War in Ukraine: How worried should the world be about Vladimir Putin's threats?

Ever the gambler, Vladimir Putin has doubled down on Russia’s loss-making invasion of Ukraine. His declaration of “partial mobilisation” will see Russia’s military reservists and veterans sent to battle.

Russia is set to stage referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine to formally annex them. Putin capped off his latest broadcast by reminding the world of Russia’s willingness to defend its territory with every weapon in its arsenal —a thinly veiled nuclear threat.

How worried should Ukrainians – and the rest of us, living in countries backing Ukraine’s defensive war against Russia – be at these developments?

The mobilisation order should be taken seriously because Russian armies historically have relied on mass and not finesse. In other words, swamping their enemies with firepower and personnel rather than opting for more precise operations that go for the jugular and of an enemy’s weak spots.

Police officers detain a man in Moscow following calls to protest against partial mobilisation announced by President Vladimir Putin. Picture: Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

At the start of this invasion in February, Russia’s military tried to break from this typecasting by attacking Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s two largest cities. Russian troops tried parachute drops, airborne raids and ‘thunder runs’ deep into enemy territory – and failed abysmally.

In April, Russia’s leadership reverted to type and switched their army to mount a plodding advance in eastern and southern Ukraine, flattening their enemies with weight of numbers. For a while, this worked for Russia.

Now, Putin badly needs more troops to boost Russia’s flagging war effort. Russian forces are yet to fully occupy the Donetsk region, which they must do so to complete their conquest of the Donbas. They must now also defend Russia’s territorial conquests against Ukrainian counter-attacks.

The mobilisation order will cause some domestic blowback in Russia, but others may see it as a patriotic call to arms. Russian combat veterans will be prioritised in the call up, based on assumptions they need minimal re-training. However, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu’s target of 300,000 additional personnel won’t be met by on veterans alone; we wait to see how Russia selects others.

The Russian plan to formally annex further Ukrainian territory must also be taken seriously. Unlike the March 16, 2014 referendum staged by Russia to annex Crimea, which took place far away from the fighting, these new referendums will take place close to combat areas.

I worked in the Donbas for a year as an international ceasefire observer in the first war back in 2014-15. Back then, the populations in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were split over whether to remain loyal to Ukraine or to yearn for annexation by Russia. Putin decided not to annex the Russian occupied parts of the Donbas back in 2014. Those wanting to join Russia have waited eight long years and will consider this a milestone.

However, there will also be many Ukrainian residents of these areas deeply opposed to the move. When staging its referenda, the Russia occupiers will have to garrison these areas against sabotage or local resistance.

Few other countries will recognise these annexations, but they will have two big implications. First, once Putin claims these territories as part of the Russian Federation he may extend guarantees of defending these areas by all means available to his armed forces — a terrifying thought if it includes nuclear weapons.

Second, Russia’s annexation of yet more Ukrainian lands further buries the prospect of negotiations between Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky. The Ukrainian president has ruled out any territorial concessions to end the war – no land for peace, in other words. And the Russian president has now staked it all on emerging from this calamitous invasion with something to show for it, including every ounce of his domestic authority.

These latest developments mean one thing more definitively – there is no end to the war in sight.

- Dr Samir Puri is the author of ‘Russia’s Road to War With Ukraine: Invasion Amidst the Ashes of Empires’ and a former ceasefire monitor in Donbas.


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