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Russian President Vladimir Putin has already made big bets on Ukraine.
He sent troops to storm the capital Kiev in the early days of the war, only to have them withdrawn a month later. He wagered that the West and other countries would not act so swiftly and in a coordinated manner to isolate Russia.
Despite this track record, Putin’s latest gamble may be his biggest so far. Faced with setbacks on the battlefield, the Russian leader has doubled. Russia will mobilize an additional 300,000 troops – more than the original invasion force – and Moscow also appears ready to annex Ukrainian territory under her control.
To bring his intentions home, Putin made his announcement on Russian national television on Wednesday, speaking just hours before President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the United Nations.
“Washington, London and Brussels are openly urging Kiev to take the struggle into Russian territory and defeat Moscow by any means,” Putin said in a speech that portrayed Russia as a country besieged by the “collective West”.
Putin’s move has faced mounting criticism from Russian nationalists in favor of the war at home, who say Russia is in danger of losing because it has not unleashed its full fighting force.
Yet Putin called it a “partial mobilization” and continues to call the conflict a “special military operation”. This appears to be a nod to the Russians who have doubts about the military adventure in Ukraine.
Biden criticized Putin in the UN speech
Putin’s moves will take time to play on the battlefield.
But the Russian leader is already facing a new wave of international criticism led by President Biden. In his remarks to the UN, Biden described the conflict in Ukraine as a “one-man choice war”. He said that Russia is “trying to extinguish Ukraine’s right to exist” and is committing a large number of war crimes.
The US president also said Putin was making “blatant nuclear threats against Europe”. This was a reference to Putin’s observation that Russia has “various means of destruction”. Putin has already issued veiled nuclear warnings before. He now he says, “This is not a bluff.”
In his remarks, Zelenskyy said: “A crime has been committed against Ukraine and we are calling for punishment.”
“Ukraine wants peace, Europe wants peace, the world wants peace and we have seen who is the only one who wants war,” Zelenskkyy added. “There is only one entity among all the member states of the United Nations, which would say now, if it could interrupt my speech, that it is happy with this war.”
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Other Ukrainian officials say Putin is acting now because he knows he is in trouble and wants to change the narrative, which has focused on Ukraine’s military progress in recent weeks.
A vote that could lead to annexation
Putin’s military announcement was accompanied by other risks as well.
The Russian leader expressed his support for choreographic referendums in four partially occupied regions of eastern and southern Ukraine to formally join the Russian Federation.
Putin’s approval came just a day after Russia-backed separatist leaders in Ukraine announced they would hold five days of voting that would begin as soon as Friday.
In recent months, Moscow had been working to lay the foundations for eventual annexation. Leading Kremlin advisors have been sent to oversee integration efforts through proxy governments. But as the fighting raged, the vote was postponed.
Even now, Russia and its separatist allies in Ukraine have not publicly addressed any of the obvious questions. For example, how is it possible to hold a credible poll in the middle of a war zone, where a large part of the population has fled and daily life has been turned upside down?
Ukraine and its supporters have dismissed the entire exercise as a farce, and Western countries have already made it clear that there is no chance of it getting international approval.
Ukraine says Russia is holding these referendums so that it can formally declare the lands as Russian territory – and then argue that it is Ukraine that is attacking Russian lands.
“This is a cynical attempt in response to what is happening on the battlefield,” Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Zelenskyy’s chief advisors, told NPR. “There is no legal basis for this. You cannot hold a referendum in a place that is currently under military occupation. This is to distract from Ukraine’s effective counter-offensive.”
A “gradual mobilization”
From Russia’s point of view, referendums and annexation could be carried out quickly, while mobilizing additional troops seemed an even greater challenge.
Almost immediately, Putin’s announcement ignited the debate over who – and how – many would ultimately be called to serve.
Alexander Baunov, a Russian researcher at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, says Putin essentially wrote an open note for his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
“Shoigu is saying he needs 300,000 people. So it could be 100,000 more and then 100,000 more. So it’s not a ‘partial mobilization’, it’s a gradual mobilization,” Baunov said.
The move sparked protests in dozens of cities across Russia, as mainly younger Russians defied government warnings about criminal sanctions.
By Wednesday night, police had made more than 1,300 arrests nationwide, including at least 500 in Moscow.
Meanwhile, the Russian parliament on Wednesday passed laws criminalizing the abandonment and voluntary surrender by Russian troops. The penalty can be up to 10 years in prison.
Yet many military analysts in the United States predicted that the mobilization effort would not provide a quick solution to Russia’s military problems.
They noted that many of the best Russian troops have not done well in combat with the Ukrainians in the past seven months, adding that reservists generally did not have the same level of training or experience.
Furthermore, sending new troops into battle is unlikely to make much difference if Russia cannot solve other chronic military problems in Ukraine, including poor leadership, logistics failures and the loss of large quantities of equipment.
Greg Myre is a National Security Correspondent for NPR. Follow him @ gregmire1. Charles Maynes of NPR contributed to this report.