In his televised speech on Russian state television on Wednesday, Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin ignited the next escalation level in the Ukraine war. Not only did he order partial mobilization, he threatened nuclear weapons. What does this mean for his country, Ukraine and the West?
“The West wants to destroy Russia.” Time and again, in his speech broadcast on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly and blatantly threatened allegations like this: Russia would have more modern weapons than the West. Including nuclear weapons. “We will use all means – and I’m not bluffing,” Putin ended his statement.
Almost seven months after the start of the war against Ukraine, the Kremlin ruler also ordered a partial mobilization of his own armed forces. Putin said he made this decision after a proposal from the Defense Ministry and signed the decree. He also wants to solve personnel problems at the front. At the same time, Putin announced that he would support the “referendums” in the occupied territories of Ukraine on joining Russia, i.e. to press ahead with the annexation.
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What do these words of Putin mean? Should the alarm bells be ringing not only in Ukraine but also further west? Gerhard Mangott, Professor of International Relations at the University of Innsbruck and recognized expert on Eastern Europe, answers the most important questions about Putin’s speech for FOCUS online:
What does partial mobilization mean?
Gerhard Mangott: The Russian troops in the Ukraine are apparently so thin that Putin sees no other way out than to order partial mobilization, although he didn’t want that for a long time. It’s about 300,000 reservists who are deployed. These are basically civilians with previous military experience.
Why did he hesitate for so long?
Mangott: Putin wanted to prevent that because he feared the political risk involved. So far, there has always been talk in Russia of a “special operation” in Ukraine. For most Russians, the semblance of normalcy should be maintained. Now that’s different. Fathers and sons are torn from their families and sent to the front. That could change the mood in Russia.
Are we experiencing a new level of escalation?
Mangott: We are undoubtedly experiencing a new level of escalation in the Ukraine war. Putin does not want and must not lose this war if he wants to remain in office. He is now taking the next step.
Putin says he’s not bluffing. What does he mean by that?
Mangott: Putin is making it clear that he doesn’t shy away from using tactical nuclear weapons. If he annexed the areas in question in Ukraine via bogus referendums, they are part of Russia according to the Russian interpretation. Should Ukraine then continue to try to win them back, he would defend them with nuclear weapons.
Can this grow into a European conflagration?
Mangott: That depends entirely on how the West reacts to Putin’s use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. I don’t see the danger of a war in Europe at the moment. What the future will bring remains to be seen. I could imagine that Putin would first set an example and detonate over an uninhabited area.
The “People’s Republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk in the east of Ukraine, recognized by Moscow, and the Cherson region in the south want to have a vote on joining the Russian Federation this week in controversial proceedings. This was announced by the regions on Tuesday. The mock referendums, which are not recognized by either Ukraine or the international community, are to be held from September 23-27. They are seen as a reaction to the current Ukrainian counter-offensive in the east of the country.
Similarly, in 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea. The vote was not recognized internationally. This time, too, recognition is not in sight. The West responded with sanctions. However, Russia had always emphasized that it would not allow the punitive measures taken by the EU and the USA to divert it from its goals in Ukraine.
Putin has already put the strategic nuclear arsenal on increased readiness to deter NATO from interfering in Ukraine.
Russian political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya said that Putin decided to hold accession referendums after the failure of his original plans to quickly seize the territories of Ukraine. Once the regions have been included, he has the option of defending the territories under threat of using nuclear weapons. In doing so, he significantly increased his efforts in the war.
In view of the recent Ukrainian advance, the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk had called for such “coordination” to be held quickly. Russia justified its invasion of Ukraine on February 24 with the “liberation” of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, among other things. First, the Russian military was able to conquer large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Most recently, however, the Kremlin had to accept a serious defeat, the Russian troops withdrew almost completely from the Kharkiv region after Ukrainian attacks. State propaganda then warned of a possible devastating defeat in the war. On the other hand, the Russian military leadership has repeatedly emphasized that everything is going according to plan and that all goals have been achieved.