What’s the future of Russia’s Ukraine war?

How will Putin’s shock tactics – mobilisation, annexation and nuclear threat – affect the course of the war?

Seven months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has ordered  a mobilisation, carried out sham ‘referenda’ to justify the annexation of south-eastern regions of Ukraine, and hinted at nuclear strikes.

While Ukrainians are preoccupied with the counter-offensive against Russian forces, many in the West and Russia appear to be experiencing a shock reminiscent of the early morning of 24 February.

Putin’s belated and abrupt decision on mobilisation testifies to the absence of a clear strategy behind the Kremlin’s ambition to disrupt the course of its flailing war. Russia’s latest escalation challenges our assumptions about the direction of the war and makes predictions difficult.

Yet reflections on the past seven months help us understand the dilemmas that will face both Russia and Ukraine over the next six months.

A dangerous deadlock

Since February, both pessimism about the weakness of the Ukrainian state and optimism about the vulnerability of the Kremlin’s hold on power have been shattered.

Not only did the Russian army retreat from Kyiv and Ukraine’s Snake Island in the Black Sea, but it also failed to gain full control of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine and recently lost significant areas in the Kharkiv region. Despite fears, the EU has not suffered a catastrophic split over support for Ukraine. At the same time, the Kremlin has not faced a sustainable anti-war movement at home or a split in the elite, while Russia’s sanctioned economy has performed better than expected.

Russia’s recent escalation has thus emerged in the context of a precarious stalemate where Ukraine has not lost, and the Kremlin has struggled to win with the resources committed.

This sense of an uncomfortable impasse was visible during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit on 16 September. The leaders of China, India and Turkey seemed to grow impatient with Putin’s adventures, and he had to explain himself in public.

There is speculation that China and India are disappointed that Russia’s war has dragged on for too long, creating unnecessary complications without tangible benefits, and that the Kremlin looks unreliable after the latest setback in the Kharkiv region. Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping apparently share the sentiment of an increasing majority of the Russian population: either pull out of Ukraine or double down and get it over with.

Putin’s decision to announce mobilisation and speed up the annexation in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia was a response to this dangerous deadlock.

When the Kremlin was preparing for the Ukraine invasion in 2021, it had counted on the political and economic weakness of the West. There are certainly growing signs of weakness now, with Europe entering an energy crisis, the growth of populist protests, and far-Right parties gaining strength in Hungary and Italy.

Yet Russia’s ‘global opportunities’ are checked by domestic constraints that the Kremlin has imposed on itself: an inefficient bureaucracy, a depoliticised population and the growing influence of radical nationalists.

In response, Putin remains faithful to his instinct of resorting to half-measures: he continues calling his war a “special military operation”; claims he is fighting NATO (and not Ukraine) in a proxy war; announces partial mobilisation while relying on paramilitaries – all while under pressure from radical nationalists. In parallel, an unprecedented exchange of prisoners accompanied Russia’s escalation, following informal negotiations mediated by Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Colonial-style governance

The shock factor of the Kremlin’s decision to mobilise stands in for the charisma and moral leadership it lacks to wrest concessions from its enemies and incentivise the Russian population to participate in the war.

Thus, Russia’s “partial” mobilisation looks eerily like similar measures in the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ and ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ – and suggests that Russia’s colonial practices of governance are returning. People are dragged from their beds and hunted down on the streets, sometimes given two hours to gather their belongings, sent to training centres, and then immediately thrown into the battle zone in the course of a few weeks.

Poor rural areas and ethnic minorities are targeted disproportionately for mobilisation, which is targeting over 3% of the Russian male population between 18 and 50. Protests against mobilisation are quickly dispersed, and participants are given draft notices.

The home front

There’s little reason to be optimistic about social tensions in Russia. The Russian population is unlikely to rebel against this breach of the country’s proverbial ‘social contract’ (by which stability of one’s private life is exchanged for political passivity).

Instead, people are much more likely to choose exit, adaptation and delay. Men willing and able to go abroad were given five or seven days to do so from the 21 September mobilisation announcement, leading to kilometre-long queues at Russia’s western and southern borders. The Twitter bubble may seem like a fight between those who flee and those who burn Russian recruitment offices, but the country’s truly popular social networks like VKontakte or pikabu are full of office workers resigned to their fate and their girlfriends filling backpacks for them in tears. That said, Russian opposition media are gaining new audiences as they publish advice on how to evade the draft safely.

Russia’s stability has thus been shattered, but the inertia of everyday submission persists. The initial shock will give way to depression, then to routine, and finally, as the coffins flow back from eastern Ukraine, mobilised personnel and their families may become tied by blood to the Kremlin’s adventures.

Indeed, visceral hatred towards the enemy may prove a more efficient mobilising factor than the incoherent ideological explanations offered on Russian television. Some 70 years on, the ‘anything but war’ sentiment of Russia’s post-World War Two generation has finally been debunked: today, Russian babushkas are fine with sending their grandchildren to die. Russia’s poorly organised, trained and equipped recruits might not be enough for a victorious march on Kyiv, but they are enough to patch up holes in the Russian army, enable rotation and free up professional soldiers for advances into Ukrainian territory.

Military impasse

Military analysts suggest that the Russian army lacks the organisational and material infrastructure for a mass mobilisation. The shortage of military training instructors, and logistical and coordination challenges, have not been overcome. As Ukraine’s mobilisation experience in 2014 showed, alcohol and drug abuse, suicides, personal conflicts and lack of discipline will plague army morale.

If the first recruits out of the notional 300,000-1,000,000 arrive in Ukraine within weeks, they will be unlikely to make up the full losses of the alleged 85,000 casualties suffered by Russia’s invading army. A full training cycle and the formation of new battle-ready units will require three to six months. Meanwhile, Russia’s exhausted occupying forces have to withstand a continuous offensive by the Ukrainian army ahead of the annexation of Ukrainian regions this week.

According to media reports, the occupation administrations in south and eastern Ukraine have put little effort into making the ‘referenda’ look credible. The ‘vote’ was announced with three days' notice, and has so far been carried out at gunpoint and online. It will undoubtedly produce over 80% support for joining Russia. Accession to the Russian Federation will then be fast-tracked: the Russian parliament will recognise the ‘referenda’ results two days after they are announced, and Putin will consecrate Russia’s new territories on 30 September.

That said, the main dilemma of Russia’s new annexations is that Russia does not fully control any of the regions to be annexed and in some places has lost territory. Until the arrival of reinforcements, Russia’s weakened forces will find it hard to withstand offensives by the Ukrainian army while also maintaining the trust of the part of the population loyal to Russia, suppressing dissent, and implementing administrative control in a sign that “Russia is here forever”.

Russian officials and propaganda have already heralded non-acceptance of these annexations as a potential pretext for the use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction. Although Western politicians and analysts take these threats seriously, they do not see their advantages to Russia – as part of a coherent strategy on the battlefield – as unambiguous.

The annexation itself brings some PR benefits for the Russian audience, but hardly changes the strategic calculus that has existed since the invasion started. The Kremlin may threaten the use of unconventional weapons in order to control the borders of the annexed territories – and buy time until the mobilisation brings tangible results on the battlefield.

Yet the costs and benefits of these moves may not be in the Kremlin’s favour: Ukraine may be prepared to absorb a nuclear strike; NATO members may retaliate; and the Kremlin’s allies may strongly oppose the use of nuclear weapons. Without any hint of rational negotiations, it is unclear whether the shock value of using non-conventional weapons would help the Kremlin to achieve any of its goals.

The next six months

Thus, Russia and Ukraine will face several dilemmas in the next six months. Over the next week, Russia will face the challenge of a mass mobilisation not seen since the Second World War, with all its social consequences – and as a counter-offensive by the Ukrainian army continues.

It is reasonable to assume that the Kremlin will not face serious internal threats and will be able to finalise the annexation of southeastern Ukraine and declare martial law. October’s dilemma for Ukraine and its Western allies will be how they react to nuclear blackmail over the eastern frontlines.

This period may end either in an unstable ceasefire that would threaten to undermine Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s legitimacy and give Russia much-needed time to rebuild its army, or in a further escalation with consequences that no one can predict.

In the case of a ceasefire, the next dilemma Ukraine would face is to respond to Russia’s renewed offensive with a much stronger conventional army in early spring 2023. Ukraine would have to prioritise either its military or its economic reconstruction, and its choice would partly depend on Western support and pressure.

In the case of a dramatic escalation by Russia in October-November, Ukraine’s resilience would be determined by how fast heavy weapons arrived from the West. Russia’s choice would be restricted to either the maximum destruction of Ukraine’s infrastructure and manpower, or a risky provocation against a NATO member – such as Poland or one of the Baltic states – in the hope of causing a crisis in NATO and Europe.