Russian president Vladimir Putin has said he does not see the need for a second wave of the draft to bolster his forces in Ukraine even as he warned that Russia’s nine-month invasion could become a “lengthy process”.
Speaking via video link at an annual meeting with his human rights council on Wednesday, Putin attempted to reassure Russians that the war in Ukraine was going favourably for Moscow despite a series of disastrous setbacks that has sapped public support.
Although the Kremlin brooks almost no dissent over what it terms its “special military operation” in Ukraine, the comments indicated the president’s desire to calm public anxieties as the campaign sputters.
Over the past two months, Russia’s army has been driven back from swaths of territory Putin attempted to formally annex weeks earlier, outnumbered and outgunned by a Ukrainian counter-offensive supplied with advanced western weaponry.
Putin’s decision, announced on September 21, to mobilise 300,000 of Russia’s reserves has helped slow the retreat but punctured the carefully maintained illusion that the war does not affect ordinary Russians. More people fled to Kazakhstan in the first two weeks after Putin signed the draft decree than the army was able to conscript during the same period.
The Kremlin has sought to portray Putin as attentive to public concerns over the war, after widespread reports of the dire conditions in the army and at the front where mobilised men were forced to buy basic equipment such as boots and sleeping bags with their own money.
Putin said the equipment issues “have already been solved” and insisted the mobilised cohort was sufficient for the army’s needs, even though the Kremlin had previously refused to confirm or deny widespread rumours of a second draft early next year.
“In these conditions, conversations about any additional mobilisation measures just don’t make any sense. There’s no need for them, for the state or the defence ministry whatsoever at the present time,” Putin said on Wednesday.
The human rights council had previously been a rare Russian forum for public criticism of Putin that included several independent activists. But ahead of Wednesday’s meeting the Kremlin stacked it with loyalists and state media correspondents.
Some of the human rights council’s previous members have left Russia since it banned “discrediting the armed forces” in March. Departing from the party line by so much as calling it a “war” or “invasion” can carry a 15-year prison term.
But although even Kremlin-controlled pollsters show support for the war is flagging, allowing carefully stage-managed complaints in public has helped shift the narrative by framing Putin as responsive to threats of an existential crisis.
Putin also acknowledged that fears of nuclear war were rising and did not promise that Russia would not carry out a first strike because “we won’t carry out a second strike either, because our abilities to use it in case we are hit with a nuclear strike are very limited”. The US and European countries are increasingly concerned Putin could respond to further battlefield defeats by using a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine after he vowed to use “all the means at our disposal” to defend the annexed regions.
However, he said on Wednesday that Russia considered nuclear weapons as a deterrent. “We’re not going to run around the whole world brandishing these weapons like a razor. But of course we operate on the basis that they’re there.”
Putin, who in June drew a comparison between himself and Russia’s first emperor, Peter I, and said it was his “destiny” to “return and fortify” certain territories, on Wednesday again turned to history to justify the war, in comments that appeared to reveal his territorial ambitions in Ukraine.
He said achieving “results” in the war could “end up being a lengthy process” but Russia had already gained new territories, and “this was a very significant result for Russia”.
“Why hide it? The Azov Sea has now become an internal sea of the Russian Federation,” he said, referring to the waters encircled by Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, and south-eastern Ukraine, whose regions were annexed after sham referendums in September. “These are serious things. Even Peter I still fought to gain access to the Azov Sea.”