President Vladimir Putin has reacted to Ukraine’s recent successful offensives by ordering Russia’s biggest military mobilisation since World War II.
The partial mobilisation could see up to 300,000 reservists being called up over the coming months, potentially about two to three times the estimated size of the initial force Russia deployed when it invaded Ukraine on February 24.
But the Russian leader stopped short of a general mobilisation of the country’s estimated 20 million-strong conscription potential.
“We are talking about partial mobilisation, that is, only citizens who are currently in the reserve will be subject to conscription, and above all, those who served in the armed forces have a certain military specialty and relevant experience,” Putin said in an address broadcast on Wednesday.
Ukraine’s military intelligence spokesman, Vadym Skibitskyi, told the Kyiv Post that the move was akin to an admission that Russia’s invasion has failed to achieve its aims.
“The announcement of general mobilisation will be a significant blow to the Putin regime, because it will mean an admission that Russia has not been able to fulfil all the tasks set, that Putin’s so-called ‘special operation’ has not achieved results and that a real war is under way,” he said.
British foreign office minister Gillian Keegan called the move an “escalation” and told Sky News: “Clearly it’s something that we should take very seriously.”
Heavy losses have thrown Russia onto the defensive during the summer. Russian Defence minister Sergei Shoigu admitted that 6,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in the seven-month conflict. US military officials last month estimated the number of Russian dead at 20,000 and Ukraine estimates the number at 54,000.
Russia launched a drive to recruit volunteers in early July, with limited success. Ukraine’s Skibitskyi told the Kyiv Post that a Third Army Corps, which Russia had said would be formed by the middle of August, is still not fully formed or functioning as a single combat unit.
Putin’s partial mobilisation comes a fortnight after Ukraine reclaimed 8,000 square kilometres of territory in the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine in a lightning counteroffensive.
The counteroffensive is continuing, and is set to meet a separate Ukrainian counteroffensive pushing north from Donetsk province in the area of Sviatohirsk. Here, Ukrainian border guards opened fire on September 20, killing four Russian fighters attempting to cross the Siversky Donets river.
Amid the Ukrainian counteroffensives, Russia has found it especially difficult to motivate troops in the field. Ukraine’s military intelligence claimed on September 14 that Russia was deploying special units to liquidate deserters.
“The commanders of the 4th separate motorized rifle brigade of the 2nd army corps received a message: ‘There is a blocking squad posted in the rear lane. All retreating troops will be destroyed. Commander’s order number 222. Deliver to all posts’,” it said.
On September 20, Russian lawmakers passed a bill that would increase punishments for soldiers who surrender, desert or fail to report for military duty to 10 years in prison.
A porous front
Ukrainian forces are openly targeting Russian occupation authorities in urban centres, while partisans have stepped up attacks behind the front lines.
Donetsk city’s occupation authorities said Ukrainian forces shelled their administration building in the city centre on September 17.
The Russian news agency Tass reported an explosion in the prosecutor’s office in the Russian-occupied city of Luhansk on September 16.
Loud explosions on the same day in occupied Melitopol, in Zaporizhia province, were attributed to the city’s air defences swinging into action.
The Russian deputy administrator of Kherson, Ekaterina Gubareva, blamed Ukraine for a missile attack on the administration building in Kherson city.
Tass reported that Russian forces “neutralised” a group of armed men in Kherson city on September 17. Sergey Eliseev, Russia’s top Kherson administrator, said he was stepping up patrols in the province.
Ukrainian forces continue to push on another front in southern Ukraine, attacking Russian forces in the Kherson region.
Russia said it had fought off a 120-strong detachment of Ukrainian special forces who tried to form a bridgehead in occupied Kherson on September 15. The forces reportedly attempted to land on the Kinburn Spit, a sandbar that extends into the Black Sea.
“The goal is very simple,” said Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the occupation administration of Kherson. “If you get on the Kinburn Spit, look at the map, you can almost walk to… Kherson [city].”
Ukraine launched a counteroffensive in northwestern Kherson on August 29 and Kyiv claims it has recaptured 500sq km of territory. Had they formed a bridgehead on the Kinburn Spit, Ukrainian forces could have opened up a second front to advance on Kherson city from the south.
Russian forces also said they had thwarted attempts by “dozens of assault groups” to penetrate the occupied areas of the neighbouring Zaporizhia region, said Vladimir Rogov, chairman of the group We Are Together With Russia. “This is a permanent process; it happens throughout the day,” Rogov said.
Meanwhile, it appears that occupied Crimea is no longer a reliable launchpad for Russian offensives. British intelligence said Russia has now “almost certainly” relocated its Kilo-class nuclear-powered submarines from Sevastopol naval base to Krasnodar Krai in mainland Russia. On July 31, Ukraine attacked the Sevastopol naval base, with reports that some personnel were wounded.
Last month, Russia reportedly relocated 10 fighter planes from Belbek airfield in Crimea, after Ukraine successfully targeted the Saky airfield on the peninsula, destroying as many as nine fighter jets.
Mick Ryan, a former major general in the Australian army, visited Ukraine amid the Kharkiv offensive and said the Ukrainians were confident of victory.
“It is not a pride that features flag waving and empty patriotic gestures. It is a quiet, humble pride that one finds in the alert posture of every soldier, and confident step of the officials and military officers with whom I met,” he wrote on social media.
A day before Putin’s mobilisation speech, Russian occupation authorities simultaneously announced referenda to be held September 23-27, in what seemed to be a related move.
These referenda are to determine whether the regions Moscow has overrun – Luhansk and Donetsk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhia in the south – want to remain part of Ukraine or secede to Russia.
The Institute for the Study of War, a United States-based think-tank, said the move was important in a legal sense.
“Putin’s illegal annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory will broaden the domestic legal definition of ‘Russian’ territory under Russian law, enabling the Russian military to legally and openly deploy conscripts already in the Russian military to fight in eastern and southern Ukraine,” it said.
European leaders roundly condemned the move. “This has no legal standing,” said French President Emmanuel Macron. “The very idea of organising referenda in territories that have experiences of war … is the sign of cynicism.”
“It is very, very clear that these sham referenda cannot be accepted and are not covered by international law,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
In addition to mobilisation and plebiscites, Russia’s third reaction to its recent battlefield losses has been to threaten Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, including its nuclear facilities. Putin said this was in retaliation for Ukraine’s targeting of Russian infrastructure.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian cruise missiles fired from a Russian Tupolev-95 targeting flood barriers upstream of Kryvyi Rih in the Dnipropetrovsk region on September 14 were intended to flood the city and leave it without power, creating a civil emergency. Russia also fired missiles at power plants in northern Ukraine.
“Just recently, the Russian armed forces delivered a couple of sensitive blows. Let’s consider those as warning strikes,” Putin said on September 16 in reference to the strikes. “If the situation develops in this way, our response will be more serious.”
Just to drive the point home, Russia’s response did become more serious. Ukraine’s nuclear energy administrator, Energoatom, said a Russian missile struck 300m from the Pivdennoukrainsk nuclear power station in southern Ukraine on September 19, in what Energoatom called an act of “nuclear terrorism”.
On September 20, Ukraine’s prosecutor reported the arrest of an informer in Mykolaiv, whose job was to photograph critical infrastructure facilities, including the local thermal power station.
“Beaten by Ukrainian army on the battlefield, Russian cowards are now at war with our critical infrastructure and civilians,” wrote Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
The International Atomic Energy Agency on September 15 called on Russia to “immediately cease all actions against, and at, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and any other nuclear facility in Ukraine, in order for the competent Ukrainian authorities to regain full control over all nuclear facilities within Ukraine’s internationally recognised borders.”
At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan on September 16, Putin found himself isolated over the war in Ukraine, with world leaders who generally express sympathy towards Russia showing scepticism and concern.
“I know that today’s era is not of war,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “We discussed this with you on the phone several times, that democracy and dialogue touch the entire world.” Speaking of the serious food shortages facing the developing world partly due to the war in Ukraine, Modi told Putin, “We must find some way out, and you, too, must contribute to that.”
China’s President Xi Jinping said he had “questions and concerns” about the war, and spoke of the need to “inject stability” into world affairs.
“It is very clear that China is not happy with this war, and it is particularly unhappy with the global economic impact,” said Plamen Tonchev, head of the Asia Unit at the Institute of International Economic Relations in Athens, who attended the Samarkand summit.
“It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Putin found himself for the first time ever so isolated,” he told Al Jazeera. “Even Russia’s underbelly, Central Asia, is keeping Russia at arm’s length.”