Western experts predicted on Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new troop buildup would prolong the war but not change the balance on the ground, and warned against downplaying his renewed nuclear threat.
Putin announced the call-up of 300,000 reservists — more than the 200,000 who mobilized to invade Ukraine in February — after his troops lost significant swaths of territory they seized at the start of the war.
It came as Moscow signaled it was determined to keep the occupied territories of eastern and southern Ukraine from being absorbed into Russia by holding local referendums.
But analysts say it is a politically risky move for the Russian leader, amid growing domestic resistance to war and a military cohesion framework that has eroded over the past decade.
“They’re not going to do it well,” said Dara Massicot, a Russian defense expert at Rand Corp. who has studied the mobilization process.
“They’re going to mobilize people and send them to the front with outdated training, poor leadership, maintenance equipment in worse shape than active duty forces, and send them to pieces because they don’t have time to wait.”
Michael Kaufman, a defense expert at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, cautioned against dismissing the effort.
This would help Moscow strengthen its current battle lines under heavy pressure from Ukrainian fighters backed by Western arms.
“It’s clear that the Russian military is very weak in the winter and looks even worse come 2023,” Kaufman said Wednesday.
“So what it does is it can expand Russian capabilities to sustain this war, but not change the overall course and outcome.”
But Putin’s challenge is to build a replacement force with adequate training, equipment, leadership and motivation.
“If you train these conservators… it’s still not that much. The quality of the training is still going to be in question. Who’s going to lead them? All these other things are still open questions,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow. In Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“This war is increasingly being fought on the Ukrainian side by volunteers who are motivated … and on the Russian side, we’re going to see a larger portion of people who don’t want to be there,” he said.
Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general and defense analyst, said Putin still “wants to prolong the war and make the West wait.”
“With combat performance declining from the 3-4 four-month mark, this is a tired force that needs rotation,” he said on Twitter.
“The numbers that are being called are not enough to make a decisive contribution or change the outcome of the war… it is more about rotation and replacement,” he said.
Putin’s threat to use nuclear power against any threat to Russia’s “territorial integrity” was even greater.
“We will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people. This is not a trick,” Putin said, adding, “Those who are trying to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the wind can also turn. Their direction.”
White House national security spokesman John Kirby called Putin’s remarks “irresponsible rhetoric,” adding, “We take this very seriously.”
While some analysts dismissed Putin’s talks as repeated bluster, others said Putin appeared to be changing Russia’s established nuclear weapons policy, which Moscow wants to annex if it is applied to occupied Ukrainian territory.
Hans Christensen, a nuclear policy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote on Twitter, “By threatening nuclear use that goes beyond Russia’s declared policy, Putin shows his frustration over his failed war in Ukraine.”
“It sounds like chest-pounding, but this is clearly Putin’s clearest nuclear threat to date,” he said.
“It is imperative that NATO does not take the bait and fuel its false narrative by clearly threatening nuclear retaliation.”
Andrei Baklitsky of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research said Putin’s statement “goes beyond the Russian nuclear doctrine, which suggests Russia’s first use in conventional warfare only when the existence of the state is threatened.”
“Coming from someone who has sole decision-making power on Russian nuclear weapons, it has to be taken seriously,” he said.