Bet Larger than Life. Is Russia Going All-in?


The decision to launch mobilization in Russia and hold referendums in the territories occupied during the war looks like an attempt to change the unfavorable state of affairs both at the front and in international politics. After seven months of the war in Ukraine, the situation has clearly reached an impasse. By September, Russian troops could no longer advance, as they did before when they took Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Moreover, in early September, they suffered a very substantial defeat in the north, having lost the previously occupied part of the Kharkiv region.

            At the same time, a very large grouping of Russian troops was actually blocked on the bridgehead on the right bank of the Dnieper in the Kherson region. Its regular supply is extremely hindered due to the destruction of stationary river crossings - the Antonovsky Bridge and the bridge over the dam in Novaya Kakhovka. If there is no supply or it is carried out for a limited amount, for example, by 25%, then the troops on the bridgehead will gradually lose their combat capability. Moreover, they are under constant shelling by Ukrainian artillery.

            Thus, the Russian command needs to make a decision either to withdraw this group to the left bank, or to strengthen it in order not just to hold the bridgehead, but also to attempt the offensive. The latter is important not as much from a military point of view rather than a political one. Because in that case, Russia would at least retain a theoretical opportunity to advance toward Mykolaiv and Odesa.

            As it stands right now, a withdrawal to the left bank would mean that the aforementioned opportunity ceases to exist, and the Russian army is switching to defense. It matters greatly to the Russian leadership that this move can be perceived as a sign of weakness. Therefore, although the military most likely insists on the withdrawal of the right-bank group from near Kherson to the left bank of the Dnieper, the political leadership opposes it. It is worth noting that in September it was already obvious that there were not enough military resources to strengthen the right-bank group and, most importantly, to maintain it at a combat-ready level.

            In fact, Moscow decided to conduct mobilization in an attempt to reverse the course of events. At the same time, a series of emergency referendums were conducted, discussing the annexation of both the territories of Ukraine occupied by Russian troops in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions and the republics that already existed at the time of the outbreak of the war - the LPR and the DPR. Such a rush can be explained by the critical situation at the front and the lack of prospects for a way out of the political impasse in which Russia finds itself.

            There is no doubt that the trigger of these events was the defeat in the Kharkiv region. Noticeably, it was actually preparing to hold a referendum on joining Russia, but this topic lost its relevance after the successful September attack of the Ukrainian army. As a result, the opportunities for political maneuver in the occupied territories have decreased for the Russian side.

            Had they also lost Kherson, which was also not outside the realm of opportunities according to Western analysts, then it would be a highly questionable decision to hold a referendum only in parts of two regions of Ukraine without the control of regional centers. For the record, Kherson is the only regional center that was occupied by the Russian army during this war.

            Therefore, most likely, it was the prospect of a very likely failure near Kherson that became the last straw which triggered two mechanisms at once – a referendum and mobilization. From any rational perspective, it is obvious that during this war, Moscow officials clearly sought, if not to avoid mobilization, for which it was always criticized by Russian right-wing radical circles, then at least to delay. Hence comes the attempt to solve the problem of the shortage of military personnel at the expense of various kinds of mercenary formations, including criminals.

            However, the defeat near Kharkiv in September showed that such tactics do not help Russia. Amid the emerging tendency of transition to a positional war, it turned out that Russia severely lacked in the number of soldiers on a 1,300 kilometres front. In this situation, two options are possible – either to negotiate or to continue the war; but then, resources are required. Following the second option, it is also possible to go two ways – either to switch to a positional war or to continue the offense in an attempt, if not to achieve victory, then to force Ukraine and its Western partners into the negotiations.

            However, currently, it is clearly impossible to come to an agreement. All the conditions that were discussed in March during the negotiations in Istanbul and possibly later during closed consultations are no longer relevant for Ukraine. If during the last spring Russia could still dictate certain conditions, then in the fall it became a greatly challenging task. Its negotiating positions have become noticeably weaker.

            Yet, Moscow is not ready to give up at least some elements that would demonstrate its victory. Therefore, it needed something from Ukraine. It could have been recognition of the DPR and the PRC in exchange for the return of the line of confrontation by February 24 with the return of the occupied territories of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. There might have been something else. That is why Russian representatives always emphasize that negotiations are necessary, but on Moscow's terms.

            In turn, Ukraine does not agree with this. Its representatives nowadays speak not only about the return to February 24, but also about the restoration of territorial integrity in its entirety, including the DPR, LPR and Crimea. In addition, they raise the question of receiving repair of all the damage done to Ukraine.

            Although it is obvious that the assessment of the rhetoric of both sides demands to take into account the factors of real politics. It is clear that, as with any bargaining process, the parties declare the maximum possible requirements, but then agree on a certain average value. Of course, the agreement may not come together, and then the conflict would continue until they are forced to start some form of conversation, for example, due to the exhaustion of the forces of the parties.

            Undoubtedly, Ukraine is now in a more advantageous position. It has overcome the most difficult period of the beginning of this war, is supported by the most developed countries of the world and possesses a huge number of the latest military technologies of Western production. But, what is especially important, Ukraine has a highly motivated population and army. Its society is in the process of forming a political nation amid the struggle for its identity. Perhaps, it may be even more important than the struggle for territory. Because of that, Ukraine has a much higher margin of safety and readiness to fight.

            Russia's situation is more complicated. The war against Ukraine is not very popular among society, even though most of it declared support for it. Rather, it can be said that Russian society does not quite understand the meaning of this war. In Russia, it is still called a special military operation. Despite highly effective propaganda and agitation, Russian society is rather passive about what is happening.

            But the most difficult thing at the moment for Moscow is the lack of results. The military capabilities of the professional army are largely exhausted, resources are increasingly limited, and the losses are too great. At the same time, large-scale arms supplies from NATO countries continue to constantly limit the Russian army in using a number of its obvious advantages.

            For example, the amount of aviation that the Russian military uses in this war is extremely limited due to Ukraine's sufficiently developed air defense. Besides, it is the supply of air defense equipment from the West that looks like the most logical step, because it is 100% defensive weapons. The decision to receive two NASAMS systems from the USA, as well as several German IRIS systems, may not be the last.

            Of course, the lack of aviation on the battlefield was somewhat compensated by missiles and especially artillery. But missiles tend to deplete, and the artillery is running out of ammunition and is constantly losing in the counter-battery confrontation. The latter is connected with the supply of Western counter-battery radars. Likewise, ammunition for artillery is decreasing due to its high consumption in the preceding months. In addition, high-precision weapons which Ukrainians use to strike warehouses in the frontline zone play their role. Another huge potential issue is the wear of barrels that need to be changed after a certain number of shots. Nevertheless, artillery remains the main advantage factor for the Russian army.

            It is worth noting that tanks are less and less present on the battlefield, as there were too many losses during this war. At the same time, Ukraine initially had fewer tanks, and many of them were lost. The supply of Soviet-style tanks from Poland and Slovakia only partially compensated for the losses. Still, Russia's tank losses were significantly higher. In fact, during this war it became obvious that the presence of a large number of modern Western-made anti-tank complexes in the Ukrainian army makes Russian tanks very vulnerable.

            So, of the main types of weapons, the Russian army cannot effectively use tanks and aircraft. Rocket troops and artillery retain their effectiveness, but it is gradually decreasing due to the consumption of ammunition, enemy counteraction and gradual wear.

            Under these circumstances, mobilization is basically one of the last reserves for the Russian command. In fact, the last reserve is nuclear weapons, the discussion about the possible use of which has been periodically conducted in the context of the war in Ukraine, especially recently. But its use is still extremely unlikely, although, of course, nothing can be completely ruled out in our time.

However, the mobilization will provide the Russian army with only a quantitative increase in its ranks. It will not help solve problems with modern technology. By itself, an increase in the size of the army, if not properly prepared, cannot solve the issue of achieving a decisive advantage in the war that is currently going underway in Ukraine. But at the same time, it has the potential to change the tactical situation.       

Obviously, 300 thousand additional soldiers at the front with massive artillery support, even with the poor provision and lack of training, may well affect the situation at the front. At the very least, these soldiers will reinforce the currently active units. In addition, they will create a solid front line in terms of positional warfare. And finally, Russia may well try to go on the offensive in a number of directions, including where it has already retreated before. For example, to Kharkiv or Sumy and Chernihiv. If you call up a million soldiers or more, then, theoretically, you can create groups for an attack.

Another thing is that it will be difficult to provide resources for them, as they will bear heavy losses. Moreover, they will arrive at the front on a winter eve, and for a positional war in winter conditions, considerable material resources are needed. The big question is whether the Russian army and the Russian economy are capable of providing all of this.

Of course, you can open all the warehouses, of which there were a lot since Soviet times. There you can take artillery, tanks, and small arms. Let them be outdated models, but there should be a lot of them. That's enough to arm a million soldiers. However, it will be an army for waging war with large masses of infantry in the fashion of the Second World War or even the First World War.

In this regard, we can recall the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when two opponents of approximately equal strength and capabilities exhausted each other in a positional war. However, the West stands behind Ukraine today with all of its capabilities. Hence, the military strengths of Russia and Ukraine are clearly not equal.

It is worth mentioning that in the Iran-Iraq war it was the Iranians who were the more motivated side, as they had just had an Islamic revolution in 1979. While Iraq received large-scale support from Arab oil-producing countries, no one supported Iran. But despite that, Iran was able to push back the Iraqi army. The motivation of the population and the army played a massive role.

But the main question remains what is the strategic goal of the policy of waging war using the mass of mobilized soldiers. Everything is clear regarding its tactical tasks. First of all, Russian troops will hold Kherson and the right-bank bridgehead, as well as the front in the north of the Luhansk region. They will also continue their offense in the Donetsk region. Theoretically, a larger number of soldiers will create conditions for going on the offensive in a variety of directions, creating a threat to the Ukrainian army. But what about the strategic goals?

It is obvious that the general stabilization of the military situation and the organization of attempts to go on the offensive in certain areas at the moment is already a tall task for Russia. But it is not enough to win the whole war. Rather, it will only become an extra reason for Western countries to strengthen their support for Ukraine. Conscripting even more people will not have an effect due to the growing scarcity of resources.

Therefore, it can be assumed that Moscow plans to use the mobilization in order to signal its willingness to run the most desperate measures. It is important to note that Moscow began mobilization on the eve of winter. Now it will try to put pressure on the Ukrainian positions in the winter period with the help of the entire mass of troops recruited for mobilization. Possibly, it will even be enough for them to hold the front, and therefore the occupied territories in the context of positional warfare. The plan may rely on the possibility that in winter both in Ukraine and in Europe difficulties with the supply of heat and energy may arise.

In addition, Moscow may begin to cause problems for the Ukrainian infrastructure, especially for the heat and electricity supply to cities. When the September attacks targeted the thermal power plants of Kharkiv and Kremenchuk, it was a demonstration of the possibility of using such tactics moving forward.

Based on this information, it can be argued that Russia will be waiting for the development of the situation in Europe. This winter, judging by recent events, Russian gas supplies will not be carried out there. There were explosions on the Nord Stream at the end of September, which took it out of commission. The Yamal-Poland pipeline is not working due to lawsuits. Paradoxically, the only direction of Russian gas exports remains Ukraine. However, deliveries on it may also be cut in the near future.

Therefore, it is very possible that the strategic goal of the whole mobilization story and referendum holdings is still an attempt by Moscow to strengthen its negotiating positions. In other words, the Russian side raises the stakes in the game to the highest possible level in order to force the opposite side to negotiate.

It seems very likely that Russia, after all, is not burning all the bridges, but instead wants better conditions for negotiations. Accordingly, it is indicative that on the very day when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization, an exchange of prisoners took place. Moreover, it was the largest one in the entire course of this war.

Russia gave Ukraine more than 200 soldiers from Azovstal in exchange for the pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk and about 50 Russian prisoners. In addition, ten foreigners who fought on the side of Ukraine were sent to Saudi Arabia. Three of them were previously sentenced to death in the DPR.

What is even more significant, five commanders of the Azov regiment and marines were released to Turkey under the guarantee of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Taking into account the fact that 125 out of 200 Ukrainian prisoners were officers, most of them from the "Azov" itself, this means that the command staff of the most hated unit of the Ukrainian army by Russian propaganda was released.

Thus, it was clearly something more than just an exchange. It looks like a demonstration of intent. Why else combine two events such as the announcement of mobilization and the release of the Azov command staff? It can be assumed that at least two goals were pursued here. The first was to demonstrate alleged "goodwill" and willingness to negotiate on the most difficult topics. The second was addressed to right-wing radicals inside Russia itself so that they would not think that by announcing the mobilization, the central government had yielded to their pressure.

The main thing in all this story is the fact that the Russian central government felt the need to demonstrate its strength. From this perspective, mobilization is addressed not only to the outside world. It is also sent to the addressees inside the country so that no one doubts its determination.

This way, it does not matter that there are no funds for the mobilized, nor that they are in a tough situation. For the agrarian empires of the past and powerful centralized states of the XX century, like the USSR or China after the Second World War, it was also unimportant. They were able to mobilize as many people as needed. To do this, they were ready to resort to any violence.

Thereby, the logic of the Russian leadership relates to the fact that mobilization is necessary for everyone, both inside and outside the country, to demonstrate the power of the state machine. Perhaps they want to force the opposing side to reach agreements on relatively favorable terms. But in any case, they feel the need to demonstrate the strength of the central government. Another question is why such a need appeared in the first place. Perhaps, it is because many have begun to discuss the future of Russia, and mainly in the context of the decentralization of power.

It increasingly resembles a conflict between the centralized power of a bureaucratic state and a decentralized system of power organization of the European model. In fact, Russia and Ukraine went back 300 years ago, when a powerful centralized government in the Moscow state dealt with Poland and Ukraine with their decentralized, city self-government based on Magdeburg law and even Cossack freemen. Once Peter was gone, the Russian Empire liquidated first the freemen, then Magdeburg law and self-government as a whole, and, eventually, the Ukrainian Hetmanate, and then Poland.

Perhaps, it is no coincidence that at the beginning of this war President Putin was talking about Peter I. In his era, the Moscow state turned into the Russian Empire. Maybe we are talking about a similar transformation. But the problem is that now the entire collective West is against such plans, and this changes the situation. The Russian Empire usually lost when Europe was against it and won when someone in Europe supported it.

In the unsuccessful Crimean War of 1853-1856, it was necessary to fight against the main European countries of England and France, additionally to the refusal of support from Prussia and Austria. The financial support of England and the military of Prussia and Austria played an important role in the final victory over Napoleon. In the First World War of 1914-1918, the Russian Empire almost found itself among the winners in the face of England, France and the USA. Yet it collapsed due to internal tension caused, among other things, by excessive mobilization. In World War II, the USSR opposed Germany as part of a coalition with Britain and the United States. They supplied the USSR with weapons and material resources.

Today, the entire collective West supports Ukraine, and clearly can do it for a very long time going forward. Even if some pro-Russian politicians come to power in some European countries, this will not change the overall state of affairs. So, there will be a war of attrition for the involved parties. Who will be more stable in such a situation is a big question. Therefore, the negotiations have to be done, although it is unclear on what terms. Russia has made its decisive bet, and now will expect some results from this. But the question regarding what will happen if this bet does not play still remains.

No one knows today how exactly and when it will all end. However, sooner or later it is bound to happen. Of course, I want it to be earlier. But that was not set in stone yet.

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