Putin has announced a partial military mobilization as Russia struggles with manpower issues in Ukraine.
Ex-diplomats and Russia experts said it showed that Russia is losing the war in Ukraine.
Mobilization "seven months into a war means you're losing," a former US ambassador to NATO told Insider.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization in a televised address on Wednesday, calling up 300,000 reservists to boost Russia's struggling war effort in Ukraine. In the process, the Russian leader effectively signaled to the world that Russia is getting beaten and is in desperate need of more troops, according to former US diplomats and Russia experts.
"Putin speech reflects the fact that Russia is losing its war in Ukraine," Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, wrote on social media, pointing out that Putin wouldn't have taken the steps he has "if Russia were winning."
Putin's announcement was notable in two respects, Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO and president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told Insider.
"First, he's acknowledging that the 'special military operation' isn't going well. Any mobilization — partial or whole— seven months into a war means you're losing, not winning," Daalder said. "Second, the narrowing of war aims to the Donbas only also underscores that Russian forces have failed in its original objective."
Putin said on Wednesday it was Russia's "main goal" to "liberate the whole of" the Donbas, maintaining that Russia's aim "remains unaltered."
In the early days of Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces pushed to take Kyiv, and it was evident that Putin's goal was to seize all or most of Ukraine and supplant the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Putin argued that Russia was attempting to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine, predicating the unprovoked invasion on the unfounded accusation that the government in Kyiv was led by neo-Nazis.
Russia ultimately failed to conquer Kyiv and achieve its aims after facing a far stiffer resistance from Ukrainian forces than it expected, and the Russian military subsequently turned its attention to the eastern Donbas region, which is comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Before the invasion, the Donbas had been embroiled in a yearslong conflict between Kremlin-backed pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine's armed forces that began in 2014 — the same year that Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. Roughly a third of the Donbas was already controlled by the separatists when Russia invaded on February 24. By comparison, taking control of the Donbas is a far less ambitious goal for Putin than conquering the whole of Ukraine.
"And mobilizing for this narrower goal shows things aren't going well," Daalder said.
Russia, which was believed to have started its invasion with roughly 150,000 troops in position near Ukraine, has suffered staggering troop losses in less than seven months of war in Ukraine and still does not have control of the Donbas in its entirety.
Last month, the Pentagon said the US estimates Russia has seen as many as 80,000 casualties in the war. Putin has resisted any level of mobilization up to this point, given the potential for public backlash, but the sheer scale of Russia's losses in Ukraine appear to have left him with few other options. In finally mobilizing, Putin has essentially offered public acknowledgement that the Russian military is struggling and needs reinforcements.
Rob Lee, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Eurasia program, wrote on social media that Wednesday's announcement stood as "an acknowledgment that Russia's war was failing and a change had to be made," describing it "as one of the most significant/riskiest political decisions Putin has ever made."
'A big miscalculation'
The Russian leader said during his remarks that all possible measures would be taken to create "safe conditions" for referendums in captured Ukrainian territories that Moscow is seemingly on the verge of annexing, including Donetsk and Luhansk but also other areas as well. Western leaders have dismissed the coming votes as "sham" referendums that Putin will almost certainly use to justify further escalation of the conflict by claiming that fighting in those regions represents an attack on Russian soil.
In his address, Putin threatened the use of nuclear force in the event of a "threat" to the "territorial integrity" of Russia.
While baselessly accusing the West of "nuclear blackmail," Putin said that his country "has different types of weapons as well," adding that "some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have."
"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 added.
Putin has offered a number of reminders that he's in charge of the world's largest nuclear arsenal since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the US has repeatedly accused him of nuclear saber rattling. Western officials have underscored that the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction cannot be ruled out, particularly if Putin feels backed into a corner. But Russia watchers have also expressed skepticism over Putin's threats.
"Anyone who finds it necessary to say that he's not bluffing most likely is," Daalder said of Putin's latest nuclear threat.
Both the US and the UK have indicated that they view Putin's escalation of the Ukraine war as a sign that his invasion is not going well.
"President Putin's breaking of his own promises not to mobilize parts of his population and the illegal annexation of parts of Ukraine are an admission that his invasion is failing," UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace said in a statement following Putin's remarks.
Echoing these views, Bridget Brink, the US ambassador to Ukraine, said in a tweet that "sham referenda and mobilization are signs of weakness, of Russian failure." She added that "the United States will never recognize Russia's claim to purportedly annexed Ukrainian territory, and we will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes."
Similarly, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenbergs said in an interview with Reuters that the Russian leader's speech "demonstrates that the war is not going according to President Putin's plans," further stating that "he has made a big miscalculation."
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