Putin’s mobilisation. Too little, too late
Given the systemic difficulties of the Russian army, the mobilisation announced by Vladimir Putin on September 21st may not change the situation on the front very much at all. And when considering the economic and social costs of the war for Russia internally, which are growing at an alarming rate, Putin may have gained some time, but he has not solved the problem.
The mobilisation of 300,000 reservists, referenda in occupied territories and a nuclear threat are the three cards Vladimir Putin has just pulled out of his hand to create a new status quo in the war in Ukraine. By “escaping forward” he is undoubtedly attempting to avoid military defeat on the front lines and a brewing crisis within the country.
Pressure from all sides
Putin’s sudden turnaround has come as a result of intense pressure from both inside and outside. The so-called party of war, or siloviki (members of the army and security services), for months has been urging popular mobilisation. They claim that enacting it is the only way Russia will manage to stop the Ukrainian counteroffensive and avoid losing the war. Even more radical criticism came from the “ultra-patriots” camp, which include veteran circles, Russian neo-Nazis and fascist groups fighting in Donbas (such as the Rusich group and the Russian Imperial Legion). The loudest of such voices has been the vociferous Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov) who is among the four accused over the downing of the MH17 Malaysian Airliner in 2014. The “ultra-patriots” have demanded punishment for the frontline defeats of the corrupt generals and for the army’s abysmal equipment. They even accuse Putin himself for meddling in military decisions. In their eyes, Putin, despite being the commander-in-chief, is merely a former officer of the civilian FSB. From their perspective as military experts, the attack on Kyiv was an unnecessary operation imposed by a politician.
Furthermore, the Russian society, which for years has been inundated and inspired by imperial ideology and superpower resentment, expects more success from the Kremlin. Yet unlike in the 2014 annexation of Crimea, this time will not be so easy to seize the so-called Novorossiya. The invasion, which was supposed to last three days, at worst a week, and finish with a victory parade in the centre of Kyiv has been taking place for more than six months and has managed to disgrace the Russian army. The myth of the world’s second military power, which turned out to be an army that murders and rapes civilians (Bucha, Irpin and others), with fatally low morale, has been exposed. Therefore, Putin felt forced to placate the domestic mood, both the ultranationalist critics and the general population – fearful of popular mobilisation at the same time demanding victory.
Likewise, pressure has been growing from Russia’s foreign partners who have so far kept their distance from the war. During the Shanghai East Cooperation Organisation summit held in Samarkand on September 15th and 16th, Putin heard from his “allies” concerns about the war’s consequences for energy security, food supplies, foreign trade and the continued growth of the global economy. Chinese leader Xi Jin Ping expressed “several questions and concerns”, while the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, put it bluntly: “This is not the time for war!”
Lastly, the Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine alarmed the Kremlin that if Russia does not hold referenda immediately in the territories conquered by Russia after February 24th to annex them to the Russian Federation, there will be nothing soon to annex.
Just a day before Putin’s announcement on mobilisation, the Kremlin adopted a plan for referenda on September 23rd-27th in parts of the four occupied Ukrainian territories, namely the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, as well as parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Their outcome was expected to be similar to the support of locals announced by a poll delivered by the Crimean RIPSI institute – 94 per cent in the so-called DNR; 93 per cent in the so-called LNR; 87 per cent in the Zaporizhzhia region and 80 per cent in Kherson. By annexing another 15 per cent of sovereign Ukraine, Putin anticipates two important outcomes. First is the ability to satisfy public expectations through further territorial conquest. The 2014 annexation of Crimea propelled public support for Putin to a record high of 87 per cent.
Second, Putin expects that the new red lines outlined in his announcement would be respected by Ukraine and the West. Certainly Putin believes the Ukrainian army will refrain from a counteroffensive in the annexed territories, a significant miscalculation based on past experience. Today neither Kyiv nor the West aims to repeat the same failures as 2014. The Ukrainian government has warned Russia that it will not stop reclaiming all its sovereign territory occupied by Russia, including Crimea. Meanwhile western countries like Germany, France, the United States and Poland have declared recognising the so-called referendum as illegal. In response, NATO and the European Union announced in tandem another package of sanctions on Russia, as did the US.
The logic behind Putin’s September 21st address indicates an interest in a ceasefire which could bring either a peaceful solution or freeze the war as a minimum option. Yet if Ukraine decides to continue its counteroffensive (all indications are it will) and the West continues to supply and rearm Kyiv, then the Kremlin will reach for its other two cards: the mobilisation of 300,000 troops, which would mean a long-lasting, bloody war, and a strategy of nuclear blackmail. The latter would be used if the Ukrainian army crosses Putin’s redline and attempts to liberate the Luhansk and Donetsk regions together with Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. After the sham referenda, Russia will recognise them as part of its own territory. Under its war doctrine Russia would defend them “by all means”, including the use of nuclear weapons.
High social cost
While mobilisation is undoubtedly a convenient bargaining chip, it comes at a high social price. This is why Putin had avoided making this decision for months. Before now, the Russian forces were largely made up by paid volunteers and contract soldiers; some recruitment even took place in penal colonies. Unwilling to admit to the unpopular decision, Putin twice stressed in his address that he had decided to introduce not a full but partial mobilisation. As defence minister Sergei Shoigu explained after Putin’s speech the potential of reservists is 25 million, and “only slightly more than one per cent are subject to mobilisation”.
The authorities were right to expect protests. The Vesna organisation, which was among the first to call for them, published a proclamation on its website: “Mobilisation continues throughout the country. Soon thousands of our men may march to the front. We can and should speak out against it!” Supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny have also called for protests. They argued that the choice is either to become cannon fodder at the front and return from the war as Gruz-200 (in a coffin), or rebel for which one faces only a few years in prison.
For the first time in six months Russians took to the streets in large groups when compared to more broadly individual anti-war picketing since February 24th. Frankly speaking, they are indeed against the mobilisation rather than against the war itself. Since Russia invaded Ukraine the public support for the aggression remained stable, and according to the independent Levada Center already three-quarters of Russians were backing the decision of its “special operation” against Ukraine.
On September 21st demonstrations were held in 38 Russian cities, with traditionally the largest in Moscow and St Petersburg. Protests also took place in Yekaterinburg, Perm, Voronezh, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Ufa and others. In St Petersburg the crowd chanted “Putin to the trenches”; in Moscow “No to war!” and “Let our children live!” According to watchdog OVD-Info, more than 1,400 people had been detained by 2am on September 22nd. Some of them were handed mobilisation documents at the police station. Such cases were confirmed by OVD-Info activists, in particular in Voronezh and Moscow.
However, the protests have neither been massive nor widespread. They do not resemble those of 2018 when Putin announced an unpopular pension reform, causing the authorities to back down on some of their most controversial proposals. Nor do they look like the crowds that came out in defence of Navalny after his imprisonment last winter, not to mention massive demonstrations at the beginning of 1990. For now, they do not have the potential to create any crisis of power. Yet, it cannot be ruled out that they could escalate in the future, but most quickly as a result of Russia’s ultimate military defeat or the collapse of its economy.
The previously-introduced restrictions limiting the right to demonstrate together with effective wartime propaganda and general apathy means that Russians are either trying to avoid mobilisation by other means (emigration, corruption or looking for an exception) or are giving themselves obediently to be sent to the front.
Twilight of the Putin era?
Ultimately, the mobilisation and so-called referenda will not change the difficulties Putin continues to face. First of all, the mobilised soldiers will unlikely reach the front for several more weeks. As we know from leaks from the replenishment commands (voyenkomats), mobilisation is scheduled in three stages: by October 10th, October 25th and November 10th. The reservists’ training is scheduled for three weeks which means the earliest they will arrive in Donbas is November. Given the systemic difficulties of the Russian army, such as logistics, organisation, equipment, morale and pervasive corruption, the mobilisation may not change the situation on the front very much at all.
When adding the economic and social costs of the war, which are growing at an alarming rate, Putin may have gained some time, but he has not solved the problem. There is still a long way to go to win on the front lines and it is Ukraine that is increasingly confident that it will be able to regain the territories seized by Russia, and possibly Crimea as well. To make matters worse for Putin, Russia’s ability to restore its combat capability has been increasingly limited, while Ukraine is being equipped with more and more modern and effective weapons.
What is most important, Ukrainians are fighting for their lives and the survival of their state. Russians, on the contrary, are being forcibly conscripted into the army. And when the economic implosion occurs, the anti-mobilisation protests may turn into anti-war and even anti-government. If the situation is even more complicated and Putin loses control, then the crisis at the highest levels of government will be revived, making Putin responsible for Russia’s multi-faceted failure (military, economic and international).
At that point, a similar scenario to that in 1999 which led to a change of power comes into play. Paradoxically, it was Boris Yeltsin who appointed then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as acting president in exchange for security guarantees. Thus, Russian political scientists like Andrey Piontkovsky and Vladimir Pastukhov may be right in predicting the twilight of the Putin era. However, this does not mean a new perestroika or democratisation. It rather would be the continuation of the regime at the expense of a change only at the top. In any case, Putin’s announcement gives him some much needed time. The only question is how much is now left?
Agnieszka Bryc is an assistant professor at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland. She is a former member of the board of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). She specialises in Russian foreign policy and Israeli security.
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