The end is near. For Putin’s military options in Ukraine, that is.
Wednesday in Moscow, Putin said he will call up reservists and hold political referenda in captured Ukrainian territory. And yet again, he threatened to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory is in danger.
Despite the scary language, Putin is not fooling anybody in NATO. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg lost no time pointing out that Russia doesn’t have enough weapons to equip more troops. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby immediately said the speech showed Putin was struggling. And at the UN, President Biden denounced Putin’s war.
Putin’s biggest problem is that Russia is losing and Ukraine has seized the initiative. Ukraine has two counter-offensives underway, in the north and the south. Ukraine scored a major victory by pushing Russian forces out of the town of Izyum two weeks ago, thus keeping control of a major highway and turning back territorial gains in the east. Russian forces broke and fled. The defeat around Izyum also showed that the battlefield performance of Russia’s forces is getting worse, not better. Ukraine is learning and improving while Russia is on the run.
Wednesday’s announcement sounded to me like Putin had to do something to rally his own beleaguered military forces and attempt to convince the Russians he still has a plan. But here’s why his words rang hollow.
Putin announced a partial call-up of 300,000 Russian reserves. But the mobilization won’t happen overnight, or even over the next few weeks. Simply transporting new troops to the front lines will be difficult for Russia as Ukraine uses long-range weapons to target roads and supply depots. Russia’s military is losing this war despite their superior numbers; so calling for more troops tells you they don’t have a clue how to cope with Ukraine’s tactics and new weapons.
I think Putin may be trying to figure out how to sell his defeat. He’ll hold rigged referenda where occupied territories "vote" to join Russia. That’s part of his old plan, but it won’t help if Russia keeps losing ground to Ukraine’s forces.
The biggest sign of desperation was the renewed nuclear threat. All along, Putin’s nuclear threats have been intended to scare NATO, the U.S. and allies into halting military assistance to Ukraine. He’d like nothing better than to have Washington and London and Berlin and Warsaw cower and cool it on the aid.
But the simple fact is that Russia’s threats are not working. As of now, the U.S. military reports that Russian nuclear forces have not changed their posture, according to Kirby. That is a very significant point. It means that Russia is not unwrapping the nuclear weapons and activating units and people to employ them. Of course, the U.S. military has been watching Russia’s nuclear units closely since well before Feb. 24 and the Pentagon says the Russian posture had not changed over the last seven months. So, Putin says he’s "not bluffing" but for now his nuclear threats are all just words.
It's true that Russia has some rather nasty nukes. However, Putin well knows that use of a Russian nuclear weapon in Ukraine will blow back radiation on Russian forces and into Russia itself, due to prevailing winds. As Biden said, there will also be "severe consequences" should Russia use a nuclear weapon. If such a heinous event takes place, there is a full array of legitimate military retaliation options for allies to consider. Just imagine what a U.S. B-2 stealth bomber could do to military targets in Crimea with non-nuclear weapons. For that matter, nuclear powers Britain and France have options, too.
Detonating a Russian nuclear weapon will not win the war in Ukraine for Putin. Don’t forget China is already nervous about Russia’s military failures; use of a nuclear weapon by Putin could break up China’s vital energy purchases and isolate Russia even more.
The bottom line is that Ukraine’s success is closing off Putin’s options. More troops won’t fix Russia’s almost-insurmountable tactical problems such as poor command and control, an inability to maneuver, no air superiority, and high losses of helicopters and unmanned drones, to name a few. If this is Putin’s next great plan, we are seeing again that Putin is no military genius.