Vladimir Putin’s decision to mobilize an additional 300,000 Russians for the war in Ukraine is intended to prolong the conflict and break the West’s will to support Ukraine by stringing out the conflict.

To counter this, the West should offer assurances of long-term military support to Ukraine and make clear to Putin that it has no intention of wavering, said Anne Applebaum, staff writer with the Atlantic and a member of CEPA’s International Leadership Team.

“The only way [the mobilization] can really be understood is that it is part of Russia’s broader political plan, in other words: The idea is just to make the war last as long as possible so that the West will get tired, so that Europe will peel off . . . They are hoping for a loss of faith and a loss of energy.” She added that Russia wants to, “outlast the winter… they want to basically break the will of the West before their own will is broken.”

In Russia, the mobilization effort has been met by widespread protests and many Russians have fled the country. Applebaum told the 2022 CEPA Forum on September 28 that mobilization was “a form of the regime’s war on Russia” in that it satisfies the nationalists who have been pressing Putin to do more, and targets poorer and more provincial ethnic minorities, such as those in Dagestan, who are seen as a threat to the regime. “They clearly are using the conscription as part of politics, as part of staying in control,” she said.

The United States has offered more than $15 billion in military assistance to Ukraine. Many European nations have provided additional support. Applebaum said that when it comes to military support, using “long-term language” when it comes to planning for equipping the Ukrainian armed forces is a “very useful and important psychological message to be sending to the Russians: ‘We’re not leaving in the next two months. We’re not leaving in the next six months. We’re staying there.’”

Konstantin Sonin, the John Dewey distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago, agreed that the mobilization effort is partly aimed at keeping Putin in power, but questioned its likely success: “They are sleepwalking into a huge disaster,” he said. Over the years the West has continued to “overestimate [Putin’s] competence and underestimate his will.” In fact, he said, with the mobilization effort Putin is “digging his own grave.”

Olga Tokariuk, a CEPA fellow, said that despite the fact that many new conscripts will have little training, they will prove a challenge to the smaller Ukrainian military through sheer numbers. It is critical, she said, that the West quickly provide more weapons to Ukraine. “This will ultimately decide the outcome” of the war, she said.  

Later, in her remarks, US Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) said Congress has sent a strong message to Putin that the United States “will be supporting Ukraine’s right to self-defense and sovereignty by investing in its security.”  

“We do this because it is in US interests to do so,” Baldwin added. 

In a separate panel discussion, Zhanna Nemtsova, co-founder of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, said Putin’s mobilization effort is a big wake-up call for Russians who had, until now, not been personally affected by the war. She said it is critical that Ukraine win the war to shatter the perception among some Russians that Putin is a strong leader. This could, ultimately, lead to regime change in Moscow. 

Besides forced conscription, Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons and his regime has staged sham referendums in occupied Eastern Ukraine in an attempt to annex those territories. Once this has happened, Applebaum predicted, Russia will say any attack on this territory is an attack on Russia. “This is part of an intimidation game. They are attempting to scare the West with this talk of nuclear weapons, and they have said an attack on Russian territory means they have to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia,” she said. “It is part of this huge propaganda push to get the West to withdraw, or move back, or to stop fighting.” 

Tokariuk acknowledged Ukrainians are concerned about Western war fatigue. “Ukrainians cannot afford to have war fatigue,” she said, adding that the fact that her country is shielding the rest of Europe from Russian aggression, which lends legitimacy to their demand that the world does not turn away. 

In separate remarks, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová said Putin is waging an aggressive war against Ukraine, as well as the rules-based international order. “The debate on protecting a free Europe is no longer an academic exercise, it is a practical necessity,” she said. Meanwhile, the West is grappling with high rates of inflation and rampant disinformation. In order to protect a free Europe, Čaputová said, there is an urgent need to address all of these challenges. 

CEPA President and CEO Alina Polyakova also made the point that the West’s democratic future cannot be taken for granted. Later, in a panel discussion, moderator Katarzyna Pisarska, a senior fellow at CEPA, described the last decade as a time of “democratic recession,” even in established democracies like the United States and in Europe. Linas Linkevičius, a former foreign minister of Lithuania, said “it is clear that autocracies are not giving up” and, in fact, countries like Russia and China are trying to reshape the global order. 

Daniela Schwarzer, executive director, Europe, and Eurasia, at Open Society Foundations, said that at least some countries are now reviewing their dependence on Russia, on Russian gas exports, for example, as well as examining the risks of close ties to China. 

Schwarzer said that the democratic model has been taken for granted for many years now. “We didn’t invest in thinking, ‘how does it actually have to change?’,” she asked. In the face of current threats, including the rise of authoritarianism, there is a need to have a “very broad political and societal conversation and a lot of engagement from all sides to reinvent the model we cherish,” she said. 

CEPA Forum 2022
Meeting the Moment: Allies at a Crossroads
Learn More