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Russian history professor breaks down Putin's latest speech

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What do we make of Russia's partial mobilization of the armed forces? President Vladimir Putin is calling up military reservists, pulling people with some military training out of civilian life. The government says their job will be to hold the front line in Ukraine, where Russian forces have suffered heavy losses. Putin is also making moves to annex parts of Ukraine to Russia, the same way that Russia once claimed Crimea. Sergey Radchenko is a professor of Russian history at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He's going to help us talk through this. Welcome to the program.

SERGEY RADCHENKO: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Putin did order a partial mobilization but did not order a universal draft. What can we learn from what he did and what he did not do there?

RADCHENKO: Right. So the actual proclamation or the directive that he issued did not actually say partial, but what we can learn from it is that the Ministry of Defense will have a quota for each region, and the quota will then say how many reservists that particular region has to contribute to the overall number. Minister of Defense Shoigu announced that the number is likely to be in the region of 300,000.

INSKEEP: Which is a lot of people, but they could have called up more. Does this indicate that Russian authorities and Putin himself are worried about the level of public support for this war?

RADCHENKO: Well, that's certainly part of that. Obviously, mobilization is not popular in Russia. And if you follow flights out of Russia, as I have done this morning and yesterday, you know, tickets are being purchased. Flights are just impossible to get because people are fleeing Russia. You know, people of the age when they could be drafted to serve in this war do not want to do it, and many of them are trying to leave. So there is a general - there's public wariness. Nobody wants to really fight in this war. And that's despite the fact that according to the directive that Putin issued, the people who are being drafted will be given salaries on par with the contract soldiers. And those are actually fairly high salaries by the standards of Russia's regions.

INSKEEP: Now, with all of that said, even though it's not a full mobilization, they are calling up 300,000 Russians. Maybe they're reservists. They do have military training. But they're being pulled out of civilian life. Isn't even that level of mobilization likely to increase opposition to this conflict?

RADCHENKO: Well, absolutely. People have - as I said, you know, there hasn't - there has been a certain support for the war in Russia, especially among the radical nationalists. But I think the vast majority of the Russian people have been indifferent - I think the word is indifferent - have been looking after their own lives, their private lives, and now this war is coming to them directly. Now they are the ones who have to go into the military, who have to go to the front line, who have to die for what? Not for their country, but for fighting on behalf of Putin's imperial dreams. And I just do not think that this will sell very well among the Russian public.

INSKEEP: Now, Putin also appeared to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, saying that they could use all of their weapons. They have many weapons to respond and adding, quote, "I'm not bluffing." I should mention when someone says they're not bluffing, brings up the idea of bluffing, it often sounds to me like they're bluffing. Is he?

RADCHENKO: Exactly. Exactly. And, you know. OK, so the - we don't know under what circumstances Putin might actually use nuclear weapons. Nobody knows that. The possibility, certainly, is there because Russia is a major nuclear power, the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons, and, you know, we have to take this threat seriously.

Now, one thing that drew my attention in the remarks that Putin made, apart from his bluff or no-bluff comment, is the fact that Putin said that threats to Russia's territorial integrity would be something that Russia could respond to with the use of nuclear weapons or all means at its disposal. And of course, that becomes important if you think about the referenda that are being proposed now, will be held in the occupied territories of Ukraine, because if those territories are annexed by Russia, which is very likely at this point, then it seems that Putin is basically saying, well, if - you know, to defend those territories, I could use nuclear weapons.

INSKEEP: They're saying that eastern Ukraine would go under the Russian nuclear umbrella, that Ukrainian troops would have to stop at some specified point or else face nuclear retaliation. Is that what you're saying?

RADCHENKO: It has to be taken - you know, all of this has to be taken with a grain of salt. I think Putin understands or would hope he understands that there are obvious red lines there with regard to the use of nuclear weapons. And it has to be said that Russian territory has been struck already by Ukrainians. You know, in Belgorod, for example, there have been attacks on some Russian installations, and that has not triggered a nuclear war. So we have to be a little bit skeptical here. And of course, Putin understands that he's not the only - Russia is not the only country in the world that has nuclear weapons, and I think, you know, concepts of deterrence still apply fully.

INSKEEP: I guess we should also note that Ukrainian forces have struck Crimea, which the rest of the world recognized as part of Ukraine but which Russia, years ago, claimed to have annexed to Russia, and that didn't draw nuclear retaliation. With all of that said, they are planning these referendums in the eastern parts of Ukraine. How would this all work?

RADCHENKO: Well, the referendums have been in the works for some time. You know, obviously, Putin was hoping to be doing better at this stage of the war. And then when the Ukrainians launched counteroffensive, it seemed like the time was not right for the referendum. But they decided to go ahead anyway. So they're holding them between the 23 and the 27 of September in four regions, four parts of eastern Ukraine - obviously, DNR and LNR, the two statelets, the two unrecognized republics, and also the freshly occupied Russian territories of Kherson and parts of Zaporizhzhia.

INSKEEP: Just very briefly, Putin claimed his enemies were intent on, quote, "weakening, isolating and destroying Russia." Ironically, isn't that statement true now that Putin has invaded another country?

RADCHENKO: Well, obviously, Putin has cornered himself. And, you know, he's been given plenty of opportunities, actually, to get off, to disappear, as it were, to get out of Ukraine. He has missed every opportunity. He has decided to double down. And yes, Russia finds itself very much cornered.

INSKEEP: Sergey Radchenko of Johns Hopkins. Thanks so much.

RADCHENKO: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.