Russian President Vladimir Putin ramped up his war effort in Ukraine on Wednesday, ordering a military draft to call up hundreds of thousands of reservists and threatening a nuclear response as he blamed the West for the conflict.
The escalation comes after a series of battlefield gains by Ukraine in the Kharkiv region and an embarrassing retreat by Russia.
A day before Putin’s videotaped address ordering a partial mobilization—Russia’s first military draft since World War II—Perry World House (PWH) hosted an update on the war, with a panel featuring former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, Penn political science Professor Rudra Sil, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin, and Iryna Mazur, honorary consul of Ukraine to Philadelphia. The panel, moderated by PWH Senior Executive Director LaShawn R. Jefferson, discussed the three developments that were looming at the time: the potential mobilization; referendums in eastern Ukraine; and Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive.
“We’re at a critical turning point,” Rubin said of Ukraine’s advances, pointing to the boost in morale she witnessed while in Ukraine over the summer after the United States supplied troops with the rockets and ammunition they needed.
“Time is of the essence here. Ukraine has to move much further before winter. There is no prospect of negotiations now,” she said. Ukraine needs more precision, long-range weapons and air defenses, and while the West provided some equipment and weapons to help make the recent Ukrainian counter-offensive possible, further materiel is needed. The key question now is will these be supplied, she said.
Sil noted that Putin had sought to avoid mobilization and wouldn’t even call the conflict in Ukraine a war, but rather a special military operation.
“He wanted to create the semblance of normalcy in Russian cities to keep the citizens calm and mellow,” Sil said. “I fear that this mobilization is setting us up for a very long, drawn-out war that not only goes into winter, but well beyond,” he said.
However, he believes Russia won’t use nuclear weapons in the conflict.
“The Kremlin is clever enough to realize that once you cross that threshold of using tactical nuclear weapons, you’re opening a Pandora’s box and you have to be careful of what comes back at you,” he said. “I do think this issue of mobilization is something that is going to create a new challenge for Russian society, along with the referendums.”
Russia is not a dependable partner and is seeking to undermine democracy, said Mazur, who was born in Ukraine but lives and works in the U.S. and says she thus sees the situation with a double point of view.
“It’s important that we stay informed of what’s going on, why we need to help, and why Ukraine depends on us,” she said.
The Ukrainian counter-offensive has not only put the Russians on the back foot as the Ukrainians recapture territory, but it has shown that a Ukrainian victory in this conflict is possible, Vershbow said.
“The stakes are very high, it's not only about Ukraine's survival and its freedom as an independent state, but it's about the survival of the world order based on rule of law,” he said.
Ask if there was a chance for negotiations, Rubin replied that judging from Putin’s past behavior, he’s not looking for real peace talks, but rather is seeking to rebuild the Russian empire.
Sil said one of the reasons Volodymyr Zelenskyy won such a large portion of the vote was because he talked about diplomatic solutions with Russia.
As for rebuilding the empire, he noted Putin came to power in 1999 and this is 2022.
“This has to be the slowest rebuilding of an empire ever,” he said. “This is very late to attempt to start this process.”
Mazur disagreed with Sil’s assessment, saying Russia has funded and organized separatist movements in Crimea since the 1990s, and have been working toward this for many years.
She doesn’t believe Russia could enter negotiations honestly and productively. “I do not believe negotiations would be reasonable and realistic,” she said.
Vershbow said that despite Ukraine’s gains, Putin’s war aims have not changed.
“Putin isn’t going to throw in the towel … He’s trying to erase Ukraine’s national identity and carry out a policy of forced Russification and he doesn't have the means to do that,” he said.
Calling for a general mobilization would move the fight from a peacetime army to a much larger force to make up for the manpower shortages that led to Russia’s recent reversals, he said.
Putin has also announced that he's going to respond favorably to appeals from puppet authorities in the occupied Donbas to hold referendums on their independence, which would lead to their annexation to the Russian Federation.
“This may be seen as a gambit while he still doesn’t have military power to push the Ukrainians back, to raise the stakes by saying basically ‘you fought in Ukraine this thus far. Are you ready to continue to fight on sacred Russian land?’ I hope the answer to that question is yes. We shouldn’t in any way pay any heed to this illegal effort to carve off parts of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.”
Audience questions addressed everything from predictions about the economic future of Russia, to how the war will end, to lessons for NATO and how Ukrainians are coping with the crisis.
“I think the question of whether Ukrainians can face another harsh winter depends very heavily on whether Ukrainians see support from Europe and more importantly from the United States,” Rubin said.
Putin has been giving speeches for years saying that Russia must rebuild its empire and that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.
“His beliefs and aims are crystal clear,” she said. “He’s been saying for years that Ukraine has no right to exist as a state … Ukrainians will continue to be willing to suffer the tremendous depredations that Russia will try to impose if the war continues into winter. But the key is that they feel they have the world behind them.”
The conversation can be viewed on Perry World House’s YouTube channel.