Shortcuts / 29 September 2022

Putin’s latest moves in Ukraine

There have been some big developments in the war in Ukraine, and the world’s on edge wondering how it’s all going to play out. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we look at Russia’s big call-up of troops, its threats to go nuclear, and the way it’s using referendums to claim parts of Ukraine.

So what’s the go with the war right now?
There’s a bit going on… The conflict has been grinding on since February, but there was a major moment last week when Russian President Vladamir Putin called up reservists – so ordinary Russians who had completed military service – to join the fight. He also threatened nuclear retaliation if the West keeps helping Ukraine.

Yikes is right. Putin hadn’t given an address to the nation since the beginning of Russia’s invasion so this was a pretty big deal. He’s calling it a ‘mobilisation of troops’, which means Russia’s calling up civilians to fight for the first time in this war because its army is basically running out of soldiers on the front line.

Doesn’t Russia have one of the world’s biggest armies?
It does – it has almost a million personnel. But military analysts say Ukraine’s battlefield tactics plus the advantage they are getting from sophisticated Western weapons and intelligence has made this a much harder war for Russia to win.

And Russia has had many casualties…
It has – as has Ukraine. Back in June, the UK defence ministry estimated some 25,000 Russian soldiers had been killed, and in July the director of the CIA said 50,000 Russian troops had been wounded.

Why is Putin only calling up civilians now?
Experts say Russia wouldn’t be calling up more fighters if it wasn’t struggling. Putin’s address came right after a critical Russian defeat in northeastern Ukraine, where it was pushed out of the Kharkiv region it was occupying. It was a huge morale boost for Ukraine to regain lost ground, and it was of course a big blow to Russia.

How many Russians are being called up?
Mobilisation doesn’t mean drafting the whole population, but all Russian men aged 18-27yo have to do a year of military service so in theory any of them could be called up. Russia’s defence minister says they are recruiting about 300,000 people and only targeting those who have the specific skills they need.

Like what?
We know they want general reinforcements on the battlefield but they might also target tank drivers or snipers or engineers. Again it’s hard to know precisely because Russia isn’t going to telegraph its weaknesses.

I’m guessing some Russians aren’t happy about the idea of being drafted…
Yep – a lot of blokes are said to be paying big bucks to get a one-way ticket out of the country. Flights to places where Russians don’t need visas, like Serbia, have been oversubscribed. And there have been big queues at the land borders too, including neighbouring Georgia and Kazakhstan.

What about those who aren’t able to leave?
Many are taking to the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg to protest the call-up. Russians are risking up to 15 years jail time if they get arrested, which tells you just how unpopular this war is there.

Not to mention the rest of the world…
Yep – and another thing that’s got a lot of people worried over the past week or so is Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons.

What did he actually say?
He said, if “the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will, without doubt, use all available means to protect Russia and our people – this is not a bluff.”

Did he specifically mention nuclear weapons?
He did. He accused the West of being the aggressor and said “those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.” And then he backed it up by saying, “we will certainly use all the means at our disposal.”

Crikey… Would he really use them?
So most Western intelligence agencies see this as a threat to the US and NATO to stop helping Ukraine. We know Russia is planning on illegally claiming more Ukrainian territory as its own, so the theory is this nuclear threat would keep the West from helping Ukraine retake these territories.

So will they or won’t they?
It’s impossible to say, but one of the theories is that Putin could use smaller ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons to scare the West away. Nuclear experts believe Russia has about 2,000 of these, but they’ve never used them in conflict before.

How are they different from regular nukes?
They’re designed to achieve a limited strike without widespread nuclear fallout.

That’s hardly a reassuring thought…
Indeed, but Putin obviously knows that – and he also knows no one can really be sure if he’d use one to avoid defeat.

What might happen if Russia did use nuclear weapons?
What US President Joe Biden has said is that the use of any such weapon would “change the face of war unlike anything since WWII,” adding that it “would be consequential” if Russia acted.

What does that mean?
We don’t know for sure, but Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan says there would be “catastrophic consequences” for Russia if it took the nuclear option. Sullivan says the US has privately spelled out to Russian officials exactly what that means.

Why in private?
The US is trying to avoid escalating the situation further with any rhetoric, so US officials are trying to leave that ambiguity and not make black-and-white statements. Because if things get to a point where the US is involved in a conflict directly taking on Russia, we’re essentially talking about WWIII.

That’s one sticky diplomatic situation…
It sure is, and it’s getting a whole lot more complicated with Russia claiming referendums have given it the right to more Ukrainian territory.

What’s that about?
So Putin is trying to annex – claim ownership of – about 15% of Ukraine. The way he’s doing that is similar to how he annexed Crimea in 2014. The island used to be part of Ukraine’s territory until Russia invaded and held a referendum on whether to join Russia.

And how did that vote turn out…
Russia says more than 95% of the population wanted to go with Russia, but many in the West called the whole process illegal. A lot of people boycotted the vote and there was widespread voter intimidation and violence.

So Putin’s doing the same thing now?
That’s what many are saying, and he’s doing that through referendums that were held in 4 regions of Ukraine – Donetsk and Luhansk in the east and Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in the south – asking citizens whether they want to be under Russian control. Officials reported those votes came back over 90% in favour.

Sounds legit…
The poll has been dubbed a sham by Ukraine and its Western allies. President Biden says the West will never recognise Ukraine territory as anything other than Ukraine.

So other than territory, what else does Russia stand to gain from this?
Some analysts say it could be a way for Russia to reclaim some advantage in the war. Ukraine has made some big gains in recent weeks, and by claiming those territories, NATO and the EU are worried Russia will use that excuse of protecting their territory to use nuclear weapons.

And the West isn’t buying any of this?
Nope – but we should also quickly mention where China is in all of this. They haven’t been willing to condemn Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, but according to analysts, all this talk of nuclear options is making China nervous. China has a ‘no first use’ policy when it comes to nuclear weapons, so if Putin did go down that path he could lose the support of China.

Which would be a huge loss…
It would, so that could be a deterrent. There will be a lot more unfolding on this issue in the coming weeks so stay tuned.

Squiz recommends:

Global News PodcastBBC

Two Cities, Two Armies: Pivot Points in the Fight in Ukraine’s EastThe New York Times

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