Western experts predicted on Wednesday that mobilizing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new forces would prolong the war but not alter the balance on the ground, and cautioned against underestimating his renewed nuclear threat.
Putin announced the call-up of 300,000 reservists – more than 200,000 mobilized for the invasion of Ukraine in February – after his forces lost large parts of the territory captured early in the war.
This came at a time when Moscow indicated its intention to keep the occupied territories in eastern and southern Ukraine by holding local referendums to absorb them in Russia.
But analysts said it was a politically risky move for the Russian leader, with increased domestic resistance to the war and a structure for military mobilization atrophied over the past decade.
They won’t be able to do it well,” said Dara Masikut, a Russian defense specialist at Rand Corp., who has researched the mobilization process.
“They will gather people and send them to the front with outdated training, poor leadership, and equipment kept in worse condition than the active duty force, and send them in phases because they don’t have time to wait.”
Michael Kaufman, a defense specialist at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, cautioned against rejecting the effort.
Moscow will help fortify the current battle lines under heavy pressure from Ukraine’s fighters backed by Western weapons.
“The Russian military is clearly very vulnerable in the winter, and in fact it looks even worse by 2023,” Kaufman said on Wednesday.
“So what it does is it might expand the Russian ability to sustain this war somewhat, but not change the overall course and outcome.”
But Putin’s challenge is to build a force of surrogates with adequate training, equipment, leadership and motivation.
Rob Lee, a senior fellow said, “If you train these reservists…it’s still a bit. The quality of the training will remain in doubt. Who’s going to lead them? All these other things are still open questions.” at the Institute for Foreign Policy Research.
“This war will increasingly be fought by motivated volunteers from the Ukrainian side … and from the Russian side, we will see a greater proportion of people who do not want to be there,” he said.
Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general and defense analyst, says Putin still wants to “prolong the war and bypass Western countries”.
“Given the deteriorating combat performance of 3-4 months, this is a stressful force that needs to be rotated,” he said on Twitter.
“The numbers being called up are not enough to make any decisive contribution or change the outcome of the war…this is more about rotation and alternatives,” he said.
Most disturbing was Putin’s threat to use nuclear force against any threat to Russia’s “territorial integrity”.
“We will certainly use all means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a trick,” Putin said, adding: “Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the winds can also turn their direction.”
“We take it very seriously,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said, while calling Putin’s words “irresponsible rhetoric.”
While some analysts dismissed Putin’s talk as frequent bravado, others said Putin appeared to have altered Russia’s long-established policy on the use of nuclear weapons, including leaving it unanswered if applied to occupied Ukrainian territory that Moscow wants to annex.
“Threat to use nuclear weapons that goes beyond Russian advertising policy, shows Putin his desperation over his failed war in Ukraine,” Hans Christensen, a nuclear policy specialist at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote on Twitter.
“This sounds like another round of strikes, but it’s clearly the most visible nuclear threat that Putin has put up so far,” he said.
“It is imperative that NATO does not take the bait and feed its false narrative through the explicit threat of nuclear retaliation.”
Andrei Baklitsky of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research said Putin’s comments “go beyond Russia’s nuclear doctrine, which only refers to the first Russian use in a conventional war when the very existence of the state is threatened.”
“Judging by the person who has the sole decision-making power regarding Russian nuclear weapons, this must be taken seriously,” he said.