- Putin is under pressure from Russian nationalists
- They want mass mobilization, tougher tactics
- Few quick fix options for Russian leader though
- Many of them carry national and geopolitical risks
- So far, Putin has remained silent on the military setback
LONDON, Sept 13 (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has yet to publicly comment on the lightning rout of his forces in northeastern Ukraine, but he is under pressure from the country’s nationalists to regain the initiative .
He has few quick-fix options, if Western intelligence and open-source analysis is accurate, and most of the potential actions he might take carry national and geopolitical risks.
Since coming to power in 1999, Islamist militants in Chechnya and the wider North Caucasus region have been among the toughest armed enemies Putin has faced. In this case, he chose to step up more forcefully.
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Here are some of its main options in Ukraine:
STABILIZE, REGROUP, ATTACK
Russian and Western military analysts agree that – from Moscow’s point of view – Russian forces must urgently stabilize the front line, halt Ukraine’s advance, regroup and, if they can, launch their own counteroffensive. There are, however, doubts in the West as to whether Russia has sufficient ground forces or equipment, given the number of casualties it has suffered and the amount of equipment abandoned or destroyed during what Russia calls its “special military operation” to destroy the Ukrainian army.
“There is no manpower,” Konrad Muzyka, director of Polish firm Rochan Consulting, said after Russia’s setback in the northeast.
“The volunteer battalions are understaffed, and the recruiting campaign is not yielding what was expected. And I think it will only get worse because fewer men will now want to join. If Moscow wants to add men, it must lead a mobilization.”
Russian efforts to increase the number of troops it can deploy include forming a new 3rd Army Corps, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov mustering new forces and Putin signing a decree last month to increase the size of the forces Russian armies. Read more
Putin will have to decide whether to accept demands from nationalist critics to sack or reshuffle top military brass, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a close ally. Putin has traditionally not bowed to immediate pressure to fire his subordinates, but has occasionally parted ways with them at a later date.
Mobilizing Russian reserves, which number about 2 million men who have completed their military service in the past five years, is doable, but it takes time to train and deploy people.
The Kremlin said on Tuesday that there was no discussion of a national mobilization “for the moment”. Read more
Such a move would be popular with nationalists, but less so with some urban Russian men who, according to anecdotal evidence, are less eager to join the fight.
This would mean recalibrating official messaging on Ukraine and moving away from portraying it as “a special military operation” with objectives limited to open warfare.
This, in turn, would force the authorities to abandon their policy of ensuring that the lives of most Russians continue as before on February 24, when Putin invaded Ukraine.
Placing Russia on a full war footing would also carry domestic political risks, including the risk of a public backlash against forced conscription.
It would also constitute an admission that Russia is engaged in a full-scale war against another Slavic country – and that the war is going badly for Moscow.
Andrey Kortunov, head of RIAC, a think tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, said he believed the authorities were reluctant to mobilize.
“In big cities, a lot of people don’t want to go to fight, and the mobilization is unlikely to be popular,” Kortunov said.
“Secondly, I think it’s probably in Putin’s interest to present the whole thing as a limited operation. The state would like to preserve as much as possible of what it was before without making drastic changes.”
Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Russia, said it would be months before a mobilization had any effect on Russia’s fighting strength in any case.
BET ON “GENERAL WINTER”
Two Russian sources familiar with Kremlin thinking told Reuters last month that Putin hopes soaring energy prices and possible shortages this winter will persuade Europe to heavily arm Ukraine for a truce – to the conditions of Russia. Read more
Some European diplomats say Ukraine’s recent success on the battlefield has undermined the urge among some Europeans to push Kyiv to make concessions, while countries like Germany appear to have become tougher on Moscow in recent times. weeks and more determined to overcome winter energy problems. Read more
The European Union has banned Russian coal and approved a partial ban on imports of Russian crude oil. Russia, in turn, has sharply reduced its gas exports to Europe and made it clear that it could ban all energy exports, a lever that Putin has yet to pull.
EXPAND MISSILE TARGETING
After its setback in northeastern Ukraine, Russia hit Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure with missiles. This caused temporary power cuts in Kharkiv and the adjacent regions of Poltava and Sumy. Water supplies and mobile networks were also affected.
The move was applauded by some Russian nationalists who would like to see Moscow use cruise missiles to cripple Ukrainian infrastructure more permanently, a move that is sure to draw international condemnation.
The same nationalists have also long called on Moscow to strike at what they call “decision-making” centers in Kyiv and elsewhere, which is unlikely to be achieved without significant collateral damage.
END OR CANCEL CEREAL OFFER
Putin has complained that a UN-brokered deal with Turkey that allows Ukraine to export grain and other foodstuffs through the Black Sea is unfair to poorer countries and Russia. Read more
Putin is due to meet Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan this week to discuss revising the deal, which provides Ukraine with much-needed budget revenue. If Putin wants to hurt Ukraine immediately, he could suspend or cancel the pact or refuse to renew it when it expires in November. The West and poorer countries in Africa and the Middle East would blame it for worsening global food shortages; he would blame Ukraine.
The Kremlin has said it will dictate to Kyiv the terms of any peace deal when the time comes, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said he will use force to liberate his country.
Zelenskiy said that includes Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. Moscow has repeatedly said Crimea’s status is settled forever.
Conceding captured territory in eastern Ukraine to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic or the Russian-backed Lugansk People’s Republic also seems politically impossible for Moscow, as it has officially recognized them.
The complete “liberation” of the two self-declared states from Ukrainian forces was one of the main reasons given for the “special military operation”.
Returning captured territory in southern Ukraine, where Russia partially controls three regions, also looks like a tough domestic sale.
The southern region of Kherson is directly north of annexed Crimea and the location of a canal that supplies the peninsula from the Black Sea with most of its water.
Along with the neighboring region of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson also gives Russia a land corridor through which it can supply Crimea, which Moscow has touted as a major prize.
Russian government officials have dismissed Western suggestions that Moscow would use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but it remains a concern for some Westerners.
In addition to inflicting massive casualties, such a move could trigger a dangerous spiral of escalation and formally draw Western countries into a direct war with Russia.
Russia’s nuclear doctrine allows the use of nuclear weapons if they – or other types of weapons of mass destruction – are used against it, or if the Russian state faces an existential threat from conventional weapons .
Putin, in a quasi-autobiography in 2000, recalls cornering a rat with a stick as he was growing up in a dilapidated building in Leningrad and being surprised when the cornered animal lunged at him and reversed the roles.
Brenton, the former British ambassador to Russia, has warned that a cornered Putin could go nuclear if he faces a humiliating defeat with no exit ramp to save face.
“If the choice for Russia is to fight a lost war, and lose badly and bring down Putin, or some kind of nuclear demonstration, I wouldn’t bet they wouldn’t be in the nuclear demonstration,” Brenton said. .
Retired US General Ben Hodges, former commander of US Army forces in Europe, acknowledges it is a risk but said he thinks it is unlikely.
“There is no real battlefield advantage to be gained, it would be impossible for (the) United States to stay out/not respond, and I don’t think Putin or his top advisers loved ones are suicidal,” Hodges said.
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Editing by William Maclean
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