The Kremlin says Russia is in a ‘state of war’ in Ukraine. Could the wording signal a shift?

The Kremlin said Friday that Russia is in a “state of war” in Ukraine, direct language that fueled questions about whether it signaled a change in approach following the landslide election victory claimed by President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule.

“Yes, it began as a special military operation, but as soon as this group was formed there, when the collective West became a participant in this on the side of Ukraine, for us it already became a war,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in comments to the pro-Kremlin Argumenty i Fakty newspaper.

“I am convinced of this. And everyone should understand this for their own internal mobilization,” Peskov added.

The comments quickly drew attention in Russia and abroad, where observers of the war are watching for signs that the Kremlin is readying its public for deeper and prolonged involvement in Ukraine, including a second wave of mobilization to beef up its military ranks as the conflict enters a third year.

The Kremlin has insisted on calling its full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine a “special military operation,” and censorship laws adopted in the early days of the war have allowed authorities to arrest or even jail people who criticize Russia’s actions in Ukraine or simply use the word “war.”

Peskov’s comments would appear to be a departure from that language, which sought to cast the invasion as a limited endeavor and play down its increasingly dominant role in Russian life.

As the remarks drew headlines across the world, analysts were divided over whether they signaled a dramatic shift from the Kremlin.

Peskov’s point that everyone in Russia should understand that the country is in a state of war “for their own internal mobilization” was noted as a particular sign that authorities may soon be asking for more from the Russian public. A new recruitment drive has long been seen as a possibility once Putin secured re-election.

“Now it’s official: the SMO (special military operation) is recognized as a war. Of course, the SMO de facto became a war a long time ago,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the founder and head of the political analysis firm R.Politik.

“But this is a certain psychological boundary, beyond which both the population and the elites will be faced with different demands than during the period of the special military operation,” she wrote on Telegram.

Russia Ukraine Military Operation Artillery Unit (Stanislav Krasilnikov / Sputnik via AP)

Russia Ukraine Military Operation Artillery Unit (Stanislav Krasilnikov / Sputnik via AP)

However, others noted that Kremlin officials regularly allude to a wider “war” in their remarks.

“This is not new: the idea that the SMO is just one front, albeit the most bloody, in a wider political-economic-cultural war with the West has long been established, not least by Putin in his state of the federation speech last month, in which he used the w-word,” said Mark Galeotti, head of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence and an honorary professor at University College London.

Peskov’s mention of “internal mobilization” is actually key, Galeotti said. “The Kremlin’s demand that every Russian get into a wartime mindset, and realise there is now no middle ground between being a patriot and a traitor (as Putin defines these),” he wrote on X. “But it’s also important to stop sometimes and not think that there’s going to be a ‘gotcha’ moment when Putin’s mask is ripped off.”

Peskov sought to clarify his comments later Friday.

“This is not related to any legal changes,” Peskov said in his daily briefing with reporters, when asked if they signified a legal change in the status of the “special military operation.”

“This is a special military operation de jure. But de facto, in fact, it has turned into a war for us after the collective West has been directly increasing the level of its involvement in the conflict more and more.”

When pushed on the fact that some in Russia have been put in jail for protesting with the phrase “no to war,” Peskov said it was a “completely inappropriate comparison” because “the context is different” in what he was talking about and the references to war that have landed some Russians in jail.

Last December, Peskov told NBC News that Russia’s fight remains a “special military operation,” but said the West’s efforts against Russia were indisputably a war, citing what he called “direct” involvement of foreign countries in the conflict and U.S.-led economic sanctions “If it’s not a war, then how would you like to call it?” Peskov said then. “We call it war.”

Putin has framed the war in Ukraine as Russia’s existential fight for survival against the West, which he said seeks its annihilation.

Russian propaganda frequently berates Western governments for supplying Ukraine with weapons, accusing them of effectively fighting Russia on the battlefield, if only by remote control so far.

Tensions around the West’s involvement in Ukraine have grown in recent weeks after French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that he couldn’t rule out sending Western troops on the ground in Ukraine in the future. Putin responded by saying that could precipitate a nuclear war.

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