Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial troop mobilisation marks an acknowledgement of the limits of his “special military operation” in Ukraine and a readiness to escalate the conflict in response to setbacks. His original plan was to meet his military objectives through a limited war. He had mobilised more than 1,50,000 troops and ordered a sharp thrust into Ukraine from multiple fronts on February 24, but this plan did not quite work as Ukrainian forces, backed militarily and economically by the U.S. and Europe, slowed down the enemy’s advances and made the invasion costly for the Russians. Earlier, Mr. Putin had to withdraw troops from around Kyiv and Kharkiv and focus on Ukraine’s east and south where the Russians made territorial gains. But Russia suffered its first major battlefield defeats earlier this month in Kharkiv Oblast in the northeast where its troops had to retreat in the face of a lightning Ukrainian counter-offensive. This setback seemed to have quickened Kremlin’s move to consolidate its positions in captured Ukrainian territories. Pro-Russia separatists in Luhansk, Donetsk in the east and Kherson and Zaporizhzhya in the south are now planning to hold referendums on joining the Russian Federation. As the results are known even before the first ballot is cast, the door is now shutting on the possibility of a negotiated settlement of the conflict based on the pre-war borders.
For Mr. Putin, the escalation comes with added risks. He went into Ukraine with limited forces in the first place because he knew that a general mobilisation, which would need nationwide conscription, could be unpopular. But almost eight months later, his war has not only failed to meet its declared objectives, which includes Ukraine’s “demilitarisation”, but has also seen a reinvigorated NATO throwing its collective weight behind Ukraine and expanding itself further into the Russian borders by taking in Finland and Sweden as its members. Mr. Putin and his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu acknowledged the challenges on Wednesday. If Mr. Putin, who dialled up the nuclear threat, said his troops are facing the best of “the Western military machine” in Ukraine, Mr. Shoigu, whose Ministry till now avoided calling the military operation a war, said Russia today “is at war with the collective West”. Faced with battlefield setbacks, sanctions and geopolitical challenges, Mr. Putin believes escalation is the way forward. But there is no certainty that a partial mobilisation would produce quick results and it could well trigger a cycle of escalation. All this means that the war is entering a far more dangerous phase.