September 21, 2022 - 9:10am

Vladimir Putin announced a new phase in his invasion of Ukraine today. Addressing the nation at 9am Moscow time, Putin declared that Russia would undergo ‘partial mobilisation’ — calling up those in the army reserve. The decree authorising it has already been signed. Mobilisation begins today.

According to Russia’s Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, this will expand the Russian Armed Forces by some 300,000 people. According to Putin’s decree, they will serve indefinitely. And Russia’s governors, who are appointed by Putin personally, are tasked with overseeing the call-ups in their regions.

Putin also provided some new clarity on his war aims. Although Putin had recently only emphasised the “liberation of the Donbass” — referring to the Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions — today he stressed that Russia’s conscripted masses will defend territory that Russia’s army has thus far seized. That applies to the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions as well, plus the ‘land bridge’ to Crimea that the Russian Army grabbed in the first weeks of the fight.

Putin also endorsed an effort that will see residents in Ukraine’s occupied territories ‘vote’ on being annexed by Russia. According to the Kremlin’s state television channel, representatives of the Russian occupation authorities will go house-to-house encouraging those living in the territory it now controls to vote. It will be wrapped up by 27 September.

The ‘referenda’ are straight out of Putin’s trusted playbook — similar sham votes were held in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, and another was used to justify the annexation of Crimea. This time, however, they come amid extremely heavy fighting — and unlike Crimea in 2014, Ukrainian forces are actively fighting within the internal borders of all the territories in question. But Putin’s escalations did not stop there.

He declared that Russia was prepared to use “all the tools at its disposal” in order to defend its territorial integrity, emphasising that such declarations should not be seen as a “bluff”. He said: “This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.”

Putin implied that the nuclear umbrella would also therefore apply to the soon-to-be annexed territories. Russia’s occupation authorities have said that they will consider the votes binding on the sovereignty of their regions — even parts that have never come under Russian occupation.

The escalation marks the first, albeit partial, mobilisation in Russia since the Soviet-Afghan War. But according to Putin, the conflict in Ukraine remains a ‘special military operation’.

The Russian leader once told a parable about how he was cornered by a rat as a child, causing him to tremble with fear. It has often been taken as an invocation against being politically pressured. But Putin also used the story to portray himself as the hero, alleging that he subsequently outran the rat and slammed a door on its face. That appears now to be his strategy in Ukraine.

Maximilian Hess is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.