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analysis: Putin's military mobilisation suggests the Russian army is in deep trouble — but this war is far from over

By global affairs editor John Lyons
Posted , updated 
Australia cannot assume that it will not face a war of its own, says Ukraine's ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

It's a confronting question for an ambassador to ask in their host country: "Please put your hand up if you are prepared to die for Australia?" 

This is what Ukraine's ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, has been asking groups since he arrived in April. He says he's asking for two reasons — first, Ukrainians are dying every day. Often he opens Facebook in the morning and finds an obituary of someone he knows. 

"No country can assume they will never be invaded," he says. "If someone had said to me a year ago that Russia would not just invade the east of Ukraine but try to take Kyiv, I would not have thought that was a serious possibility." 

Second, Myroshnychenko says, Australia cannot assume that it will not face a war of its own.

"In the world in which we now live, all countries need to consider the possibility of war. In 30 years, both China and India are likely to have 2 billion people each — that's 4 billion people who will need food and water," he says.

"A country like Australia is rich with water. In my view, future wars will be fought over water. Australia needs to make sure that its defence forces are ready if need be."

Sobering words from someone helping his people fight a war against Russia, which until recently was considered to have one of the most formidable armies in the world. 

Over the past two weeks Ukrainians have delivered one of the most extraordinary counterattacks in recent military history, leading to Russian President Vladimir Putin this week announcing a "partial mobilisation" — conscripting members of the Russian reserve forces to join the war. 

As to his who's-prepared-to-die question, Myroshnychenko says: "It's not a question that people expect, but it's one that needs to be asked." 

What will mobilisation actually mean?

In most wars it's difficult to be definitive about who's winning and who's losing. Clearly, Ukraine has had some serious military victories lately, particularly in the north-east. Proof of this was evidenced by the Russian news agency Tass urging Russian sympathisers to evacuate immediately. 

But two things are not so clear. First, the state of affairs in other parts of the war. The front line is about 2,000km long — further than the distance from Melbourne to Brisbane — and in some parts the two sides are still caught in a deadly gridlock. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin may be "very uncomfortably aware" that his fate is in the "shaky hands" of the Russian military, says Stephen Fortescue.(AP: Vladimir Smirnov)

And second, what will "partial mobilisation" mean in reality? Entering winter, it will not be easy for Russia to move more troops — many of whom have no recent battlefield experience — to the front line. 

Since Putin's announcement, some protests have occurred in Russia. They are small so far. But given the ruthlessness of the regime, the fact that any protests are occurring indicates growing unrest.

The reported rush by many to leave the country also suggests weakening support for the war. Why would anyone want to go to the front line when they must be hearing stories from neighbours and relatives who are losing loved ones? 

For this column, I interviewed two close observers of these issues: Ukraine's ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, and Australian academic Stephen Fortescue, an internationally renowned Russia expert. The interviews were before Putin's announcement of a "partial mobilisation". 

'Putin lost the day he invaded'

Myroshnychenko spends much of his time lobbying Australia for more equipment to boost Ukraine's war effort. "At this stage of the war, as we go into winter, artillery is the most important thing that we need, and ammunition," he says.

"Australia has provided six howitzers — we would like another 12 if possible. And Australia's Bushmasters [armoured personnel carriers] have been performing very well — 40 have been delivered and 20 more are on the way. I have made a request for another 30, if possible. I've also made a request for Hawkeis [four-wheel drive vehicles]." 

Myroshnychenko is talking to Australian officials about how to help rebuild infrastructure. He's hoping Australia may "adopt" the reconstruction of Mykolayiv, in the south, and then expand to Kherson once the Russians are evicted from there. Both regions are on the Black Sea and have similarities to coastal Australian cities. 

Myroshnychenko says Australia's Bushmasters have been making a huge difference in Ukraine.(ABC Central Victoria: Sarah Lawrence)

How would he describe the current state of the war? "Recently Ukraine has been able to regain big swathes of land — cities like Izium and Kupiansk, which were important supply hubs for the Russians. We have seen the Russian army collapse in these areas. That has been very liberating and uplifting for Ukrainians," he says.

"We now feel like we can win this war — 90 per cent of Ukrainians now believe we can win this war. But in a sense, Putin lost the day he invaded. He cannot win this war because he cannot subdue Ukrainians. We are never going to give up. We will resist until we all die, if necessary. He underestimated us — he might be able to kill us all but he will never subdue us." 

Is a Ukrainian victory inevitable? "Absolutely," Myroshnychenko says. "We will evict the Russians. But for that to happen, we need the world to supply all the artillery that we need right now." 

The problem with military mobilisation

Myroshnychenko says one of the reasons for Ukraine's recent successes is that many of the weapons promised by various countries have arrived. He says the US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers have been "a game-changer". 

As to what Vladimir Putin does now, the ambassador says: "He can always get nastier. We don't know. I'd rather see him removed from power by the massive demonstration of the Russian people, who are sick and tired of his kleptocratic and maniacal rule." 

When Russia invaded in February its army was estimated to be 10 times the size of Ukraine's. It's clear that Ukraine's army, now bolstered by foreign supplies and a surge of Ukrainian volunteers, has reduced this disparity. 

"When I was in Kyiv in June I saw long queues of people wanting to volunteer for the army," Myroshnychenko says. "In contrast, we have killed or wounded an estimated 80,000 of the Russian army, according to British intelligence." 

Academic Stephen Fortescue says it's difficult to assess how Putin and his advisers might see the latest Ukrainian successes, but "it could well be that he sees it as the Ukrainians catching us out at a weak spot, but that perseverance will still see us through — on the battlefield and in the energy stand-off with the Europeans". 

An honorary associate professor at the University of NSW, Fortescue, speaking before Putin's "partial mobilisation" announcement, said the problem with military mobilisation is not just that it might be unpopular, but that it would be of "limited value". 

"If the so-called professional army can't do it, why would a bunch of reservists? The problem with hitting cities hard is that it wouldn't do much to help the situation on the battlefield and [would] likely just make the Ukrainians even more determined. And if things got too barbaric it would put the pressure on the so-called friendly and neutral countries to reconsider their positions," Fortescue says.

"If the Russians passed on that they were prepared to talk seriously, the West could and would put the hard word on Zelenskyy," he adds. "But I can't see Putin being prepared or able to offer enough to get even the West interested. So through a process of elimination I'm left with 'continue as before'. Of course, if the battlefield situation got worse, it would become untenable. I'd probably be betting then on a combination of military mobilisation and hitting Ukrainian cities." 

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John Lyons says Vladimir Putin is getting "desperate".

Putin's fate could be in the military's shaky hands

The harshest criticism of the war inside Russia, Fortescue argues, has come from the far right.

"It probably doesn't count for enough within the elite or the general population to cause Putin much concern," Fortescue says. "There are no signs of wavering among the elite or that Putin is giving way to the hawks on, say, mobilisation, including of the economy. But it's hard to believe that there aren't serious differences of opinion, and interests, within the elite, that in the future could produce cracks." 

As to how much pressure Putin would be under right now, he suggests there's probably more pressure on the military. "But he could well be very uncomfortably aware that his fate is in their shaky hands." 

If the Russians passed on that they were prepared to talk seriously, the West could and would put the hard word on Zelenskyy, says Stephen Fortescue.(Reuters: Viacheslav Ratynskyi)

Does he think Putin wishes that he never began this war?

"He once said that he couldn't remember ever having made a mistake, but he'd be hard pressed to convince himself that the current geographic gains make it worth it," Fortescue says. "Even if the war ... stopped tomorrow with him in control of currently occupied territory, he's clearly worse off — in every way — than before the invasion. That's why I regard negotiations as the least likely option for him." 

Former Australian diplomat and Ukraine expert Dmitry Grozoubinski says potentially the most significant part of Putin's decree this week was that all current military service contracts would be extended indefinitely. "I think Putin was told his entire professional army was going to quit at the end of their contracts rather than face winter huddling in trenches hunted by Ukrainian SOF and torched by HIMARS," Grozoubinski wrote on social media.

Indeed. Forcing soldiers to keep fighting, and forcing reservists to go to the front line, suggests an army in deep trouble.

But armies in deep trouble, and their isolated, deluded political commanders, can still commit war crimes. This war is far from over. 

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Vladimir Putin announces annexation of four regions in Ukraine.
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