000 Russian soldiers were killed in the Ukraine war. It is estimated that of the 150,000 regular soldiers deployed in Ukraine, over half of them have become incapable of combat and Russia faces a severe shortage of troops. Fearing backlash from civilians, Putin has been reluctant to order a general mobilization, but on September 21, he finally signed the “Executive Order on partial mobilization in the Russian Federation.”
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu explained that about 300,000 men with military service experience would be drafted. However, because draft notices were sent to students, the elderly, the sick, and other non-eligible men, and the mobilization period was until the end of the war, there was widespread unrest and opposition within Russia. With rising speculations that the actual mobilization would be around one million, about 700,000 men left Russia, sparking renewed anti-war protests in the country.
This partial mobilization changed the “special military operation” by professional soldiers, which had been “someone else’s affair,” into a “personal affair” with close ones sent to war. Moreover, the Kremlin’s previous propaganda that the “special military operations were going smoothly” was falling apart, and there was spreading recognition that “Russia may lose this war.”
In some cases, the draftees were not provided with military uniforms, arms, and other equipment, while some were sent to war with insufficient training, and they are considered to have lower morale than the professional soldiers. The criminal law was revised to impose severe penalties for draft evasion and deserting combat zones, but moves to surrender to the Ukrainian side have been pointed out. Therefore, like in the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II, “barrier troops” have been formed to watch and attack from behind the front line to prevent soldiers from fleeing or surrendering, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defense analysis. There is a persistent view that even with 300,000 troops mobilized, a major turnaround in the war situation is impossible.
War Escalation and Risk of Nuclear Use
On October 8, 2022, a day after Putin turned 70, the Crimean Bridge was hit by an explosion. The Kremlin declared this was a terror attack by the Ukrainian intelligence forces, and two days later, on October 10, launched retaliatory attacks on 16 cities across Ukraine, including the capital of Kyiv. Missiles and suicide drones landed near the presidential palace and civilian infrastructure facilities in Kyiv, killing and wounding over 100 people in Ukraine. Thermal power plants and substations were attacked, destroying up to 40 percent of Ukraine’s power generation capacity and causing frequent power failures. It is believed that Russia, unable to turn around the war situation, aimed to deprive energy from Ukrainian citizens before the cold winter and make them lose heart.
The Kremlin did not show a strong response to the August explosions in the Crimea Peninsula, believed to be carried out by Ukraine. However, the Crimean Bridge had been Russia’s military supply route to the front line in southern Ukraine and a political symbol of the annexation of Crimea, and its explosion was “crossing the red line” for Putin. With this incident, the war in Ukraine went up another rung on the dangerous ladder of escalation.
In his September 21 speech, Putin said, “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.” Meanwhile, on October 13, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that the U.S. is monitoring moves that imply the use of nuclear weapons by Putin, and so far, there are no such signs.
There are basically two cases for Putin to decide on the first use of tactical nuclear weapons. One is for military destruction, as declared publicly in Russia’s military doctrine. This is when Russian territory is attacked with conventional weapons and the existence of the state is threatened. The other is a political use for a show to discourage the Ukrainians from fighting. If Russia loses the war and the chances of Putin’s downfall increases, he could become desperate like a “cornered rat.” Rationally, the hurdles for going nuclear are quite high, even for Putin. Yet, the possibility of nuclear use cannot be ruled out, since Ukraine is continuing attacks on the four “annexed” provinces that Russia considers its own territory.
Whether Putin goes nuclear depends in the end on how he reckons the approach by the U.S. If Russia uses nuclear weapons, the U.S. is considered to use conventional forces to attack Russian troops in Ukraine and the Black Sea. In that case, retaliation by Russia is also expected, and it may develop into an all-out war between Russia and NATO. Preceding the Russian invasion, President Biden had maintained the stance the U.S. would not intervene directly in the war in Ukraine, to “avert World War III.” Can the U.S., which has quit being the world’s policeman, decide to engage in a conflict with Russia? And would the American people support the decision? Putin is also keeping a close eye on Biden’s political power.
“Martial Law” in the Four Provinces and Russia’s Strategic Withdrawal
On October 20, 2022, Putin declared “martial law” on the four “annexed” provinces in Ukraine, while introducing a “state of alert” with a different level of restrictions across Russia. He probably could not risk imposing martial law across Russia for fear of domestic backlash and unrest. The term martial law is expressed as “state of war” in Russian, and he turned out to be publicly admitting that what was previously called a “special military operation” was, in fact, a war. Under “martial law,” upon the pretext of ensuring safety, extrajudicial enforcement measures will be possible, such as seizing properties, detaining residents, forcing temporary removal, and monitoring communications. Residents in the southern province of Kherson have been forced to move, while land, buildings, and other private property could be seized to establish strategic bases, and civilians could be forced to work in military industries in “industrial mobilization.” There is a persistent view in Russia that with the worsening war situation, it would develop into a “general mobilization” and “nation-wide martial law.”
On November 9, the Kremlin ordered Russian troops to withdraw from Kherson city, the capital of the “annexed” Kherson province. Since Ukrainian forces had demolished the bridge along Russia’s supply route, the elite forces stationed on the west bank of the Dnipro River risked being wiped out. Russian General Sergei Surovikin advised a “tactical retreat” to save lives and Defense Minister Shoigu accepted it. In the eastern strategic city of Izium, Russian troops suffered a severe blow because of Putin’s “political order to defend to the death.” So this time, Russia must have decided to withdraw the troops to the Dnipro’s east bank and pull them together again. Excessive political intervention is said to have disarrayed the Russian forces’ chain of command, but by allowing military discretion to the General on site, a shift is being made to focus on “rational military operations.”
Among the four provinces claimed to be “annexed” by Russia, Kherson city was the only provincial capital occupied after the start of the war. So, losing the city was a political blow for the Putin administration. Moreover, it would lead to a spreading domestic recognition that even after “annexation,” “partial mobilization,” and “martial law,” Russia cannot win the war. Kherson city is the gateway to the Russian-occupied Crimea Peninsula, and if the entire Kherson province is lost, the “land corridor” on the coast of the Sea of Azov will not function. Russian Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov stressed the decision was made by the defense ministry to shift domestic criticism away from Putin.
For Ukraine, this was another Russian retreat following the ones from the capital Kyiv and the eastern province of Kharkiv, marking a great military feat. However, on the eastern bank of the Dnipro, a natural line of defense, the Russian military is trying to consolidate its defenses and reorganize forces, and recapturing further territory beyond the Dnipro River is not always easy for the Ukrainian forces. The situation in the southern region may become a standoff over the Dnipro River. The Russian troops that retreated from the west will probably be transferred to the eastern region, and the fighting in the eastern region may intensify.
The Russian forces have three structural problems—(1) shortage of troops, (2) exhaustion of weapons, and (3) disarray in the chain of command—and are trying to solve each one. Troop shortage is being supplemented by partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists, but it is difficult to raise the unwilling draftees to the proficiency level of professional soldiers in a short time. The exhaustion of weapons is being covered by purchasing millions of artillery shells from North Korea and drones and ballistic missiles from Iran, but it will not be a level to turn around the war situation significantly. As for the disarray in the chain of command, they are trying to eliminate excess political intervention and expand the military discretion of the commander-in-chief on site, but this does not mean no more intervention from Putin who is the supreme commander of the Russian forces.
Is the End of the Putin Regime the Only Way to End the War?
With the “annexation” of the four provinces, it became difficult to draw a ceasefire line in negotiations over these four provinces. For Russia, they are already Russian territory, and no longer subject to compromise. Meanwhile, President Zelensky states, (1) restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, (2) respect for the UN Charter, (3) compensation for all war-related damages, (4) punishment of all war criminals, and (5) guarantee to never invade Ukraine again, as preconditions for negotiation. In this situation, the two parties cannot find a middle ground through talks. Thus, there is no possibility of an end to the war other than the end of Putin’s regime.
Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a leading scholar on Soviet and Russian studies, who predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, says that the Afghan invasion quagmire was one cause of the fall of the Soviet Union, and points out “the beginning of the end” for the Putin administration, which has reached an impasse with the war in Ukraine. Sure enough, an independent poll in late September, after the partial mobilization, showed that a downward trend in support for Putin had finally begun. Still, the support rate remains above 70 percent, with no signs of the immediate collapse of his rule. Moreover, the political culture of the Russian forces is to “maintain political neutrality” while the Russian people “long for a powerful leader,” so it is difficult to imagine a regime overthrown by a coup in Russia.
With the Russian presidential election coming up in March 2024, full-scale campaigns will start in the fall of 2023. If Russia’s defeat seems likely in the prolonged war, Putin could lose the support of the hardliners in Kremlin’s inner circle and the Russian people, and his reelection may become doubtful in the future. By destroying energy infrastructure throughout Ukraine to discourage the war effort, and by using energy as a weapon to shake up Western war fatigue, Putin is trying to seek victory in the prolonged war. If a general mobilization is imposed throughout Russia, the presidential election will be postponed indefinitely, automatically extending Putin’s rule. However, the backlash and unrest from within Russia will be even greater than now. How long will he continue the war, caught between extended power and public opinion? Putin will have a difficult time steering the country.
This is a translation of the Japanese article published in vol. 76 (Nov./Dec) of the Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine.
Shinji Hyodo is the Director of the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS). After earning an MA from Sophia University, he was a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. He has served as a board member of the Japan Association for Russian and East European Studies (JAREES) and an advisor of the National Security Secretariat. His field of expertise is Russian area studies. He is the co-author of Urashia kokusai chitsujyo no saihen [Restructuring of the Eurasian International Order] and others.