Finally, it has been performed in full Putin’s angry tone, albeit less angry than in previous speeches, and he did what he does best – twisting the facts to present Russia as the victim of a Western conspiracy, leaving Russia with not choice but to fight back at any cost, letting the others to decide which level of risks they accept, or not. The interlocutor was not Ukraine, but the West, the real actor according to the Kremlin, that is using Kiev to finish off the job of 1991, by destroying the Russian Federation as it did with the USSR. By his intervention, Putin moved away from a 6-month-old narrative according to which he had to engineer a special operation to save Ukrainians from a fascist neo-Nazi regime.
Putin wanted to transmit fear, including by letting it known that one has to accept that setbacks as normal and that the challenge lays in readiness of a country to continue the fight at any cost. A 21th century version of the Russian century-old “burned earths” policy.
In 21 September 2022, it means a partial mobilisation of 300.000 reservists (1,3% of Russia’s full reserves’ capacity), people with fighting experience, military training, or specialists whose capacities can help the operations. Any refusal to answer the call up will be severely punished, according to laws hastily ratified by parliament and texts of the presidential decree. Another point concerns the organisation of a referendum in 4 Ukrainian regions (Lugansk, Donetsk, plus ‘newly liberated’ regions of Kherson and Zaporezhzhia), whose inhabitants will be consulted about their will to join the Russian Federation. Finally, Putin said that Russia will use “all means” in its possession to fulfill its mission, including those which have still not been used, adding that it was “no bluff”. Those declarations came just after a summit of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) where Putin had been able to test the solidity, and the limits, of members and observers. And at the moment when the UN was meeting in full session, with the war in Ukraine at its agenda.
All those points were due to shock the world, and they did. But many elements of the declaration were vague on technicalities. For instance, it said not much about the way reservists will be re-trained and dispatched (to the front or as police force in Russian controlled territories?), nor about the risks that the specialists will be missed by their usual employers. Nothing also to counter popular fears that the 300.000 would represent only a first batch. On 22th September, Novaya Gazeta published details of a 7th secret point in the presidential decree, which was speaking of 1 million mobilisable people.
Other interrogations concern the meaning of the expression “all the means”. It has been largely received as a threat to use nuclear weapons, even if it was not the first time that Putin mentioned it, and there were no ways to check if he meant more than a nuclear power referring to its nuclear potential in the framework of deterrence. Not less worrying, it can mean that Russia is ready to use conventional tools that it had not used up to now, against new targets, further deep in Ukraine. For instance, against infrastructures used to transfer Western weaponry through the borders with Romania and Poland, or giving Western Ukraine a bitter taste of what war means. It will increase resentment, even hate, against everything Russian, but the damages are already done and Putin’s circles do not care.
Finally, there is the question of referendums which have no chance to be internationally recognised. Putin’s political gamble would sent the message to the West that, after the referendum, attacks against those territories will be an attack against Russia. The Russian army would no simply be fighting to liberate Slavic brothers from Kiev’s neo-Nazis, but defending the security of its territory and its citizens.