Main Image Credit Looking for an exit: Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech on 30 September 2022 claiming the annexation of four Ukrainian territories. Image: Council.gov.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
The Russian president’s speech announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian territories offered signals that he is looking for a way out of the current war. But there is likely to be further conflict on the horizon.
Attempting to parse Russian President Vladimir Putin’s thoughts and understand the inner workings of the Kremlin can often seem like staring into a mirror, which reflects back what we want to see. Some saw his recent address to the Federal Assembly, in which he formally annexed four territories of Ukraine, as an escalation of the war – indeed it was labelled as such by most major news outlets. US and EU representatives duly responded by maintaining that the four territories would never be recognised as Russia’s, and by issuing new sanctions.
But a close reading of the speech, and other Russian government actions over the past week, reveals important nuances about the Kremlin’s state of mind. At points where Putin could have escalated, it seems instead that he could be looking for a way out of this war – but more concerningly, he may be preparing for another.
Perhaps the most obvious takeaway is that the speech was heavy on polemic – plenty of history lessons, Western colonialism, and the obligatory reference to Nazis – but light on details, even about Ukraine itself. Indeed, Putin quickly noted at the start of the speech that the sham referenda in Ukraine were not up for discussion, and that was essentially the end of any real information about them. There was also no clarity about the delineation of the actual borders of these new territories; Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov further muddied the waters that same day by saying that Russia would have to ‘consult with the population’ about the new borders, suggesting that there has been no firm decision taken.
And there cannot be, because Russia does not control large swathes of the territories it has formally annexed. The Ukrainian army’s progress in mid-September renewed the impetus for the Russia-appointed leaders of the occupied regions to push through the referenda as quickly as possible, but there does not seem to be a clear plan in place for what the regions’ governance could look like. This year, although promises to rebuild parts of war-torn Ukraine were vague, the real messages regarding Russia’s plans were amid the polemic. But there were three potential signals in and around this speech that Putin may be looking for a way out.
The first important signal was Putin’s acknowledgment the day before the speech, in a meeting with his Security Council, that the mobilisation process had probably not gone according to plan. Footage of people called up regardless of their skills – despite initial promises from the Kremlin not to do so – and in many cases drafted straight from demonstrations has made global headlines.
There was no mention of nuclear escalation in Putin’s address – indeed, towards its close he commented on the need for cooler heads and Russia’s responsibility to the international community
Putin’s acknowledgment was an unusual concession, driven by public protests, the firebombing of recruitment offices, and the heavy-handed response of the security services. But the Kremlin clearly laid the blame on regional governors and the military commissariats. Recognising that the protests could become a problem if not handled properly, the Kremlin has been careful to allow state-controlled media such as RT to incessantly report stories for the past week about the shambolic nature of the call-ups, and has permitted public criticism of recruitment officers – but not of Putin personally. The backtracking is more than just words: in Far Eastern regions such as Khabarovsk, Magadan and Yakutia, where many men were forcibly conscripted, military commissars have been removed from their posts and the men returned home.
The Kremlin is mindful of its social contract with its people, but is also aware that these Far Eastern regions have some of the highest protest potential, with the tendency for it to spill over into other cities, including the major hubs of Moscow and St Petersburg. The unpopular pension reforms of 2018 saw widespread demonstrations across the country, particularly in the Far East, and there have been large protests in the city of Khabarovsk since 2020 over meddling from Moscow in local politics, with solidarity protests from other nearby cities.
None of this necessarily presents a threat to Putin’s personal power, but with a matter of months to go until campaign season begins for the 2024 presidential elections, it would be prudent to nip it in the bud.
Opportunities for De-escalation
The second significant change is Putin’s modification of his wording on the use of nuclear force. If in his mobilisation speech a few days prior, Putin was issuing thinly veiled threats – which we should nevertheless take seriously – on his readiness to use nuclear force, within a few hours Peskov sought to assuage concerns, maintaining that Russia did not want to amplify this message and calling for responsible behaviour by all. Ukrainian forces have recently retaken Lyman – their first military victory since Russia claimed the town as its own and promised to defend it ‘by all means’. But Russia has not yet threatened nuclear force in response. There was also no mention of nuclear escalation in Putin’s address – indeed, towards its close he commented on the need for cooler heads and Russia’s responsibility to the international community. The address would have been an opportune moment to issue nuclear threats if it was designed to be escalatory.
Pressure from China and India is likely to be more of an influence on Putin’s overall strategy for the war than his inner circle or reports from his generals
It is likely that Putin has been responding to concerns from his allies. Putin’s threats of nuclear force and the ongoing economic fallout from the war have concerned close allies like India and China – who have already expressed their views about the need for de-escalation in Ukraine – and Putin has been forced to acknowledge China’s ‘concerns’. Pressure from President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi – with whom important political and economic relationships are at stake – is likely to be more of an influence on Putin’s overall strategy for the war than his inner circle or reports from his generals.
Preparing for the War to Come
The third and most important signal came from the speech, which began with an offer of negotiations. Putin carefully noted that if Ukrainian forces were to withdraw – most likely meaning from the newly annexed territories – there would be an opportunity for negotiations and a ceasefire. But even if Russia might be edging towards a negotiated end to this war, Putin’s presentation of Ukraine as the mere catalyst for a much wider conflict with the West means it is not clear that any deal to end the Ukraine war would bring about broader peace.
The president’s address is usually used to outline the state of the nation, giving a sense of the challenges the country faces and where it might be going next. If – as Putin claims – things will never be the same, it seems that from the Russian side, there is a much bigger, values-based war to be fought that is still to come. We must prepare for this.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security