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Putin’s post-mobilisation endgame

The Kremlin has done little to forestall the mass exodus of draft dodgers, suggesting that this announcement could have been a fear-mongering charade aimed at flooding Europe and Central Asia with disaffected young Russians.

November 14, 2022 - Saahil Menon - Articles and Commentary

Border crossing between Russia and Georgia in Lars. Russian men fleeing mobilisation. Photo: Avsinn / Shutterstock

Having dragged on for over eight months now, it is unlikely that the war in Ukraine will come to a halt anytime soon. Vladimir Putin has learned the hard way that the Ukrainian people are not going to submit to his will. However, losing face is not an option for the Russian dictator, whose dangerously inflated ego has obviously had profound effects on his judgement . By launching this shambolic invasion, Putin has tethered himself to the throne and embroiled himself in a catch-22 of his own making. On the one hand, with Russia on the cusp of turning into a failed state, carrying on at the helm will only propel further economic devastation and ultimately spark an internal uprising of such magnitude that no number of tanks or gulags can quash. On the other hand, relinquishing power means almost certainly standing before a war crimes tribunal, presuming Putin is fortunate enough to escape unscathed from the wrath he is incurring among members of his own inner circle.

Putin needs some kind of success on the battlefield. Thus, Russia is throwing even more money and bodies at the battlefield, despite a series of major strategic blunders that have given Kyiv the clear upper hand in this conflict. Mobilising reservists is Moscow’s acknowledgement of the extent to which it has grossly miscalculated how much of a fight Ukraine would put up. However, there may be another motive to Putin’s declaration — destabilising neighbouring countries with large numbers of disaffected young Russian men.

It is worth recalling that Alyaksandr Lukashenka sought to overwhelm the European Union with Middle Eastern migrants in retaliation for sanctions imposed on his country late last year. Putin, however, may have far grander ambitions — the Russification of neighbouring territories and beyond. Knowing full well that the Russian army has been outclassed in Ukraine, there is no appetite on the part of its government to initiate another full-scale war with the ever-expanding list of ex-Soviet republics refusing to follow Moscow’s line.

The outflow of hundreds of thousands of young men is the next best alternative to get back at erstwhile Cold War allies now pivoting Westwards. Exporting these men to the likes of Kazakhstan, Georgia and Armenia thrusts the Russian language back upon the indigenous population at the expense of their native tongue. Reducing this particular demographic at home is also conducive to maintaining social order in the big cities and ensuring that ongoing demonstrations do not morph into riots or vandalism.

Central Asia and the South Caucasus have become dumping grounds for Russians evading military service. Their new hosts could have easily pre-empted this phenomenon with stringent entry protocols. However, Putin issued the mobilisation directive at a time when most bordering states continued to welcome his people with open arms and in doing so, sleepwalk back into the Kremlin’s orbit. The influx of Russians to the former colonies and satellites of Moscow portends a USSR 2.0 coming to fruition.

Hitting the Kremlin and its co-conspirators where it hurts

To supplement the remarkable bravery demonstrated by Ukrainian soldiers, it is imperative that the EU acts to paralyse the aggressor’s economy. So far, Moscow has been able to continue to function economically in spite of western sanctions. Export bans, the scaling down of diplomatic representation and blacklisting some senior officials has not significantly affected the Russian economy. The Kremlin has simply offset western attempts to isolate Putin by increasing trade with developing countries.

Rather than merely intensifying the sanctions that are already in place, European leaders need to start thinking outside the box, while exhausting every ounce of leverage at their disposal. The lives of Russian citizens need to be made so insufferable that their frustration ends up vented squarely at the establishment. There is no need to be squeamish about this — no matter how much misery is inflicted upon Russia’s masses as a result of these punitive measures, their plight will never be able to be equated with the hardship innocent Ukrainians are enduring due to the Russian invasion.

Key to making sanctions effective will be their ingenuity, not their volume. The West has to catch the Kremlin off guard with unconventional statecraft. The only way to prevent Russia from making a mockery of current sanctions is through an airtight and ironclad campaign rendering all forms of cross-border travel virtually impossible. It goes without saying that an initiative of this kind will entail active engagement between western countries, as well as with a number of developing nations, in order to drastically curtail the mobility privileges Russians currently enjoy.

Developing countries should also be forced to choose between good relations with the West or with Russia. Despite its colossal landmass, Russia remains an economic minnow, and it is clear that the Global South benefits more from its commercial ties with the West. Developing world leaders must be encouraged not to jeopardise these relations by cosying up to a highly unstable regime which is collapsing before our very eyes. It should also be made clear to developing nations that the proceeds generated from Russia selling its vast resources are not trickling down to commoners but being ploughed into Putin’s war machine which has killed and displaced millions of Ukrainians, while dramatically pushing up fuel and food prices around the world.

The West also needs to increase the use of migration as a tool of diplomacy. The European Union does not appreciate how much of a bargaining chip the Schengen area is to rally support for Ukraine. Non-EU citizens should be barred from visiting the bloc if their governments are excessively sympathetic towards Russia. Such a step will encourage foreign policy recalibration from the bottom up in neutral states like Turkey, whose people flock to the EU for employment and family reunification as well as leisure. In a similar vein, Annex II nations Serbia and the United Arab Emirates ought to be stripped of their 90-day visa waiver to the bloc for going out of their way to attract and accommodate Russian tourists.

Another area requiring action is technology, where pressure needs to be put on Big Tech to thwart Putin’s onslaught in Ukraine. There is no excuse for Russian influencers with mass followings on social media to still have their accounts up and running, given that they use these platforms to shamelessly flaunt their flamboyant travels and show complete disregard for the bloodshed in Ukraine. Similarly, homeowners profiteering from the war by putting up Russian émigrés at their properties should be permanently delisted from online booking sites.

Putin’s waning popularity

The inability to discern bona fide allegiance from coercion-induced public support is among the copious flaws of autocratic governance. As Russian forces lose momentum in Ukraine, it is all the more vital for a deeply insecure Putin to prove his legitimacy as the country’s head of state. The military call-up was a yardstick of loyalty which has revealed the true lack of commitment of many Russians to his regime. Potential recruits spent their life savings to escape abroad, showing their real attitudes towards the Russian war in Ukraine. The full-scale invasion was justified as necessary to protect Russia from the Ukrainian authorities, but it is the Russian authorities that young Russian men are fleeing.

Meanwhile, state-sponsored propagandists are having a hard time making sense of the invasion to their domestic audience. Putin’s approval rating has unsurprisingly nosedived since the onset of the war, with every stratum of society bearing the brunt of his disastrous decision. Even a number of the oligarchs that Putin has enriched have openly condemned the invasion, subsequent to which several have mysteriously perished. The war has not only dispelled the myth that Russia boasts the world’s second most powerful army, but it has also shed light on how inherently averse Russians are to heed the call of duty.

So desperate is Putin to salvage his reputation that he has resorted to acts beyond the pale, threatening nuclear attacks and using the recent Kerch bridge attack as a pretext for the increased bombardment of Ukrainian cities. These incidents are surely not the last manifestations of Putin’s increasingly erratic behaviour.

By practically forcing out a sizeable chunk of Russia’s economically active population and pitting the entire world against him, Putin has caused huge damage to his country for years, if not decades, to come. The brain drain underway is starving state coffers of much-needed fiscal revenues while subdued business activity is taking a toll on consumer confidence and lending. Women face the daunting prospect of not knowing whether their close male relatives will ever make it back alive, meaning their children could grow up in single-parent and financially insecure households. None of this bodes well for a government elected on the premise of restoring national pride and glory.

Saahil Menon is an independent wealth advisor based in Dubai with an academic background in business, economics and finance.

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