Putin just escalated his war in Ukraine. Here’s your expert guide to what’s coming next.

Seven months into his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a new, perilous step: mobilizing his military reserves.

Amid a string of battlefield setbacks—and the announcement of fast-tracked “referendums” that could enable the Kremlin to annex territory it has occupied in eastern Ukraine—Putin also reiterated his threats to use nuclear weapons to defend what Russia considers its own turf. We asked experts across the Atlantic Council for their reactions to Putin’s moves. This post will be updated as their analysis rolls in.

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Matthew Kroenig: The US and Ukraine should double down to win the war while deterring nuclear use

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: Mobilization won’t fix Russia’s battlefield failures

Alexander Vershbow: Putin just broadened Russian nuclear doctrine. The US and its allies shouldn’t yield to the pressure.

Melinda Haring: Annexation in eastern Ukraine is a step toward nuclear blackmail

Daniel Fried: This is escalation born of desperation

John Herbst: Putin’s careful escalation follows a series of setbacks

Justin Conelli: Mobilization could give Putin an excuse for tactical retreat in southern Ukraine

Irina Plaks: More poorly trained, fearful reservists on the battlefield could mean more Russian atrocities

Brian Whitmore: Putin isn’t more dangerous when cornered. He backs down again and again.

Marc Polymeropoulos: Rely on US intelligence to call Putin’s nuclear bluff

Arun Iyer: Integrated deterrence is needed to avoid further ‘unforced errors’ by Putin

The US and Ukraine should double down to win the war while deterring nuclear use

Putin’s speech shows he is out of options and in a desperate situation. His conventional military is mangled, so he is drawing on the only tools he has left: mobilization of low-quality reservists and nuclear threats. 

We should take Putin’s nuclear threats seriously. Putin could use nuclear weapons to turn the tide of the battle. If facing the real, imminent prospect of losing the war, he is likely to use nuclear weapons first before being defeated. 

Washington’s and Kyiv’s goal is to win the war, not to avoid nuclear attack at all costs. US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should not back down to avoid a nuclear attack. They should double down to win the war, while deterring nuclear use. Why hasn’t Putin used nuclear weapons already? He has been deterred by fear of a US and NATO response. The United States and NATO should play on those fears and reinforce their deterrent threats. The White House’s statement today that Russian nuclear use would result in “severe consequences” was on point. 

If deterrence fails, Washington should execute its deterrent response, including by conducting a limited conventional military strike on the Russian forces that launched the nuclear attack. Most importantly, Kyiv and its allies should continue to fight through a Russian nuclear attack and win the war.

Matthew Kroenig is the acting director of the Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and a former US Department of Defense and intelligence community official with a focus on nuclear-deterrence policy.

Mobilization won’t fix Russia’s battlefield failures

The partial mobilization of reservists is a sign of Russia’s failure to achieve its operational objectives in Ukraine through both its use of regular forces and the call-up for volunteers. It is an important indicator that the Russian army is exhausted and has recognized its inability to defeat Ukraine. I do not believe that situation will significantly change with mobilization. 

Firstly, mobilized soldiers will need substantial new training even if they have previously served in the Russian army. Most of the reservists are former conscripts who previously served in the armed forces. For the vast majority, the compulsory army service was a daunting and largely unproductive experience; thus, the quality of their training was low. As a result, they were unprepared for real war, particularly not one as intense as today’s. 

Secondly, personnel is only a part of the capability structure, and Russia has problems with all components of capability—doctrine, organization, leadership, and weapons. Russia severely lacks experienced battlefield officers. It also struggles with renovating and delivering new weapons. 

Finally, mobilization is going to be very unpopular in Russia. The government plans to push the “defensive war” narrative with its propaganda. It will advertise the idea of defending Russia from NATO. The problem is that Russians do not perceive newly occupied regions of Ukraine as Russia, and the motivation to die for recently annexed regions will be very low. If Russia annexes new regions, that will not stop Ukraine from taking them back. How Putin will explain the loss of those territories to his citizens just after their annexation is unclear, but it certainly won’t boost his popularity. 

I believe this will be another unsuccessful escalation attempt for Putin. Ukraine will continue its fight no matter what. Of course, sending more people means a potential intensification of the war. We encourage our allies to continue to supply weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. We will win this together.

Andriy Zagorodnyuk is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and served as Ukraine’s minister of defense from 2019 to 2020.

Putin just broadened Russian nuclear doctrine. The US and its allies shouldn’t yield to the pressure.

Vladimir Putin’s September 21 speech was a desperate bid to avert defeat in his failing war against Ukraine and to use nuclear threats to dissuade the United States and NATO from continuing to support Ukraine.

After Ukrainian victories in the northeast of Ukraine and continued progress in the south, Putin realized he could not achieve his war aims with a peacetime army. This was inevitable after his original blunder at the start of the war—namely, underestimating Ukrainians’ capacity and political will to fight. The use of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and other advanced Western weaponry by Ukrainian forces made clear that the writing was on the wall: If Russia continues on its current trajectory, Ukraine can win the war.

Putin’s speech is, in part, a response to growing pressure from hardliners and military bloggers who have been frantically urging a more serious approach to Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. But the speech confirms that Putin remains resistant to initiating a full mobilization, since he fears this could spark anti-war opposition if young urbanites faced mandatory conscription. (So far Putin’s approval ratings have held steady by keeping the special military operation from seriously impacting the general population.)

The partial mobilization Putin announced will not produce three hundred thousand additional troops overnight. It will take six months or more to recruit and train the troops. Even then, the quality of the additional forces is questionable in light of the poor performance and indiscipline of Russian forces to date. The Ukrainians may make additional gains in the near term, further compounding Putin’s political problems.

Putin hopes to get out of his political predicament through the other two key points in his speech: his support of sham referendums on annexing Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories in the coming days, and his threat to defend those territories with nuclear weapons.

After the (inevitably positive) results of the referendums are announced, Moscow will claim these are now integral parts of the Russian Federation—even if Russia doesn’t fully control them on the ground. Putin is in effect warning Ukraine and the West that they will be risking nuclear retaliation if they seek to regain control of what Moscow now considers Russian territory. In this regard, Putin broadened Russian nuclear doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons in response to conventional attack, moving from “if there is a threat to the existence of the state” to “if there is a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity.” Putin hopes that this will persuade the United States and its allies to reconsider their military support for Ukraine in order to avoid World War III.

In responding to the speech, the United States and its allies should refuse to yield to nuclear blackmail. The fake referendums will not change the fact that all the occupied territories, including Crimea, remain Ukrainian under international law, and that Ukraine has the right to take back all of its sovereign territory. Any compromise would, as US President Joe Biden emphasized at the United Nations General Assembly, mean ratifying the changing of borders by force, setting a dangerous precedent for other revisionist powers.

To bolster US and NATO deterrence against Russian nuclear use, Washington must tell Russia clearly that the United States will continue to support the Ukrainian effort to regain all of its illegally occupied territories, regardless of the results of any sham referendum. Any use of nuclear weapons to defend the occupied territories would change the nature of the war, and the US and allied response would be consequential—either a massive conventional attack or a response in kind, depending on the nature of the Russian provocation.

Alexander “Sandy” Vershbow is a distinguished fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and Eurasia Center. He served as the deputy secretary general of NATO and as US ambassador to Russia, among other roles.

Annexation in eastern Ukraine is a step toward nuclear blackmail

Putin is playing a weak hand with few good options. His decision to partially mobilize is a bow to his internal critics on the right who have urged him to be more aggressive in Ukraine and an acknowledgement that he is still determined to destroy Ukraine. It also underscores how desperate and weak Putin is. 

Putin’s decision to mobilize may be unpopular. But so far he’s designed it to avoid conscripting the elite youth of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and he may be able to get away with it. 

The bottom line is that mobilization will not make an iota of difference on the battlefield immediately. The recently mobilized soldiers will need to undergo extensive training.

While mobilization will make the headlines, focus on Putin’s pledge to annex some of Ukraine’s east. The annexation decision may be more important geopolitically than the mobilization one. With annexation, Putin is likely extending the Russian nuclear umbrella over four oblasts of Ukraine—a decision that Ukraine will never accept. What happens when Kyiv attempts to retake the territory in eastern Ukraine that Moscow has illegally annexed? It could be the first step toward potential nuclear blackmail over what Moscow considers its territory. Nuclear blackmail raises thorny decisions for Western leaders and the prospect of some potential, uncomfortable brinkmanship.

Melinda Haring is deputy director of the Eurasia Center.

This is escalation born of desperation

After battlefield defeats, little help from China, and pressure from India and Turkey to end his war against Ukraine, Putin seems to be counting on Europe and the United States to fold in the face of his intimidation and demonstration of political will to continue the war. In a speech today that was awkwardly postponed from last evening, Putin escalated through partial mobilization (of up to three hundred thousand soldiers), a move to annex Ukrainian territory, and a warning to the West that Russia will use “all means at our disposal to protect Russia.” The latter suggests that Putin is threatening to defend lands seized from Ukraine with nuclear weapons.

Putin may calculate that his threats, energy shortages due to Russian cutbacks, and political opposition could lead the United States and Europe to pressure Ukraine to surrender territory in the name of “peace.” Putin has a basis for such confidence: From the start of the war, some in the West—on the hard right, on the left, and a few in the “realism and restraint” school—have made the case for negotiations on Putin’s terms.

But it is more likely that Putin has escalated out of desperation rather than confidence. Ukrainian military resistance has turned out to be more effective than he or almost anyone anticipated. Russia’s military has underperformed, and it is not clear whether adding reservists will change this, at least not soon. And Europe and the United States have shown greater determination than Putin (and many in the West itself) anticipated. Germany, albeit in uneven fashion, has rallied behind Ukraine and seems not to be buckling in the face of energy stresses. French President Emmanuel Macron, after mixed signals, gave a strong speech at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in support of Ukraine. The British, Poles, Balts, Scandinavians, and other Europeans seem solid in resisting Putin’s aggression, despite taking economic hits. The US government seems both committed to Ukraine and confident that its policy is yielding results. Putin’s announcement—escalating just as world leaders meet at the UN—seems perversely timed to elicit even greater statements of resistance to his war.

Putin must also contend with what seems to be growing domestic opposition to his war. His escalation may partly appease the nationalist opposition. But Russia’s anti-war opposition, while difficult to measure considering that its members face the threat of imprisonment should they speak out, seems to be growing and was bolstered in recent days by iconic Russian pop star Alla Pugacheva, who came out against the war on Instagram.

Much depends on the battlefield. The new Russian forces will not be ready for some time, and Ukraine may continue to gain back territory. If that happens, Putin’s speech today may appear to be empty bluster, like other cocky statements he has made. The United States and European nations need to keep up the flow of arms to Ukraine and be seen as doing so. The United States and Europe need to keep up their economic pressure on Russia, targeting efforts to circumvent technology sanctions and preparing to enforce the upcoming price cap on Russian oil. When Putin annexes more Ukrainian territory, the United States should respond, and one way to do so could be by working with its Group of Seven (G7) allies to repurpose the over three hundred billion dollars in frozen Russian foreign-exchange assets to aid Ukraine’s recovery.

Putin has started his Ukraine war for no good reason and cannot seem to win it. He is escalating, perhaps without the power to match his bluster. It is not hard to discern the fear in Russian ruling circles at the way the war is going for them. The US play now is to show strength, to rally allies and other countries who may have doubts about Putin’s judgment, and to help Ukraine defeat the aggressor—a task within its power and the United States’.

Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former US ambassador to Poland.

Putin’s careful escalation follows a series of setbacks

Putin has suffered a very bad run lately. He promised a successful offensive to take all of the Donbas region, but got stuck in Donetsk Oblast by July. Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the northeast crested two weeks ago as it regained control of more territory than it lost to Moscow’s Donbas offensive. In Samarkand, Uzbekistan, last week Putin publicly quavered before his partner Chinese President Xi Jinping and was chastised by his partner Indian President Narendra Modi for his Ukraine policy. And in Russia, Putin is taking heat from local liberal politicians, extreme nationalists, and even popular singer Alla Pugacheva for his war on Ukraine.

This week, Putin revealed his three-part response to these developments. The most important was the announcement of a “partial mobilization” of three hundred thousand reservists to supplement the troops chewed up by Ukrainian forces since February. But he also endorsed sham referendums on the subject of joining Russia in the regions of Ukraine partly controlled by Russian forces. Then he played again the one card that he has used for effect since before his February offensive: He reiterated that Russia would use nuclear weapons to defend its territory and intimated that if the sham referendums lead to Russian “annexation,” these areas would also be protected by Moscow’s nuclear umbrella.

This package represents an escalation, but a careful one. The mobilization sounds dramatic, but it involves current and former soldiers. It does not conscript civilians with no interest in military service and in fighting in Putin’s bloody Ukraine war. So Putin continues to avoid the political risk of declaring war officially and pulling in recruits from Russian cities across the country. Risk limitation extends also to Putin’s latest nuclear threat. He endorses the sham referendums; he insists that “it is no bluff” that Russia will use nukes to defend its territory; but he only implies, does not explicitly state, that nuclear weapons would be used if Ukraine continues to attack Russian forces on Ukrainian land that Russia “annexes.”  It is relevant to note when evaluating this threat that Ukraine has conducted successful strikes in Crimea, which Russia “annexed” eight years ago. Yet we have seen no mushroom cloud.

Sadly, the Biden administration has at times let Moscow’s nuclear threats intimidate from providing Ukraine all the weapons that it needs. But not always. Biden sent Putin a clear public signal September 18 against using weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine. That is the right way to manage Putin’s latest nuclear bombast.   

John Herbst is the senior director of the Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine.

Mobilization could give Putin an excuse for tactical retreat in southern Ukraine

Russia’s decision to enact a partial military mobilization is a clear indicator that it intends to be in this conflict for an extended period of time. This represents the first Russian mobilization since World War II, however it does not mean that suddenly three hundred thousand well-trained troops will become available, as there will undoubtedly be a significant delay for training and readiness preparations. How Russia manages the requirements to mobilize, train, equip, and ultimately deploy these new troops may also have an impact on the current state of play on the battlefield.

Russia has endured embarrassing losses over the last several weeks as Ukraine mounted counter-offensives in both the Kherson and Kharkiv areas. In Kherson, it may be tactically the best move for Russia to retreat its forces south of the river and look to consolidate into positions where they have a greater chance of success defending, although that move has been politically unpalatable due to the optics of retreat. However, the necessity to train and equip a large quantity of new troops due to the mobilization may give Putin the cover needed to execute a retreat and consolidation in the south, using the mobilization as the excuse rather than the realities of the tactical fight.

Justin Conelli is a senior US Air Force fellow in the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice.

More poorly trained, fearful reservists on the battlefield could mean more Russian atrocities

Putin’s latest proclamation is a hollow attempt to appease the hardliners in Russia without actually making a major impact on the battlefield in the short term. 

Russia’s reserves may look impressive on paper, but in reality, only a small percentage are actually a “ready reserve.” Russia lacks the financial, administrative, and training capacity to maintain its reserves—these troops will be poorly trained, poorly organized, poorly equipped, and poorly taken care of. 

Impoverished regions of Russia have been bearing the brunt of the casualties in the war, while urbanites in Moscow and St. Petersburg have been less affected. The ability to shield the masses from the full realities of the war has been a key to Putin’s domestic support so far. But that strategy begins to crumble with this partial mobilization. It will likely continue to exacerbate regional and ethnic tensions within Russia, as poorer regions are again called on to contribute more than their fair share in Putin’s attempt to placate the wealthy urbanites for as long as possible. 

Putin’s move and the recently passed Duma laws also chip away at soldiers’ rights, enacting harsher punishments for those who refuse orders in Ukraine. This will further erode the military’s low morale—a problem Russia has struggled with throughout the conflict. Unfortunately, the combination of fearful and poorly trained troops means that we are likely to see more atrocities committed against Ukrainians, as soldiers get the message that they must win by any means necessary—or face the consequences.

Irina Plaks is a nonresident fellow in the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice.

Putin isn’t more dangerous when cornered. He backs down again and again.

Vladimir Putin’s speech, his partial mobilization, and his threats of escalation need to be viewed in context. The speech came after Russian forces suffered a humiliating defeat in Kharkiv Oblast. It came after the discovery of still more evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide in Izyum and elsewhere. It came after he was publicly rebuked by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And it came as signs of domestic dissent are rising. The speech should therefore be viewed as a sign of Putin’s increased desperation and as a sign that Russia is losing the war.

Putin’s threats of escalation, including his implicit threat of nuclear escalation, are an attempt to frighten the West and deter it from continuing to arm Ukraine by deploying the false myth that the Kremlin leader is most dangerous when he is cornered. The United States and its allies should not fall for this ruse. The evidence is overwhelming that when Putin is faced with superior power, he backs down again and again. Ukraine’s stunning advances in Kharkiv Oblast and elsewhere demonstrate that victory, which would reshape the European security environment in a positive direction, is well within reach. The United States and its allies should continue, and increase, their robust defense assistance, intelligence sharing, and diplomatic support. Ukraine should be provided with the offensive weapons it needs, including the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), tanks, and fighter jets.

Putin’s plan to hold referendums in the parts of Ukraine that it occupies are clearly designed to deter support for Ukraine by creating the illusion that Russia is extending its nuclear umbrella over occupied territory. The United States and its allies need to make it very clear that, like Crimea, they view these territories as part of Ukraine. Therefore, no limitations should be placed on Ukraine regarding using US weapons to liberate them.

Finally, the West should not be frightened or deterred by Putin’s partial mobilization of three hundred thousand troops. Russia’s units in the field are badly depleted. It still faces severe logistical problems as well as shortages in weapons, equipment, and vehicles. Even with the partial mobilization, getting new units trained and deployed into the field to replace those lost in battle will take months. Putin has shown the world the weak hand he is playing. The United States and its allies need to take advantage of the window of opportunity that exists between now and when the new units can be deployed to step up assistance to Ukraine and give Kyiv the opportunity to exploit its advantage. 

Brian Whitmore is a nonresident senior fellow at the Eurasia Center, an assistant professor of practice at the University of Texas at Arlington, and host of The Power Vertical podcast.

Rely on US intelligence to call out Putin’s nuclear bluff 

The US Intelligence community (IC) is without a doubt laser-focused on the Russian tactical nuclear weapons inventory, which includes air, sea, and land-based systems.  Given Putin’s rhetoric, there is no more important a priority for the IC. I am confident that US collection posture will provide the world a requisite early-warning mechanism. 

Since the conflict began in February, the United States has not yet detected any movement of tactical nuclear weapons, and the US administration has repeatedly been quite open about that. 

Thus, I believe the United States has sufficient space to continue assisting Ukraine militarily, as it has done with stunning success. Putin is reeling, and he is now bluffing by raising the nuclear card. It is a tired and old strategy. The United States should not back down. Nothing has changed in terms of how to approach Ukraine. The situation on the ground today—despite Putin’s saber rattling—is no different than yesterday.  

Now, if the United States were to see movement of the Russian nuclear inventory, it must take a two-pronged strategy. First, the administration should continue with its policy of authorized intelligence disclosures to let the world know what is happening. This would be done to rally the international community to put significant pressure on Putin to back down. In particular, his “allies” China and India have zero interest in Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. In fact, at the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Uzbekistan, they both pressed Putin to end the war, embarrassing the Russian leader, who had hoped for a more robust show of support. So, if Putin starts moving his nuclear arsenal, the world will see that he is about to embark on a historically catastrophic course of action. The pressure will be immense on him to stand down. 

At the same time, the United States must also send a clear and unambiguous message to Russia—preferably behind the scenes. It would be as follows: Any use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia will result in an immediate military intervention by NATO, with the threat that the Alliance will destroy the entirety of the Russian military that is deployed in Ukraine.

Marc Polymeropoulos is a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice and former head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia.

Integrated deterrence is needed to avoid further ‘unforced errors’ by Putin

It is not controversial to say that Vladimir Putin’s military mobilization and conscription, coupled with increased menacing nuclear rhetoric, reeks of desperation. Russian tourism bans are gaining momentum in Europe, further supplemented by a prohibition on international travel for Russian military age males. The widespread protests in response to mobilization do not bode well for Russia’s internal stability. Putin’s interactions at last week’s meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), especially with India’s Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping, only reinforce the notion that Putin’s Russia is in steep decline and his “friends” are hedging their bets.  China has quickly emerged as a reliable lead in the community of revisionist states, further supplanting Russia’s aspirational role as a relevant “great power.”

Given the exceptional fighting spirit of the Ukrainian nation and the widespread economic, humanitarian, security, and moral support it enjoys from the global community, it is not likely that Putin’s gambit can turn the tide of the war.  He is bleeding conventional warfighting capabilities, and the replacement forces he is sourcing are even less professional than those he has already lost.  The possibility that Russia will leave all of Ukrainian territory with its tail tucked becomes less of a dream with each passing day.

But a losing force—particularly one that has not yet capitulated—can still be a dangerous threat. Particularly to Ukraine’s civilian population that has already suffered atrocities at the hands of Russian armed forces and their Wagner Group counterparts. Putin also maintains a credible arsenal of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons that should not be discounted and must be deterred. As Putin’s authoritarian regime becomes less tenable, the efficacy of traditional deterrence may similarly decrease. Russia could conceivably enter a “dead zone” in which Putin still maintains positive command and control but feels cornered and that he has nothing to lose. It is time to rapidly and thoughtfully implement Integrated Deterrence, as noted in the 2022 National Defense Strategy, across all warfighting and non-warfighting domains with a regimen of Strategic Communication, Incentives/Disincentives, and other actions “enabled by combat-credible forces, backstopped by a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent.”  Otherwise, we can expect Putin to continue making costly strategic errors at grave expense to Russia, but to the international order, as well.

Arun Iyer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense program.

Further reading

Related Experts: Matthew Kroenig, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Melinda Haring, Daniel Fried, Justin M. Conelli, and Irina Plaks

Image: A man smokes while walking past a mural, which was painted on a multi-storey building in support of the Russian army, in Moscow, Russia September 21, 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina