Is Putin just being rhetorical as Stoltenberg stated?

Is Putin just being rhetorical as Stoltenberg stated

The ongoing repartee between Russia and NATO

On September 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin, following the proposal of the Ministry of Defence and the General Command, issued an executive order with immediate effect by which he declared the “partial mobilisation” of the military, calling to arms 300,000 reservists.[1]

On the same day, the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, attending the 77th United Nations General Assembly in New York, said he countered by confirming the Organization’s determination to support Ukraine.[2] The Secretary-General also stated that the Russian initiative reveals the necessity for them to cope with the unforeseen development of the war, due to Putin’s “big miscalculation”. Stoltenberg claimed that, in fact, “the war is not going according to [Putin’s] plan”.[3]

In a certain way, it is possible to trace the same statement in Putin’s speech. Indeed, he legitimated the need for an army reinforcement by alleging that the commitment required turned out to be bigger than expected since the army “is acting at the military frontline exceeding a thousand kilometres and they are facing not just the neo-Nazist but the whole military machine of the collective west”. Consequently, President Putin deemed the mobilisation an appropriate response to the threat of the West in order to defend Russia’s sovereignty and security.[4]

He then announced the referenda, to be held from the 23rd to the 27th, to annex the Ukrainian conquered territories of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. He also specified that “partial mobilisation” means that the recruits are currently in reserve and those who served in the army and have professional military experience; in any case, they will be further explicitly trained. The initiative, he explained, encompasses the procurement of “additional technology, capacities, oil production and financial support for supplying the defence factory.” [5]

President Putin stated that with “its aggressive anti-Russian policy, the West has crossed all lines” by threatening the Russian people, furnishing drones and planes, and talking about “nuclear blackmail”. So, he reminded the West that they also have “various weapons of destruction, even more, modern than the NATO’s ones” and, if necessary, Russia will use “all the means available”; concluding, he added, “I am not laughing”.[6]

Jens Stoltenberg, in turn, replied that “this is a dangerous and reckless nuclear rhetoric. […] The speech is an escalation, but it is not a surprise. Therefore, we have been prepared.”[7] Just a day after, on September 22, besides confirming what Stoltenberg said, NATO warned Russia that any referenda for the annexation of the territories acquired by the use of force would be a violation of the UN Charter and consequently illegitimate and illegal, and NATO’s Allies will not recognise those annexations.[8] Furthermore, the Organization explicitly stated: “Russia has it in its hands to end the conflict. Russia must immediately stop this war and withdraw from Ukraine.” [9]

Assisting this repartee raises some questions. Is one of them bluffing? Is Stoltenberg right in saying that Putin is just being rhetorical? Is Russia in difficulty? To respond, the analysis should take into consideration the latest events before Putin’s announcement and assess the likelihood that they have been the triggering factors.

The Latest Phases of the War in Outline

Analysing the official numbers of total losses of the Russian troops reported by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence and taking into account the period from June 4 to September 22, the number of personnel “liquidated” increased exponentially in August. Indeed, the average of soldiers “liquidated” every 15 days in June and July was similar, 2,800 in June and 3,075 in July, but in August, it peaked at 4,225 soldiers every 15 days. In September, the average is even increased; the amount is 4,260 from September 8 to 22.[10]

How did it happen? Ukraine regained the territories of Kharkiv, Kupyansk and Izium thanks to the counteroffensive enacted from September 6 to 11.[11] This effort represented a massive step forward for the Ukrainians and the course of the war, which brought the downside of the new, more significant need for weapons supplies. The West knows it and the European Council of Foreign Relations, already on September 9, solicited a prompt enhancement of the deliveries, putting pressure on Germany to supply Leopard 2 battle tanks “because there is no alternative”.[12]

As for the explanation of how the Ukrainian Forces were able to advance so much, it is essential to remark not only on the furniture of weapons[13]. However[14] , also the training they got from Western Armies. For example, at the moment, the UK, supported by other countries, is giving a training programme “with the aim of training 10,000 new and existing Ukrainian personnel within 120 days.”[15]

Moreover, to give an idea of the range of the investment effort requested by the Western countries, the European Council of Foreign Relations estimated that the cost for the supply of weapons and ammunition worth 12 days of war equals 100,482,462,000 Euros.[16]

This being said, Putin appears more like a person who is losing ground under the weight of the joint Western push and is using any leverage available to stretch the duration of the conflict as long as possible. Nevertheless, why should he do this? An interpretation could be represented by the old “time card” from II World War.[17], meaning that Russia is trying to play again the strategy of defeating the counterpart by letting time pass to exhaust them and let the winter come and catch the Ukrainian soldiers unprepared. Also, the Western countries are now supporting the Ukrainians without reserves (or almost). However, how long will they be able to do that succeeding in not annoying their own citizens’ opinion? In fact, the approval sentiment of the European people on financing the purchase and supply of military equipment to Ukraine shrank from 67% in May to 35% in September.[18]

The West is not the only one having problems with public opinion. Indeed, above all after the partial mobilisation announcement, the anti-war protests in Russia tightened, with a consequently brutal response by the Russian government, which detained more than 1,300 people.[19] Furthermore, with the annexation of the Ukrainian territories, Russia could also push states like China, India and Turkey to side with the West’s position in this war.[20]

If Putin is bluffing or not is something that nobody can be sure about. For this reason, NATO’s allies are getting prepared, as Stoltenberg itself said at the UNGA77 and as it follows from the Madrid Summit Declaration of June 29, where the NATO’s Allies communicated that they are establishing a Defence Innovation Accelerator and launching a multinational Innovation Fund to bring together governments, the private sector, and academia to bolster our technological edge.[21] So far, the West deemed that it was not the case of directly intervening in the conflict, but annexing the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories could represent a turning point and unleash a harmful escalation.

[1] Andrew Osborn, “Explainer: What does Vladimir Putin’s ‘partial’ mobilisation mean for Russia’s military machine?”, Reuters, September 21, 2022,
[2] NATO, “NATO Secretary General in New York”, last updated September 22, 2022,
[3] Ibid.
[4] Sky News, “In full: Putin announces partial military mobilisation in address to Russia”, YouTube, September 21, 2022,
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, @NATO, September 21, 2022, Twitter,
[8] A/RES/ES-11/1 “Aggression against Ukraine”, March 2, 2022,
[9] NATO, “Statement by the North Atlantic Council on the so-called “referenda” in parts of Ukraine”, September 22, 2022,
[10] Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, section “News” of the official website, communiqués published under the terms “The total combat losses of the enemy from X to Y”, Updates consulted: 4/06, 13/06/, 23/06, 7/07, 21/07, 31/07, 10/08, 27/08, 8/09, 13/09, 19/09, 20/09 and 22/09.
[11] Orla Guerin, “Ukraine war: Mass exhumations at Izyum forest graves site”, September 17, 2022,
[12] Piotr Buras, Marie Dumoulin, Gustav Gressel, Jeremy Shapiro, “Survive and Thrive: A European plan to support Ukraine in the long war against Russia”, European Council of Foreign Relations, September 9, 2022,
[13] Jonathan Beale, “Inside the room where Ukraine orders arms from the West”, BBC News, June 15, 2022,
[14] Denys Davydenko, Margaryta Khvostova, Olga Lymar, “Immediate impact: How Western heavy weapons are already helping Ukraine halt Russia”, European Council of Foreign Relations, July 5, 2022,
[15] Claire Mills, “Military assistance to Ukraine since the Russian invasion”, UK Parliament, House of Commons Library, September 21, 2022,
[16] Piotr Buras, Marie Dumoulin, Gustav Gressel, Jeremy Shapiro, “Survive and Thrive: A European plan to support Ukraine in the long war against Russia”.
[17] German defeat in Stalingrad, February 2, 1943, in the context of what, paradoxically, URSS liberated most of Ukraine,
[18] European Parliament, “Public opinion on the war in Ukraine”, Documents consulted: May 6 and September 9.
[19] Reuters, “More than 1,300 detained in anti-mobilisation protests across Russia -rights group”, September 21, 2022,
[20] Tom Nagorski, Lili Pike,  Joshua Keating, and Nikhil Kumar, GRID, “The world and the war: Who still stands with Putin and Russia in the war with Ukraine? In the wake of Russia’s latest nuclear threats, the Global Grid conversation looks at global support for Putin and his war.”, September 22, 2022,
[21] NATO, “Madrid Summit Declaration. Issued by NATO Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Madrid June 29 2022”, June 29, 2022,

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