LONDON (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has not yet publicly commented on a lightning-fast rout of his forces in northeastern Ukraine, but is under pressure from domestic nationalists to regain the initiative.
It has few quick fix options, if Western intelligence and open source analytics are accurate, and most of the potential steps it could take involve internal and geopolitical risks.
Since they came to power in 1999, Islamic militants in Chechnya and the wider North Caucasus region are among the toughest armed enemies Putin has faced. In that case, he chose to step up with more force.
These are some of its main options in Ukraine:
Stabilize, regroup, attack
Russian and Western military analysts agree that, from Moscow’s point of view, Russian forces must urgently stabilize the front line, halt Ukraine’s advance, reorganize and, if possible, launch their own counter offensive. However, there are doubts in the West as to whether Russia has enough ground forces or equipment, given the number of casualties it has suffered and how much hardware was abandoned or destroyed during what Russia calls its “special military operation” to destroy the Ukrainian army.
“There is no workforce,” said Konrad Muzyka, director of Rochan Consulting in Poland, after Russia’s setback in the north-east.
“The volunteer battalions are strengthened and the recruiting campaign is not delivering what was expected. And I think it will only get worse as now fewer men will want to join. If Moscow wants to add men, it must conduct a mobilization.”
Russian efforts to increase the number of troops it can deploy include the formation of a new 3rd Army Corps, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov deploying new forces, and Putin last month signed a decree to increase the size of the armed forces. Russian.
Putin will have to decide whether to accept the demands of nationalist critics to sack or reshuffle the top army, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a close ally. Putin has traditionally not succumbed to immediate pressure to fire subordinates, but has sometimes separated from them later.
Mobilizing the Russian reserves, which number some 2 million men with military service in the past five years, is doable, but it takes time to train and deploy people.
The Kremlin said Tuesday that there has been no discussion of a nationwide mobilization “at the moment”.
Such a move would be popular with nationalists, but less so with some Russian men in urban centers who, anecdotal evidence suggests, are less eager to join the struggle.
It would mean recalibrating official messages about Ukraine and moving away from describing it as a “special military operation” with objectives limited to an indefinite war.
This in turn would force the authorities to abandon their policy of trying to ensure that the lives of most Russians would continue as before February 24, when Putin invaded Ukraine.
Putting Russia in full war condition would also entail internal political risks, in particular the risk of a public reaction against forced conscription.
It would also be an admission that Russia is engaged in a full-scale war against another Slavic country – and that the war is going badly for Moscow.
Andrey Kfortov, head of RIAC, a think tank close to the Russian foreign ministry, said he believed the authorities were reluctant to mobilize.
“In big cities a lot of people don’t want to go to fight and the mobilization is unlikely to be popular,” Kfortov said.
“Secondly, I think it is probably in Putin’s interest to present the whole thing as a limited operation. The state would like to preserve as much as possible as it was before without making any radical changes.”
Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Russia, said it would take months for a mobilization to have any effect on Russia’s fighting strength anyway.
‘GENERAL WINTER’ BET
Two Russian sources familiar with Kremlin thinking told Reuters last month that Putin hopes skyrocketing energy prices and possible shortages this winter will persuade Europe to give Ukraine a respite, on terms. of Russia.
Some European diplomats believe Ukraine’s recent battlefield success has undermined the urge of some Europeans to push Kiev to make concessions, while countries like Germany appear to have gotten tougher on Moscow in recent weeks and more determined to overcome. winter energy problems.
The European Union has banned Russian coal and approved a partial ban on Russian imports of crude oil. Russia, in turn, has drastically reduced gas exports to Europe and made it clear that it could ban all energy exports, a lever that Putin has yet to pull.
EXPAND MISSILE TARGETING
After the setback in northeastern Ukraine, Russia hit Ukrainian electricity infrastructure with missiles. This caused temporary blackouts in Kharkiv and the adjacent Poltava and Sumy regions. Water supplies and mobile networks were also affected.
The move was hailed by some Russian nationalists who would like to see Moscow use cruise missiles to cripple Ukrainian infrastructure more permanently, a move that is sure to attract international condemnation.
The nationalists themselves have also long demanded that Moscow target what they call “decision-making” centers in Kiev and elsewhere, something that is unlikely to be achieved without significant collateral damage.
END OR DOWNGRADE OF THE GRAIN DEAL
Putin complained that a deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey that allows Ukraine to export grain and other food products across the Black Sea is unfair to poorer countries and to Russia.
Putin is expected to hold talks this week with Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the revision of the deal, which provides Ukraine with much-needed budget revenue. If Putin wanted to hurt Ukraine immediately, he could suspend or cancel the pact or refuse to renew it when it expires in November. The West and the poorer countries of Africa and the Middle East would accuse it of aggravating global food shortages; he would blame Ukraine.
AFFAIR OF PEACE
The Kremlin says it will dictate the terms of any peace agreement to Kiev when the time comes, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said he will use force to liberate his country.
Zelenskiy said this includes Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. Moscow has repeatedly stated that Crimea’s status is forever established.
Even the Russian-backed concession of conquered territory in eastern Ukraine in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic or Luhansk People’s Republic seems politically impossible for Moscow as it has formally recognized them.
The total “liberation” of the two self-styled small states from Ukrainian forces was one of the main reasons given in the first place for the “special military operation”.
The restitution of the conquered territory in southern Ukraine, where Russia partially controls three regions, also looks like a difficult domestic sale.
The southern region of Kherson lies directly north of the annexed Crimea and the location of a canal that supplies most of its water to the Black Sea peninsula.
Along with the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region, Kherson also offers Russia a land corridor through which it can supply Crimea, something Moscow has touted as a major prize.
Russian government officials have rejected Western suggestions that Moscow used tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but it remains a concern for some in the West.
In addition to inflicting mass casualties, such a move could initiate a dangerous escalation spiral and formally drag Western countries into direct war with Russia.
The Russian nuclear doctrine allows the use of nuclear weapons if they – or other types of weapons of mass destruction – are used against it, or if the Russian state faces an existential threat from conventional weapons.
Putin, in a near-autobiography in 2000, recalled cornering a mouse in a corner with a stick when he grew up in a dilapidated apartment building in then-Leningrad and being surprised when the cornered animal threw himself into it. against him and turned the situation around.
Brenton, the former British ambassador to Russia, warned that a cornered Putin could go nuclear if he faces a humiliating defeat without a face-saving escape ramp.
“If the choice for Russia is to fight a losing war, and lose badly and Putin falling, or some kind of nuclear demonstration, I don’t bet they wouldn’t go for the nuclear demonstration,” Brenton said.
Retired US General Ben Hodges, a former commander of the US military in Europe, agrees it is a risk, but said he finds it unlikely.
“There is no real battlefield advantage to be gained, it would be impossible for (the) United States to stay out / unresponsive, and I don’t think Putin or his closest advisors are suicidal,” Hodges said.
(Editing by William Maclean)