Putin doubles down on war in Ukraine, calls up 300,000 Russian troops to escalate conflict

In a rare television address to his nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin doubled down on his war in Ukraine and ordered Russia's first mobilization since World War II. He's calling up hundreds of thousands of reserves and retired fighters. Putin said more manpower is needed to win a war not just against Ukraine, but against its western backers. Nataliya Bugayova joined Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have reported, Russia's President Vladimir Putin doubled down on his war in Ukraine, ordering Russia's first mobilization since World War II, calling up hundreds of thousands of reserves and retired fighters.

    He said more manpower is needed to win a war, not just against Ukraine, but against its Western backers.

    Amna Nawaz has more.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    The call-up of Russia's 300,000 reservists, a referendum in Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine on joining Russia, and a stark warning from Vladimir Putin to the West that he is not bluffing when he talks about being ready to use nuclear weapons, it has been an eventful, foreboding day.

    So, to understand what all of this means at this juncture in the war, both on the battlefield and in Russia, we turn to Nataliya Bugayova, Russia fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and author of the book "How We Got Here With Russia: The Kremlin's Worldview."

    Nataliya, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you for being here.

    Nataliya Bugayova, Institute for the Study of War: Great to be here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, people are looking at this decision, Putin's order, a partial mobilization order, and calling it an act of desperation. What do you think? Do you see it that way?

  • Nataliya Bugayova:

    Let's be clear.

    The reason why Vladimir Putin has made the decision is because Russian forces are not accomplishing their objectives in Ukraine. Putin has invaded Ukraine in February with insufficient force, which he had then exhausted at pursuit of very limited gains. His efforts to replenish that force through other means short of full mobilizations have not produced the outcome he has expected.

    So, this is his way to reconcile the gap between his unchanged intent to control all Ukraine and Russia's rapidly degrading capability to do so.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Who are these reservists, though? What do we know about them and their skill level? And what kind of a difference could they make in the war?

  • Nataliya Bugayova:

    Yes, I think the impact of this decision will not reconcile — will not help Putin reconcile the gap between the intent and capability.

    We will know the full impact of this decision in months to come. But I think Russia will face a number of challenges in integrating these forces. The first one is quantity. I think desertion will be an issue. We know that many Russians support the war rhetorically, but they're not willing to fight in it.

    Additionally, I think the Russians will face challenges in equipping, integrating these forces, training them, and also capacity to deploy them, which requires officer cadre, an increasingly diminishing resource in the Russian military. I think equipment is also going to be a challenge.

    Russia has used some of its best forces and equipment already in this fight. And the short comments of Russia's defense industrial base are increasingly a problem. And as long, actually, as the West keeps and expands the export control on electronics, equipping Russian forces and reproducing advanced capabilities militarily would be an increasing challenge.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, we're seeing the impact of some of those sanctions when it comes to defense production as well.

    But what about the impact back home in Russia? As you mentioned, Russians may support it in voice only, not necessarily being willing to fight in the war. Could this decision further erode support for the war back home?

  • Nataliya Bugayova:

    Yes, I think Vladimir Putin's value proposition to his people for many years has been a promise of great Russia.

    And this value proposition is being fundamentally challenged now, in large part by setbacks of Russians' military in Ukraine. I think he's increasingly facing a challenge and need to reconcile unreconcilable objectives, on one side, keeping up this promise of great Russia, eroding capability to deliver on it, but also unwillingness of Russian people to fight for this vision.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you think there's concern among Russian people that this could lead to a full mobilization? Are we seeing that on the ground?

  • Nataliya Bugayova:

    Yes, I think so.

    And we have seen Russian men trying to flee the country now and some of the largest search on the Internet for how to essentially escape mobilization. So, yes, I think it's an increasing concern.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There was in his remarks that not-so-veiled nuclear threat as well. And you just heard President Duda of Poland there say no one knows what President Putin will do.

    Let's be clear. They have never used a nuclear weapon before. But, at this point in a war, a war that's now dragged on much longer than anyone, including Vladimir Putin, thought, explaining, as you have, where the landscape is, are we closer to Putin potentially making that kind of decision, either on a nuclear strike on a NATO nation or a tactical strike on Ukraine?

  • Nataliya Bugayova:

    I think the strike on a NATO nation is highly unlikely.

    I think we cannot rule out Putin's use of a tactical nuke in Ukraine. However, there are two really important points here. One, Ukraine has been taking that risk since the day it chose to push back on Russia in this war. And it's Ukraine's and Ukraine's decision only whether to continue running that risk.

    So far, they have, because the alternative, for many, is worse. It's Bucha. It's Izyum. And we have seen what it looks like. I think, secondly, there's a question of what such a strike would accomplish. And my assessment, it will — is unlikely to break Ukraine's will to fight, which is one of the two key centers of gravity of this war, together with the Western support.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What does all this mean for Vladimir Putin back home? Does this make him — the seven-month war now, having to call up 300,000 reservists, does this make him more politically vulnerable?

  • Nataliya Bugayova:

    I think he's not imminently vulnerable, but he's more vulnerable than he has been in years precisely because his value proposition is being challenged.

    However, we will — we will see how he will react. He has been proven to be able to calm protests for years.

    But one more constraint he faces now is that a lot of his suppression apparatus is being deployed in Ukraine, such as Rosgvardiya, which is national guard. So he's facing increasing limitation in that regard as well.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What are you watching in these next few days to see how those remarks play out on the ground?

  • Nataliya Bugayova:

    We're watching the reaction of Russian people to the mobilization.

    But I think the most important things to watch will come in months, not in days, and specifically how Russia will integrate this force, how it will train it, and what effect it will eventually produce on the battlefield, which I do not think we will see until 2023.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Nataliya Bugayova, Russia research fellow from the Institute for the Study of War, thank you so much for being here.

  • Nataliya Bugayova:

    Thank you for having me.

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