But the perspective has changed most dramatically for Russia, and this entails significant new risks for both Ukraine and the West. Since the failure of his lightning strike to take Kyiv in February 2022, Putin has been keeping two balls in the air. One is sustaining the war for the long term with a peacetime Russian army, having surmised that Ukraine’s military is weaker and that a prolonged war favors Russia. The other ball is ensuring that Russian society remains insulated from the war, on the assumption that Putin can maintain high levels of domestic support as long as ordinary Russians are not exposed to the war’s costs. Ukraine’s battlefield successes around Kharkiv, however, have dramatically upset these calculations.
Putin is now confronted with a set of harsh choices. He can keep Russia’s military commitment limited, maintaining current troop levels and continuing to insulate Russian society, or he can order a mass mobilization. Either option poses a serious threat to Putin’s legitimacy. In choosing the former, Putin would give up the prospect of Russian victory and run the risk of outright defeat. Already, the nationalist pro-war forces he has released have become more and more dissatisfied with the conduct of the war. They had been promised land and glory in a rapid campaign. Instead, they have received a staggering death toll for minor territorial advances, which now look increasingly precarious. Continuing the status quo could create dangerous new fissures in Putin’s regime.
Mobilization, on the other hand, would radically upset the Kremlin’s careful management of the war at home. Dramatically increasing Russia’s manpower might seem a logical choice for a country with a population that is three times the size of Ukraine’s, but the war’s popularity has depended on it being far away. Even the Russian terminology for the war, the “special military operation,” has been a hedge, an obfuscation. Despite the Kremlin’s rhetoric of “denazification,” for the Russian population the Ukraine war is entirely unlike the direct, existential struggle that Russia endured in World War II. By announcing a mobilization, the Kremlin would risk domestic opposition to a war that most Russians are unprepared to fight.
Of course, Putin may choose neither of these options. He may seek to change the war by finding a middle way between full mobilization and continuing the status quo. Though he is a self-styled man of action, Putin tends to be indecisive when the stakes are high, preferring to step into situations without ever resolving them. In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, Russia moved into eastern Ukraine, signed a diplomatic agreement, and then dithered for years, neither advancing nor retreating. In Syria, Russia made its move in 2015, backing up Bashar al-Assad militarily and turning the tide in his favor. But Syria remains up in the air, with a political solution to the war entirely out of sight.
Putin has damaged his regime not just by opening his military to setbacks around Kharkiv but by matching extravagant political aims in Ukraine to meager and inefficiently marshaled means. In Ukraine, any of the options now confronting Putin will have significant consequences. Whatever his next move, Europe and the United States should continue supplying the Ukrainian army with the tools it needs most to stay on the offensive. But they must also consider more far-reaching implications for a regime that might be facing growing pressure at home while it seeks new ways to inflict maximum pain on Ukraine and its allies. For Putin, desperate times will not call for reasoned measures.
AN IMPERIAL CALL TO BATTLE
A decision by Putin to mobilize the Russian population, to institute a draft and to call hundreds of thousands of new soldiers, would raise stark new challenges for both Russia and the West. Even if only partial, a Kremlin-ordered mobilization would amount to a full recognition that the country is at war. It would also make that war existential for Russia. Until now, the invasion of Ukraine has not even been presented as a war to most of the Russian population. It has been termed a military operation, which has in practice been a war of choice built on delusional overconfidence and false assumptions about Ukraine and about Ukraine’s allies and partners. With mobilization, however, Russia would be publicly investing itself in a major war. Choice would be transformed into necessity and the “special operation” into a war that all Russians would need to fight and win. Such a decision would probably make a defeat unacceptable for the Russian leadership, rendering the prospect of a negotiated outcome even more unlikely.
This course would be risky for Putin. Russia’s military performance to date hardly suggests that throwing more soldiers into the fight would yield better results for Moscow. In addition, training soldiers would take time, and Russia would need to provide a commensurate increase in military equipment. At the same time, by bringing in many Russians who have no interest in fighting, mobilization could exacerbate rather than resolve problems of morale for the Russian army. Above all, whether full or partial, a mobilization does not necessarily mean victory for Russia. Mobilization would need to be tied to achievable strategic ends.
In pursuing mobilization, Putin would have to address these military perils while keeping on board those militarist and nationalist constituencies that have been empowered by the war and that would certainly welcome this move. The military peril is one of timing. In addition to receiving adequate training, new recruits would need to be integrated into fighting units, which would take many months—at a time when Russia’s officer corps is tied up at the front and whose members have already been dying in high numbers. And with each passing month, as a Putin-ordered mobilization gets underway, arms and assistance will be pouring into Ukraine and the Ukrainian military will be consolidating its strength. If Russia tries to wait out the winter and to launch a new offensive in the spring with fresh forces, it would be against a country that is much more prepared and battle hardened than it was in February 2022.