The announcement of a so-called “partial mobilisation” on Wednesday caused a mass exodus of eligible men, as border routes to Georgia and Finland became choked with traffic. Demand for flights to countries which did not demand visas also increased, with a one-way airfare to Istanbul rising from £350 – £2,715.
“Putin’s speech heralded the beginning of the collapse of the Putin regime,“ said Keir Giles of the Chatham House think tank.
“Russia is now displaying all the symptoms of the early stages of the kind of crisis that has brought Russian dictatorships crashing down in the past – pursuing unfeasible objectives in unwinnable wars, and destroying the country, its economy and the lives of young men in the process.”
More than 20,000 Russian troops have been killed in action and a further 60,000 wounded in just six months of fighting – far exceeding the number of casualties in Russia’s ten-year war in Afghanistan – as Putin’s offensive encountered heavier than expected resistance from Ukrainian forces supplied with Western equipment.
Yesterday it emerged that Putin promoted his most loyal general, Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev – dubbed the “Mariupol butcher” – to the rank of deputy defence minister responsible for supplies and logistics.
Mizintsev, 61, who heads the National Defence Management Centre, was brought to Ukraine in March to secure the land bridge between Donbas and Crimea and improve logistics.
Though, under Russia’s constitution, conscripts are not allowed to be sent to foreign theatres of war, ill-trained conscripts have been present in Ukraine since the February 24th invasion.
In order to shore up gaps, private mercenary companies such as the Wagner group have already been given permission to recruit in prisons, offering convicts a reprieve for six months service.
Speaking last night, Lt Gen Stephen Twitty, deputy commander of US’ European Command until 2020, told the Sunday Express: “I don’t think Putin will make that 300,000 figure and, even if he does, they need to be trained and equipped. Russians have taken a lot of losses, so to be able to conjure enough combat-worthy equipment is difficult.
“We always knew he felt that Ukraine was Russian, but we didn’t know how good he was militarily – we were suspicious of his capability, but could not know, as he had only fought in small wars like Aleppo. We do now.”
But he warned the West should not be complacent about the other part of Putin’s speech, in which the increasingly isolated leader warned his country had “various weapons of destruction” and would “use all the means available to us”.
“It is difficult to assess how Putin sees his risk-gain equation – he is clearly desperate,” said Lt Gen Twitty.
“But any time the threat of nuclear weapons is made, it should be a cause of concern for all of us. We should not take it lightly, but we should let it deter us either.”
His views were echoed by EU policy chief Josep Borrell, who said: ”Certainly it’s a dangerous moment because the Russian army has been pushed into a corner, and Putin’s reaction – threatening using nuclear arms – it’s very bad.”
Last night Fabrice Pothier, former Nato director of policy and planning, said contingency plans had already been made in the West.
“It is no conscience that Putin made this speech just when it seemed that the US was preparing to sanction the deployment of main battle tanks. That would spell the end for Russia, Infantry would have the back up they need,“ he said.
In Putin’s “parallel universe”, the nuclear threat is Putin’s way to come back to the negating table, he said, adding: “But we must assume he means it, even if we know he uses KGB tactics to introduce terrorism.
“It will be up to the P3 (nuclear powers US, UK and France) to lead the response to Russia’s use of tactical nuclear weapons. This may end up being a non-Nato operation, though Nato’s nuclear group has also made contingency plans.
“But it depends on the scenario. Is it just a warning shot into the Black Sea? There are many shades of grey.”
One worrying option is to launch a missile towards Kyiv from Belarus, warned Yuri Felshtinsky, author of the new book Blowing Up Ukraine.
“Putin is ready to go as far as necessary to win the battle, and that battle is much wider than Ukraine: it is for influence over Europe and the US,“ he said.
“When he sees that the West won’t respond to his list of unlimited demands, and knowing that his conventional forces can ruin territories but not hold them, he will resort to tactical nuclear weapons.
“They won’t be fired from Russian territory, however, but Belarus. This is why he hasn’t annexed it yet.”
He added: “The irony is that Russia had the ideal situation before it invaded. Its control of Crimea gave it a warm sea port and ensured that Ukraine could never join Nato.
“Now no-one in the West is talking about Ukraine’s February borders – they want Russia out completely. And Putin knows this.”