This article post is not edited – apologies for any typos.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had a rare address to nation today. (LINK to original, in Russian)
The Russian Minister of Defense has also spoke today, after the presidential address, giving details on the next steps taken by the Russian military (LINK to original, in Russian)
I received various questions on the topic or connected with the topic of the presidential address to nation in Russia. Since I could not take any formal interviews, I thought delivering my answers to most questions here (in a rather informal way), will help.
Many thanks to my former and current students and trainees for reaching out with questions! Please don’t be shy reaching out with any follow-up questions you may have.
1) Why now?
The reported success of the Ukrainian forces against the Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine over the last weeks have forced the Kremlin to reevaluate and react. The speech is part of the Kremlin’s reaction and gives some hints on its reevaluation conclusions – with others likely under way (which we will hear less about or not at all).
While they are reevaluating, so is Russian periphery/states in the Russian buffer zone. In the South Caucasus, the fighting resumed between Azerbaijan and Armenia (link to article) and in Central Asia, conflict resumed on the Tajikistan – Kyrgyzstan border, all tensions growing high on the background of the Russian periphery perceiving a weaker Russia in Ukraine. This reality (more important than anything that may have been reported on conversations during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit last week – even if that’s notable, too) forced the Kremlin to (appear to) act. It needed to do so fast, considering the urgency of keeping allies close and its buffer zone under control, reassuring everyone.
2) Why the delay – the speeches were supposed to be delivered on Tuesday evening and instead they were delivered on Wednesday morning.
Speculation that there’s some internal trouble (read: signs of political instability) that the Kremlin needs to handle first spread across the media right after the delay was announced. As was speculation that the speeches in the morning would announce something urgent and dramatic. We don’t know if there is any truth to any of the two scenarios presented by the media.
I dare to share a third possibility: the delay could have been part of a communication campaign designed to get the public’s attention. And build up expectation while also understand the public perception of the Kremlin (internally and outside Russia). While the address was supposed to appear special, the timing and not only the contents needed to be special, too.
3) What was it said, for real? What are the main takeaways?
There are several things that stand out:
– Partial mobilization – 300.000 reservists are called up – which is about 1% of the reserve force.
– Only those having combat experience and “the necessary military specialty for the army” will be called up. Def. Min. added that there will be no conscription or mobilization of students.
– Def. Min. Shoigu explained that partial mobilization is necessary to “control the contact line in the special operation zone”.
Immediate takeaways: there will be no training for the mobilized reservists. Which means that Russia plans to “refresh” the troops on the ground (throwing more… bodies to the problem). This does not mean that the nature of the kinetic war is changed. This is not a fundamental break either – it basically allows Russia to rotate troops through the theatre, which is ultimately not good news for Ukraine (or the West) necessarily.
4) What does it mean? Short term for the war and long term for Russia?
Short term: The announcement today needs to be seen in the larger strategy Russia has. The presidential national address comes after the separatist republics in Eastern Ukraine said they want to unite with Russia and will hold a referendum on the matter next week. If they become a part of Russian territory, Russia could invoke sovereign rights to defend the regions against the invaders… which… suddenly become Ukraine, helped by NATO.
During the national address today, Russian president Putin mentioned that it might be that the Kremlin could talk about “urgent steps to protect the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Russia”, should the two republics become Russian provinces. At the same time, Def. Min. Shoigu stated that Russia is at war with „the collective West. Plus NATO.” This indicates that, on the short term, the partial mobilization today could transform into a fighting force for taking and preserving territory in Eastern Ukraine and potentially beyond, considering that the Kremlin needs not to appear weak in fighting back the West. Which means the kinetic warfare will continue and will likely expand, considering the political imperatives the Kremlin holds.
Long term: By throwing more bodies to what appears to be an open-ended war in Ukraine, Russia risks losing on the long term. The Russian demographics are already fragile – having young people fight a war makes it even more fragile. It could be, that if more young people go into this war this is the last war Russia is able to fight with conventional forces (bodies). Now, as Russians send more troops into Ukraine, will the Ukrainians be able to repeat what they’ve been doing? According to military analysts, the Ukrainian side would need to do what they’ve done in the first two weeks of set to September another 10-20 times, considering the scale that the Russians consider right now. They need to keep disrupt logistics – the flow of manpower, material and food supplies to the frontline is something that is going to crush the Russian force (and its demographics long term). In the process, the Ukrainians will also take casualties. Long term, the world (and Europe in particular) will need to deal with a war torn country that needs to be rebuilt – Ukraine and an exhausted regional power (if not worse) that also needs help – Russia.