In the face of Russia's stunning recent losses in northeastern Ukraine, President Vladmir Putin has just announced the mobilization of 300,000 Russian reservists. These are conventional (i.e., non-nuclear) forces, but Putin used the occasion to lob nuclear threats: "In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff," he warned. "Those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the wind rose can turn around."
Despite this threatening rhetoric, Putin's partial mobilization of Russia's conventional forces may actually lower the risk of Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine — at least for now. Unfortunately, however, it will also prolong a brutal war while potentially paving the way for Putin to engage in other forms of devastating non-nuclear escalation from which Russia has so far largely refrained.
PUTIN MAY GAMBLE
For all the nuclear bluster, Putin's main move today was announcing partial mobilization — and from a nuclear risk perspective, that may be good news. A truly desperate Putin might have turned to nuclear weapons simply due to a lack of other options for arresting the collapse of his military and what he sees as a politically vital project in Ukraine.
Instead, Putin's attempt to bolster his conventional forces suggests he is not eager to turn to nuclear attack as a means of achieving his goals in Ukraine. Putin certainly knows that any Russian nuclear use would carry severe and unpredictable consequences, as the Biden administration has repeatedly signaled.
Yet Russian military setbacks in recent weeks had raised concerns that Putin might nevertheless gamble on nuclear escalation. The concern was not that Putin would suddenly lob nuclear weapons at NATO, a nuclear alliance that can credibly threaten retaliation. Rather, the fear has been that Putin might use nuclear weapons against Ukraine itself, which lacks a nuclear arsenal or a security guarantee from a nuclear power.
Indeed, Russia's large stock of so-called "nonstrategic" weapons looks tailor-made to break up large concentrations of Ukrainian forces — the type, for instance, that could threaten to take back Russian-held territory near Kherson in the south just as they have recently done around Kharkiv in the east. Nuclear weapons could also offer a horrific but effective way of decapitating the Zelenskyy regime.
But the real risk was that Putin would turn to nuclear weapons if his conventional army collapsed. Of course, even with this new mobilization, Russian success on the battlefield remains far from guaranteed. Putin's forces are beset by numerous problems and pathologies common to personalist dictatorships, from low morale to poor logistics to inadequate tactical skills.
Furthermore, Putin's mobilization is likely to remain limited given potential domestic opposition. After all, if it were easy and costless to call up all the country's young men, he surely would have done it much earlier in the war.
But today's move buys time, and indicates a willingness to take non-nuclear steps up the escalation ladder. Purely from the perspective of avoiding nuclear war — in a conflict started by a personalist dictator facing few domestic constraints — that's good news.
MOBILIZATION SHOWS COMMITMENT
Even as it seems to ratchet down the short-term likelihood of nuclear use, Putin's mobilization signals an unflinching commitment to his larger goals in Ukraine — and it may portend a willingness to embrace other nasty means of achieving them.
This reality means Putin will likely continue to search for some other way to end this conflict on terms that he can call a victory. And despite the barbarity of Russia's campaign, there are, in fact, a number of forms of non-nuclear escalation from which Russia has so far largely refrained — probably in no small part due to Putin's own concerns about provoking escalation versus NATO.
Nevertheless, as Putin grows more desperate, he may reach for these other rungs on the escalation ladder, even if he continues to eschew nuclear use. For example, Putin could engage in much more aggressive attempts to decapitate the regime in Kyiv. Or he could significantly ratchet up attacks on civilian infrastructure, as recent Russian attacks on power and water infrastructure in the Kharkiv region suggest.
Putin could also escalate pressure on Ukraine's backers. He is already playing the energy card, hoping that Europe will rethink its commitment to Ukraine after a cold winter without Russian natural gas. Russian cyberattacks against NATO countries also appear to have been very limited so far compared with Russia's known capabilities, offering Putin another way to wreak havoc with the West.
Of most concern, Putin could order conventional military attacks on the NATO supply lines into Ukraine — either on the territory of front-line NATO states or at various depots in western Ukraine. These are all fixed locations well known to the Russians and would not require a great deal of skill to target. Not only would such attacks heighten the likelihood of direct conflict with NATO, but if conducted on a large scale, they could also significantly stymie actual battlefield support to Ukraine, which so far has been relatively unimpeded.
SHADOW OVER EUROPE
This conflict is the first time the nuclear shadow has hung over Europe since the end of the Cold War. Putin's threats are a reminder that Russia remains a nuclear superpower despite its recent conventional losses, and his order for a partial mobilization is a reminder that the war is unlikely to end soon. As winter descends on the continent, rapid territorial shifts of the type just seen in the Ukrainian counteroffensive will become much less likely, raising the prospect of a so-called "hurting stalemate" that will generate tremendous pressure on both sides to find a military or political way out of the conflict.
For that reason, it is notable that Putin's speech also set the stage for Russia to annex Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, which Russia would then consider official Russian territory. Whether Ukrainian attempts to take back that territory would then be considered attacks on Russia itself remains an open question, but one that could play an important role in Putin's future political justifications for escalation in ways not yet seen in this war.
Caitlin Talmadge is associate professor of security studies in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the author of "The Dictator's Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes" (Cornell University Press, 2015). For other analysis and commentary from The Monkey Cage, an independent blog anchored by political scientists from universities around the world, see www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage