Putin admits Russia at war with Ukraine – but did he say it by mistake?

President uses the word for first time, raising questions over whether he is preparing country for large-scale mobilisation

Russian President Vladimir Putin used the word 'war' for the first time in a news conference at the Kremlin in Moscow on Thursday. AP
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President Vladimir Putin’s reference to the conflict in Ukraine being a "war" is causing confusion and alarm in Russia.

While many observers believe his use of the word was unintentional, it cannot be ruled out that he could be preparing the Russian people for a formal declaration of war to allow conscription to bolster his failing campaign.

Within days of the Russian invasion the terms "war" and "invasion" were outlawed under a new censorship law signed by the Russian leader, with anyone publicising them facing a penalty of 15 years in prison.

Since then Putin and the vast majority of Russians have been careful to use only the official state construction of Ukraine being a “special military operation”.

But in his annual address to journalists in Moscow, Mr Putin said: “Our goal is not to spin the flywheel of military conflict, but, on the contrary, to end this war.”

Many Russians have been jailed for using the term, mainly on social media, although pro-Kremlin bloggers do not appear to suffer the same sanction.

But Mr Putin’s use of the “war” word has “prompted some confusion within the Russian information space”, according to the Institute for Study of War think tank.

“The confusion indicates that Putin’s limited war narrative may conflict with his presentation of the ‘special military operation’ as a fight for Russia’s sovereignty while not being an official war,” the ISW said.

US officials told the CNN television network that they believe the “war” comment was unintentional but they would observe what Kremlin figures say in the coming days to come to a firmer conclusion.

An explosion erupts from an apartment building after a Russian tank fired on it in Mariupol, Ukraine, in March. AP

There is the possibility that Mr Putin might have deliberately used the word. Under current legislation he can call only on mobilised reserves to fill the ranks of those lost in Ukraine , where there has been an estimated 100,000 Russian casualties, including about 25,000 dead.

The reserves mobilisation Mr Putin ordered over the summer produced about another 100,000 soldiers, varying in age from 18 to 65, but a similar number fled Russia to avoid being becoming a “mobik” ― mobilised man ― and possible death in Ukraine.

But if Mr Putin formally declared war, it would need a process that would have to be signed off in the Duma. That would allow him to draw on a significantly larger pool of men, allowing the armed forces to double from their current level of about one million personnel under arms.

But that would come with significant political risk because it would mean thousands of sons from Russia’s middle class being called up for frontline duty.

So far their silence on the atrocities and destruction meted out on Ukraine has allowed Mr Putin to keep a strong grip on the Kremlin.

Mr Putin is potentially seeding the ground for an announcement after he made the rare admission on Tuesday that the conflict in eastern Ukraine was “extremely difficult”.

“It does fit into some things he said in the past,” said Fiona Hill, who has performed intelligence roles for three US presidents.

“He called this at first a special military operation,” she told the BBC. “That gives you this sense of something quickly decisive, something very strategic, that's supposed to be well executed. And he still thinks that he can pull it off.

“But he is preparing the population for this going to be much more difficult and going on into a second year and maybe longer if necessary.”

Updated: December 23, 2022, 6:05 PM
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