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Putin’s Ukraine Strategy Is One Giant Bet on 300,000 ‘Reserve’ Troops

Javelin Like in Ukraine
Javelin anti-tank missile being fired along with a mortar. Image credit: UK government.

It is increasingly clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is panicking over the course of his war in Ukraine. Ukraine won a major, rapid victory in September with an offensive for which the Russian army was clearly unprepared. Putin’s response was to announce a hasty mobilization of Russian reserve forces, totalling 300,000.

It is evident from the disturbing stories emanating from the call-up that it was unplanned and panicked. Footage has emerged of Russia packing these draftees off to the war with almost no training. Russian logistics throughout the war have been chaotic, veering toward catastrophic, so it is all but impossible for Moscow to support, kit, or deploy hundreds of thousands of raw recruits properly. Desertions and shirking, already a problem on the Russian side, will likely increase.

If reserves are being deployed this rapidly and poorly, that suggests Russian lines in Ukraine are near collapse. Ukraine’s September offensive re-took Russian gains faster than anyone thought likely. Kyiv has threatened another offensive. A breakthrough could lead to a broader collapse. This famously happened in World War I. The Russian ‘Kerensky Offensive’ of the summer 1917 failed miserably, leading to the Russian army’s mutiny and collapse as the Central Powers – Germany and Austro-Hungary – counter-attacked and pushed Russia out of the war.

Can the Reservists Protract the War Through the Winter?

Rushing troops to the front like this is a defensive move. Without serious training or kit, an offense will be nearly impossible. Instead, they are almost certainly to prevent another, or slow down, another Ukrainian offensive in hopes of dragging the war into the winter.

Putin has signaled for months that a Russian gas cut-off of Europe is to encourage the West to cease supporting Ukraine and push it to negotiate. This will peak in the coming winter. As temperatures drop and heating bills in Europe rise, Putin is gambling he can still win, or at least hold his conquered gains. This strategy, in turn, incentivizes Ukraine to launch another offensive as soon as possible. The Russian reservists are likely intended to absorb that push so that most of Putin’s conquests will still be in place when the winter arrives and the Europeans, hopefully, buckle.

What if Europe Hangs on and Ukraine Doesn’t Quit?

This strategy bets a great deal on variables beyond Putin’s control – most obviously, the weather and European public opinion. If this winter is not particularly cold, then the gas weapon fails. And there is a good chance Europe can make it through one harsh winter. This situation will not repeat itself. Europe will never be so dependent on Russian fuels again. Putin has proven himself to be a hugely unreliable partner. And to date, European public opinion polling has held firm on the war, as have European elites.

If this ‘gas weapon and winter cold’ stratagem fails, then Putin is in real trouble. Even if Ukraine does not launch another offensive this year, it almost certainly will next year as soon as weather permits. By then, it will have stockpiled an enormous amount of Western weaponry and, especially, ammunition. Ukraine’s advantages in morale, training (by Western militaries), and intelligence (in cooperation with NATO states) will pile up, fueling a major effort in spring 2023. Russia, by contrast, will be struggling. The recent mobilization will be even more unpopular when the winter hits; Western sanctions on Russia will bite deeper as time goes by, and the war will almost certainly be even more contentious in the public and among Russian elites as it drags on and on.

Nuclear Scenarios

This is the circumstance where a Russian nuclear escalation becomes most possible. Now, it is unclear what Putin might actually strike with such a powerful device, given the huge geopolitical blowback risk. If the reservists do their job – acting as cannon fodder to slow down the Ukrainians this fall with sheer mass – then nuclear escalation serves no immediate value. Then Putin can hope for a cold winter and a peace deal.

But that scenario requires a lot to go right for Putin in sequence – his reserves fighting reasonably well rather than simply crumbling like in 1917, a cold winter, and Ukraine getting bullied by Europe into ending the war rather than simply ignoring Europe and fighting on (which is far more likely).

If this risky series of bets fail – which is likely – Putin is looking at a major Ukrainian offensive, a serious Russian strategic defeat, and national and personal humiliation. This is still the most likely course of the war – Russian exhaustion and withdrawal. Embarrassed and fearful, Putin then might finally reach for the nuclear option.

Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; RoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University and 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.

Written By

Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well. 

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. TheDon

    September 30, 2022 at 8:13 am

    Now is time for all ukrainians men, women, young old, the majority of 43 million to keep the country. This is Putins last stand.

  2. Jay

    September 30, 2022 at 9:41 am

    Putin: so cunningly cruel, yet so limited.

  3. Gary Jacobs

    September 30, 2022 at 10:41 am

    “This strategy, in turn, incentivizes Ukraine to launch another offensive as soon as possible.”

    Ukraine is already launching the next phase of their offensive in the northeast. It is not moving as fast as last time in part because the Russians are more concentrated, set up a stiffer defense in Lyman, and they appear to be using Stalin-Esque blocking forces to murder their own people who attempt to surrender or retreat too soon. The NY Times also report on this in the Kherson area where Putin himself denied permission to retreat to the east of the Dnipro, and then sent in Chechen terror squads to kill Russians commanders trying to retreat of surrender.

    That said…In the Northeast, Ukraine is on the move again liberating many towns east of the Oskil River. It is fascinating to see the hysteria in the Russian Military-blogger channels. Some of whom are reporting on the ground from the area. For all the right wing Russian nationalist propaganda these people spew, they tend to be very accurate with their reporting on Russian losses as they are trying to raise the alarm for Putin to send in reserves so Russia stops losing:

    The Latest map and report by Russian “Rybar” indicates the Russian forces at Lyman are now in “operational encirclement” and there is a “serious risk” of the fall of Lyman and more land further east, as well as the defensive line in the west of Luhansk.

    Last night The “Starshe Eddy” channel said it “will be a very difficult night and tomorrow a very difficult day,” regarding the situation in Lyman. He says Ukraine is focusing on Yampil and Torske and cutting off the Lyman-Kreminna road on the east side of the pocket. [Yampil is now reported as liberated by Ukraine]. He says Ukraine is attacking with a large force supported by artillery, HIMARS, and armor.

    Several other Russian telegram channels are warning that the battle in Lyman is at a critical point and that Ukraine is advancing from the north and southeast. Possible that the pocket collapses tonight or tomorrow, which would overshadow Putin’s annexation announcement.

    Former FSB agent [and leader of the Russians in the 2014 Donbas war] Igor Girkin’s Telegram channel is saying Lyman has been encircled and that LNR, BARS reserve units, and elements from Russia’s 20th Combined Arms Army are still in the city.

    That’s thousands of Russian troops now being encircled. One of the Russian mil-bloggers even called it a ‘cauldron’.

    Rybar also shows the Ukrainians now advancing further in the east and crossing north of the Siverskyi-Donets river.

    This all puts the other Russians in the area in a very bad position. Their lines in the east could be collapsing even faster than they can get untrained troops in as cannon fodder. Though they are likely to have stiffer defense at Lysychansk.

    It would be fantastic to have the split screen of Russians encircled in Lyman and getting the Russian ‘cauldron’ treatment with much of the rest of their defense in the northeast collapsing or in retreat just as Putin holds a ceremony to celebrate the results of the sham referendums on annexation.

  4. Goran

    September 30, 2022 at 11:49 am

    Yes, it will be a personal humiliation and not just for Putin, many other names come to mind on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

  5. Enfield

    September 30, 2022 at 12:53 pm

    The red giant’s steamroller is soon in motion.

    The illusion of Operation Barbarossa 2.0 that someone had will never come true, it’s too late now and is coming to an end in anyway like much else with this unnecessary conflict.

    Make peace when there is still something left to agree on.

  6. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    September 30, 2022 at 1:16 pm

    I find it absolutely incredible that the mighty and much-feared Russian military is so incredibly impotent – at least with conventional forces.

  7. Enfield

    September 30, 2022 at 2:42 pm

    The red giant has saved the gunpowder and with deceptive maneuvers made the whole world believe how weak they are.

    Of course they have made a lot of mistakes as well. Everyone has been deceived.

  8. YS

    September 30, 2022 at 5:24 pm

    I’d say, so far the “joint forces” of LPR DPR and RF mercenaries are holding really well against superior military advance in Kharkov region. And I’d be surprised nothing changes when they get 4x increase in reservists…
    Keep your popcorn warm – the show in Moscow today was just the begining.

  9. Goran

    September 30, 2022 at 11:49 pm

    Enfield, the “red giant” was never a threat. It will never be a threat. It’s a rotted, bloated cow.

    It was given a chance, an opportunity to join the European world of democracy and freedom, Germans invested a lot into creating economic ties, McDonalds, banking sector, Renualt, and instead of accepting that offered hand, ruthless lilliPutian woke up one day thinking he’s an emperor, throwing a wrench into the process and now he’s about to have his ass handed to him, with the entire Russian society kicked 3 decades down the ladder of history.

    There is no “red giant”, there never was.

  10. Tamerlane

    October 1, 2022 at 2:32 am

    The Ukrainian trolls are again active here trying to urge further American intervention into this imbecilic morass. Ukraine can’t win this conflict. Period. There is a zero percent change Russia can allow that. Neither would we in that position, we’d escalate until Mexico was blown desert glass rather than see it part of a Chinese expansionist alliance on our doorstep. But these trolls seek yet again to drag us into yet another intervention—which if their effort is successful, will only harm American strategic interests and our global order.

  11. aldol11

    October 1, 2022 at 9:47 am

    breaking Russia up into 1000 pieces is necessary for the world peace
    we need to kick Russia into the stone age once and for all
    they have been doing this s..t for 70 years
    enough is enough

  12. Gary Jacobs

    October 1, 2022 at 11:51 am

    Tamerlane,

    No matter how many times you try and scream that Ukraine cant win, you will still be wrong. They continue to prove you wrong on the battlefield.

    As well, there is no threat from Ukraine or NATO to Russia itself, and there never has been. NATO is a defensive alliance. The US removed all tanks from the EU in 2013, and was smack in the middle of Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’. Only then did Russia attack Crimea and the Donbas in 2014…because they saw weakness, not a threat. Only after that attack by Russia did the US start moving armor back into Europe.

    As well, your Mexico analogy is not only absurd on its face for the NATO as a defensive alliance reason stated above, Biden has gone out of his way to deny Ukraine weapons like ATACMS that at 190mile range would barely scratch into Russia’s 11 time zones.

    Furthermore, China actually is conducting operations in Mexico in conjunction with the AntiAmerican government and their cartel allies to take control of more land from other cartels and to mass produce meth and fentanyl as well as import them to the US along with Columbian cocaine. Every once in a while China does something to crackdown on the base ingredients it takes to make those drugs, and then they open other channels and the flow continues.

    Besides their basic antiFreedom + antiUS policies…It also looks like a part of a coordinated strategy as retaliation for the ‘century of humiliation’ China is still bitter about in relation to the Opium Wars. Who knows what the next phase of their plan is with Mexico…

    Bottom line: you continue to post things with excessive confidence that are clearly incorrect. You should dial that back a bit.

  13. Enfield

    October 1, 2022 at 3:47 pm

    Goran, Germany’s entire economy is built with the red giant’s cheap natural gas and look how
    Germany is doing today.

    Those who laughed then no longer laugh. Maybe your wish will come true. Unfortunately, history shows a different reality.

  14. Tamerlane

    October 1, 2022 at 10:20 pm

    Gary,

    It isn’t that the west can’t defeat Russia conventionally using our Ukrainian cannon-fixed proxies. Of course we could. Conventionally Ukraine on its own could do no such thing of course—something you have repeatedly and wrongly denied.

    There absolutely is a threat from NATO to Russia, and Russia has known this for 30 years—which is why they elicited repeated promises that NATO would not advance and encroach from the west to Russia’s borders. If NATO is no threat to Russia, then Russia’s 20 year old hard red line on Ukraine joining a military alliance which has twice in the past 20 years invaded sovereign nations not at war with any member state (Libya and Yugoslavia/Serbia) would have been respected and their pre-war demand on such an assurance granted, and instead we would have utilized Ukraine as a buffer state—the presence of which historically reduces great power conflict. NATO is not a defensive alliance operationally. Not after Libya and Yugoslavia. I know you must be joking with that assertion here, as it would be too great a bald faced lie to pass a guffaw test.

    No, Russia did not attack Crimea—nor Donbas in 2014, they moved to partially shore up their western defenses after a western back coup overthrew the democratically elected (one equally corrupt as the present Ukrainian regime) government and installed a pro-NATO government. (We would do the same with TJ and Sonora should the Chinese do this in Mexico City). They reacted to western expansionism via coups and clandestine acts. That, 2014, was a defensive reaction (again, ask yourself how you would react if you were in the other seat, or alternatively we’re these things happening to us here in the U.S. on our border in violation of the still enforced Monroe Doctrine).

    No, my Mexico analogy is accurate. NATO is an expansionist alliance, one which has no qualms about invading and bombing other countries and then holding referendums within those countries which result in our chosen policy being implemented, regardless of the will of the country from which NATO forces severed the province).

    I’m glad you’re such a big Biden fan and have such great faith in his prescient benevolent attention to U.S. national interests. I have no such confidence. Provision of ATACMS would simply make the likelihood of Russian use of nuclear arms even higher than our interventions have raised it. Yeah, I’m aware of Chinese machinations to our south. I have served on the border myself as a staff officer, interdicting such things—one of the reasons I lack the confidence in Biden you exude. What I am discussing though is not fairly clandestine efforts to destabilize our country, but a direct military alliance aimed against the United States which would explicitly guarantee Chinese intervention against the United States should the United States ever again (as we have repeatedly) intervene in Mexico and her politics.

    Who knows what the Chinese plan in Mexico is? Well, according to you, the United States should not intervene and would have no legitimate basis to intervene, even if China were to depose the Mexican government, installing a pro-ChiCom government, and then officially announce the impending entrance of Mexico into a Chinese military alliance openly aimed at constraining American ability to intervene and project power. At least you’re consistent there in denying the existence of any country’s “national interest” in self defense beyond repelling an actual invasion. I respectfully disagree.

  15. Gary Jacobs

    October 2, 2022 at 11:36 am

    Tamerlane,

    You continue to make absurd statements and assumptions about…everything.

    The situation in Ukraine, as I have stated repeatedly, is about the only thing I think Biden has done well in his entire presidency.

    As well, I live in San Diego…Border News is local news here, and it isnt good at all. This is of course the worst part of Biden’s presidency. I could go off on how bad it is for days. Your entire screed about me agreeing with Biden is false on its face. I am objective enough to agree with Biden on Ukraine, and disagree on other things. I am an independent person capable of critical thinking.

    As for ATACMs… the idea that a 190mile range missile is a massive threat to Russia is absurd…and still Biden wont provide it.

    On NATO expansion… the tragic irony is that at one point Putin himself floated the idea of Russia joining NATO.

    As well, you entire comment bows to the whims of Russian despots, and removes agency from freedom seeking Baltic states. NATO was viewed as an existential necessity by the Baltic States considering the centuries of oppression Russian imperialism had inflicted upon them…and many of them saw NATO acceptance as a way to make amends after they were ‘sold out’ at Yalta to Russia.

    As much as Russia has attempted to rewrite history and portray the eastward enlargement as primarily driven by Washington’s willingness to expand its “hegemonic reach”, in reality the process was pushed by organic and democratic demands/reforms growing out of the Baltic states themselves.

    Today, Russia…and Russian apologists like yourself, assertively claim that NATO expansion violated its red lines. It is important to recall, however, that at the time Moscow reacted in a measured way, tempering its criticism on NATO enlargement.

    In 2001, during a radio interview with NPR, when asked if he opposed the admission of the three Baltic Republics into NATO Russian President Vladimir Putin responded that the issue could not be summed up in “a yes or a no.” He later added that “we cannot forbid people to make certain choices if they want to increase the security of their nations in a particular way.”

    In another appearance, Putin declared that Baltic membership was “no tragedy for Russia”. These statements clearly were not a ringing endorsement. However, by historical standards, this was not at all any sort of public resistance put up by the head of the Russian state: Putin Himself.

    To rewrite history now and pretend that Russia has always saw NATO expansion as a major threat is pure fiction. Perhaps you can get away with pushing that BS onto others, but I have been studying Russian history for 40+ years. Part of my family was ethnically cleansed by Russian pogroms.

    You should try a different approach to this situation…your ability to analyze and understand your opponent, or history…is sorely lacking.

  16. Tamerlane

    October 2, 2022 at 7:51 pm

    Ah, Gary. I knew it. You have finally revealed the basis within yourself for your emotional arguments. Goethe wrote in Faust that “a man sees in the world what he has in his heart”, and boy is that true of you and your intervention against the bully who mistreated your family moral crusade. Six (6) months in, you continue to advocate for policies directly at odds with the protection of American military and economic hegemony. Historic revisionism notwithstanding, your “logic” is still untenable and is antiquated even by 1945 factors, let alone 2022 realities.

    Biden’s handling of Ukraine is one of the worst failures of his presidency—goading Russia into invading another country and then setting off an economic conflagration. How you can possibly see this as a net positive is surreal indeed, but for your personal animus towards Russia here coloring your perspective. But not that we know your bias, we can make adjustments for it. This is the first step towards learning something Gary! This is great news.

    As well, I live on the border, where there is no fence as there is protecting La Jolla from depredations. Yet you champion securing Ukraine’s border at the cost of, what is it now, $80,000,000,000.00? Plus creating impetus for 80% of the world’s population to use this opportunity to throw off their economic chains binding them to our order? That support is asinine, and is having consequences that have forced our Fed to seek to break the global south economically right now to avoid our being overturned as global superpower. The risks, even if successful, do not support the gamble, all your emotional/moral bloviating notwithstanding. The job of the statesman is not to allow emotion to cloud valuations. Emotion distorts valuations, and makes incredibly expensive choices long term appear not only cheap now, but imminently necessary. This is why a mother will jump in front of a bus to save her child, and it can be glorious and noble, but this is also why your judgment is suspect here, it’s clouded by emotion. We want dispassionate calculation, preserving and advancing our long term hegemony. I morally agree with the condemnations of Russia’s invasion, but foreign policy is not about morality, it is about the strong doing what they will, and the weak bearing what they must.

    “As for ATACMs… the idea that a 190mile range missile is a massive threat to Russia is absurd…and still Biden wont provide it.” A “massive threat”? Perhaps not. A threat—absolutely. Of course they are. And whether we view them as a threat or not is again irrelevant. What is relevant is how their presence and use against Russian territory will be interpreted by Russia. Amazingly, we know! We know because the Russian general staff as published lengthy white papers on these contingencies. If the goal is to escalate and broaden the war, a war Russia may not be able to win conventionally, of course sending ATACMs is useful. If however the goal is to limit the war and its ferocity to the territorial limits of Ukraine and to forestall the use of nukes to compel Ukrainian unconditional surrender, then their provision is a horrendous idea. You seem to be under the misapprehension that Russia is sure to stop if Ukraine prevails conventionally. You mistake Putin for a school yard bully to whom a punch in the nose is sufficient. This is assuredly not the case here. Russian use of nukes only grows the more likely the more arms and capacities sent. As NATO moves forward arming Ukraine, while increasingly exercising direct coordination, direction, command and control of Ukraine’s armed forces from outside Ukraine, the higher the likelihood Russian nuclear use becomes. How is it that you believe there are not limits on our power, but are such limits on Russia’s? Russia clearly perceives, despite your denials, that NATO is an anti-Russian alliance which seeks to cripple Russia and close with its border.

    On NATO expansion… the tragic irony is that the United States could have avoided this war easily if we had simply, as I suggested to one of my Senators just prior to the war’s initiation, we simply extended a promise in the form of a treaty with Russia guaranteeing that Ukraine would only enter NATO at the same time Russia joined.

    Your comments show a complete ignorance of the state of nature which exists between countries, a state of nature in which the strong countries do as they will, and the weak countries suffer as they must. This is as inexorable law as gravity, and has been the case since long before Melos sought unsuccessfully not the be attacked by democratic Athens when it sought neutrality in the Peloponnesian War. You mistakenly conflate recognition of how powers (and we ourselves in America) operate abroad with supporting Russian aggression. Nothing is further from the truth. My primary interest, as someone bound not only by love of the United States, but by a sacred oath to protect and defend our country and constitutional system of government, is in preserving our country and our power and position. Of course the Baltic states lack agency vis a vis the United States or Russia. Not every country is created equal, and I’m amazed that a grown man is unaware of this self-evident truth. The Baltics were “sold out” at Yalta, and the White Russian who taught me to play chess as a small boy was forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union under FDR and Churchill’s “Operation Keelhaul” precisely because this is the reality of foreign policy. The strong do as they will, the weak suffer as they must. This is why Ukraine wants to join NATO—so that we will shed our blood and treasure to protect them. But we have an obligation to our country and our people to only protect those who will also advance our own position and power. I too am intimately aware with the history of the totalitarian horrors of the east, and I am perhaps amongst those here the most sympathetic to those who wish to not live under a Russian yoke—but we are not all things to all people, and I have no desire to destroy our own ability to stand as a shining exemplar of freedom, protecting ourselves, by advancing too far ahead of the realities of soft and hard power here.

    You seemingly pretend that NATO membership of other Eastern European countries is not completely discretionary for us in the United States. These countries you identify—are they on the North Atlantic? Are they even in Western Europe? Where do you want to see this grand alliance conclude its march east? At the Urals? Perhaps in Beijing? How much of the world do you want American blood and treasure to guarantee? The Russian perspective is correct, as is what you identify—they are not mutually exclusive. Of course the Baltics want to be under our protection—who wouldn’t want the world superpower to guarantee its sons and treasure to keeping them safe? What an amazingly convenient insurance policy. Whether or not this is in OUR American interests to continually overextend our commitments is another matter.

    Did you know, that in the second century after Christ the Romans conquered Mesopotamia? Within a generation however, Hadrian/Trajan (one or the other did it and then reversed the other) withdrew the legions from what is now eastern Iraq and Iran, and returned to Syria. The commitment was too great for even that great colossus of an empire to bear. How much of the world do you seek for our lives and treasure to guarantee?

    You seek to tar me, the one seeking to protect American interests, as a Russian apologist—while it is YOUR policy of policing and guaranteeing the world which is certain to destroy our ability to project force and protect ourselves at all. It is you who is the apologist of despots and tyrants, for the effects of your policies, like those of Alcibiades in the invasion of Syracuse by Athens, which will destroy in the end our relationships and which will effect the joining of all opponents together in a grand anti-American alliance.

    Yes, I’m familiar with that 2001 interview. I agree with him there. He is aware and of course recognizes why those countries would want to get under NATO’s (America’s) shield. None of this demonstrates in any way that the 25 year explicit maintenance of the position that Ukraine becoming an American client state would be a hard red line is untrue, nor that it isn’t completely logical.

    I have also been studying history for 40 years, and have had command and combat experiences throughout these which have assisted me in coming to the perspective I hold. Your inability to see beyond the immediate consequences of your policy preferences condemns you to remaining an ignorant amateur incapable of persuasion. Your chosen policies will, if adopted, weaken the United States and strengthen the very despotisms you argue you oppose.

  17. TheDon

    October 2, 2022 at 10:10 pm

    Russians shouldn’t be fighting Ukrainians. Too much in common, history, wars, religion,families.
    Putin made a huge mistake going before Russia was anything but ready. Common mistake of an inexperienced commander.

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