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Major battles loom as Kremlin mobilizes more troops

An increasingly desperate Kremlin is mobilizing the Russian nation for war with the “collective West.” To do this, President Vladimir Putin ordered reservists to take up arms and began preparing to declare territories in Ukraine as Russian soil that needs to be defended.

(CN) — Russian President Vladimir Putin, faced with the growing possibility of a military defeat in Ukraine following a disastrous retreat of his troops from Kharkiv, began a major escalation on Wednesday by ordering hundreds of thousands of Russians to prepare to fight in Ukraine.

This ominous military development comes as Putin also set in motion legal and political steps that allow him to declare war-ravaged territories his army occupies in Ukraine as Russian land that must be defended if attacked.

In a televised address on Wednesday, Putin announced the mobilization of some 300,000 reservists, citing the need for reinforcements in Ukraine because Russia's existence was threatened by the West. About 200,000 Russian soldiers have been fighting in Ukraine, but they have found themselves outnumbered by Ukraine's forces. Initially, the Kremlin said reservists with combat experience would be called up first.

“Russian citizens must be confident: the territorial integrity of our motherland, our independence and freedom will be ensured,” Putin said. “Let me stress it again: this will be ensured by all of our available means.”

He accused the United States and its NATO allies of scuttling ceasefire and peace deals with Ukraine because they allegedly want to use the fighting in Ukraine to attack and even dismantle Russia as a nation.

“NATO is conducting reconnaissance actually across the entire south of Russia in real time, using advanced systems, aircraft and ships, satellites and strategic drones,” he said, as reported by Tass, a Russian state news agency.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu went further and said Russia was “at war” with “the collective West.” Until now, the Kremlin has refrained from calling combat in Ukraine a “war” and instead forced media outlets, officials and the general public to use the term “special military operation” to describe the conflict.

“I cannot but emphasize the fact that today we are at war not so much with Ukraine and the Ukrainian army as with the collective West,” Shoigu said. “At this point we are really at war with the collective West, with NATO, or vice versa – with NATO and with the collective West.”

In another ominous development, long-expected annexation referendums were announced Tuesday in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, four large Ukrainian regions that have mostly fallen under Russian control since Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24.

“We will support the decision on their future that a majority of the residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, the Zaporozhye and Kherson regions will make,” Putin said.

“A referendum is a necessity that is long overdue. It will definitely be held,” said Andrey Turchak, a Russian senator and first deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament, as reported by Tass.

“Joining Russia is what Donbas has been after for eight years,” he said, referring to the self-declared “people's republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, which together are called Donbas.

These two regions were heavily Russianized and industrialized during the Soviet Union and lie at the heart of the war. They are resource-rich, retain huge economic importance for Ukraine and were once part of the Russian empire before Ukraine was established as a republic following the Russian Revolution.

The Donbas became the theater of a bloody civil war after pro-Western Ukrainian nationalists overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian president from the Donbas region, during the 2014 Maidan revolution.

Eight years of civil war between Ukraine's army – often led by militia groups inspired by Ukrainian nationalism but also reverent of its links to Nazi history – and pro-Moscow separatist rebels – many of them Russian nationalists and Soviet admirers – left more than 14,000 people dead and forced some 2 million people to flee their homes.

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The inability to end the civil war – despite peace accords overseen by Germany and France, known as the Minsk agreements – caused the Ukraine conflict to spiral out of control and become the major war taking place now.

“In May 2014, the people of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics waited in lines for hours at polling stations to cast their votes,” said Turchak, the Russian senator. “They wanted to be part of Russia. No one could have thought back then that the future held eight long years of war, continuous shelling attacks by Ukrainian Nazis and the killing of civilians.”

In official news articles and statements, leaders from both sides trade vicious accusations that the other side are “Nazis,” “colonizers,” “racists,” “fascists,” “terrorists” and other such labels.

This fratricidal war is fueled by historical grievances sprung from the region's troubled modern history that's encompassed Russian imperialism and suppression, the horrors of civil war during the Russian Revolution, massive famine caused by Stalin's forced collectivization, Nazi Germany's invasion and the Soviet Union's oppressive communism.

The referendums were immediately denounced as shams by Western governments and leaders in Kyiv. Russia used a similar referendum in Crimea in 2014 as a pretext to annex that important Black Sea peninsula into the Russian Federation.

The referendums are part of a larger campaign by Putin and Russian nationalists who claim eastern Ukraine historically belongs to Russia and that their nation must now defend this land from being dominated by anti-Russian Western powers, in particular the United States.

After more than six months of devastating fighting, Russian forces are stretched thin and the Kremlin was under pressure by pro-war factions to declare the nation at war and order a mass mobilization.

On Tuesday, Russia's parliament, the State Duma, adopted new laws that would harshly punish soldiers for voluntary surrender, looting and desertion under conditions of mobilization, martial law and wartime. Russia appeared to be clamping down on people seeking to flee the country and avoid being sent to Ukraine to fight.

The stunning success of Ukraine's blitzkrieg-like counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region was a devastating blow to Moscow, which saw its troops surrender more than 3,000 square miles of territory.

A Ukrainian serviceman jumps from an armored personnel carrier in the recently retaken area of Izium on Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

In the wake of that humiliating retreat, the war has turned decisively in Ukraine's favor with many in the West seeing the chance of a Russian defeat much more likely.

“Russia is likely to lose the war,” said Lawrence Freedman, a prominent military scholar at King's College London, talking to Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times who runs a podcast on world affairs. Freedman made his comments as Ukraine was scoring battlefield victories in Kharkiv.

“We've reached a point where the Russian options have narrowed enormously,” Freedman said. “There's all sorts of grim possibilities that might still await us. But by and large I think this is very much the beginning of the end of the war.”

He doubted Russia will manage to mobilize enough troops in time to prevent Ukraine from beating back Moscow's forces holding onto the Donbas and territories along the Black Sea.

“I think they've just exhausted themselves in the summer,” he said of Russia's army. “Once an army starts to lose, it's very hard to stop it losing quite badly quite quickly.”

He said it remained uncertain if Russian forces will be able to establish and hold onto a new defensive line against a Ukrainian army unwilling to accept a ceasefire unless Moscow withdraws its troops.

Also, he doubted Putin can manage a radical escalation because Russia faces a shrinking arsenal of bombs and weapons and the prospect that any mobilization won't alter Russia's disadvantage in manpower until next year while at the same time stirring up discontent inside Russia.

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Freedman downplayed the threat of Putin resorting to so-called tactical nuclear weapons, which are a range of smaller nukes.

“If you are going to use these weapons, you need high concentrations of Ukrainian forces and they haven't done that,” he said. There are “no obvious lucrative targets, and it has to be done far away from your own forces, as much as you care about them, and no one has used these kinds of weapons in war.”

He added that Russia's use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield would alarm many countries that so far have remained neutral in the conflict, such as China and India, and it would cause a strong reaction from the West.

“You've got this horrible possibility that the whole thing might turn out to be a dud,” he said.

Freedman said the basic problem for Russians is that “they are trying to occupy territory they are not welcome in.”

“For the Russians, a dignified exit may be better than an undignified exit,” he said. “As always in this war, we're waiting for decisions in Moscow and whether they think they have to fight on doggedly for the sake of reputation or they try to cut their losses.”

He said Putin's decision to invade was “a monumental failure of command” compounded by huge problems within Russia's army.

“The assumption was that they've made great strides in modernization but it turns out they haven't,” Freedman said.

Russia's military remains stuck in Soviet-style top-down thinking where regular troops are treated poorly, he added.

Moscow's faulty decision-making included attacking Ukraine from various directions, not using its air power, poorly coordinating its artillery, infantry and armored forces and allowing so many junior officers to get killed, according to the professor.

He attributed Ukraine's successes to Kyiv's decision to quickly mobilize its male population for war and then see thousands of new soldiers get trained, often in NATO countries.

Then came the arrival of sophisticated weapons, including medium-range guided missiles, from the U.S. and that was “a game changer,” Freedman said.

He also credited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian-turned-politician, and Ukraine's army commanders with Kyiv's surprising resilience.

“You can argue that what's happened is the qualities that made him do pretty well in the entertainment business make him a pretty effective war leader,” Freedman said about Zelenskyy. “He knows the part, he's great on finding the lines.”

Zelenskyy deserves plaudits for convincing the West about the need for help, he added: “Zelenskyy has been absolutely remorseless in public and in private in pressing the need for more support. And now he can say: 'Now you see why I needed all this support.'”

By contrast to Russia's army, Freedman said Ukraine's military top brass have proven they are agile, canny and free of Soviet-style top-down thinking. Since 2014, NATO has worked to transform Ukraine's military into a NATO force.

“They've played quite a clever strategic game themselves, first to stay in the war and then to turn the tables on the Russians,” he said.

As a whole, the professor said the war has made Ukraine stronger and more united.

“They've suffered badly. The infrastructure of the country is battered, they've lost tens of thousands of military and civilian lives,” he said. “It's been pretty painful. But they have been forged as a nation in a way: it's always been a nation, but this is a source of remarkable unity in Ukraine and they're pretty pleased with themselves, they've shown enormous resilience and now some serious military acumen.”

He added: “They're certainly not going to stop now. They're not going to listen to anybody telling them that they should consider to cut their losses and do some deal. The danger, I think, for them is that they get over extended, that they just push a little bit too far.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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