Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on state television to announce...

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on state television to announce a partial mobilization of reservists. Credit: AP/Gavriil Grigorov

Russia’s war against Ukraine entered a new phase early Wednesday morning when Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared on state television to announce a partial mobilization of reservists and make new threats against the West. Putin’s move is an obvious attempt to reverse the recent momentum that has heavily favored Ukraine in the seven-month war. But it is very unlikely to succeed, and failure could have far-reaching consequences for Russia and beyond.

The long-predicted Ukrainian counteroffensive, aided by weapons and training supplied by the West, culminated in the remarkable push in mid-September to recapture as much as 3,000 square miles of occupied territory in the Kharkiv region. These gains represented not only Ukrainian victories but Russian humiliation, with Russian troops fleeing in disarray and official Russian sources scrambling to present this panicked retreat as a planned and organized relocation of troops. While Ukraine’s progress has slowed in the past week, Ukrainian troops continue to push forward.

The partial mobilization — Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu has said some 300,000 reservists will be called up — is very unlikely to solve Russia’s problems on the front, particularly since Ukrainian advances have successfully disrupted supply routes for the occupying forces, and since training, transporting and deploying the new troops will take time. In the meantime, the mobilization decree may already be creating new problems within Russia. There are reports of a new exodus to nearby countries that still allow Russian citizens visa-free entry, airline tickets are selling out, and prices are spiking. The order has also revived dormant protests: According to official reports, over a thousand people were arrested at rallies and demonstrations on Wednesday night.

Despite ostensible popular support in Russia for the “special operation” in Ukraine, sold to the populace as a mission to liberate ethnic Russians oppressed by NATO-backed Ukrainian “Nazis,” there has been a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the war. Very few people have volunteered to go to the front lines, not counting prisoners offered early release in exchange for signing up. The mobilization effort may well reveal the war’s unpopularity.

It may also reveal Putin’s weakness. Already, rumors are swirling in Moscow of mutinies among the elites. Putin’s loss of face on the international scene is also evident. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan a few days ago, he had to endure a chiding from relatively friendly Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who noted that “this is not a time for war,” and Putin looked like a nervous schoolboy as he offered justifications.

The delay in Putin’s televised speech, originally scheduled for Tuesday evening, and the fact that it was broadcast as a recorded video rather than live, are also taken by many Russia-watchers as a sign that all is not well in the Kremlin. Could there, for instance, have been a dispute about the scope of the mobilization?

Putin’s stance toward the West remains confrontational; his speech contained more nuclear saber-rattling, along with absurd accusations that the West was using nuclear threats. But it’s clear the intimidation isn’t working: At the ongoing U.N. summit, leader after leader has rebuked Putin and voiced strong support for Ukraine.

A peace settlement is still in the world’s interest. To bank on a collapse of the Russian regime would be foolhardy in more than one way. But clearly, any settlement must respect Ukraine’s interests first and foremost. Such an outcome, at this point, is both just and realistic.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.

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