Putin’s War, and His Rule, Are In Trouble
Russia’s mobilization is an epic disaster. Can it become a movement against the regime?
Russia’s mobilization of a reported 300,000 reservists hasn’t proceeded very smoothly. Almost immediately after President Vladimir Putin announced that his government would be calling the reservists up for duty in Ukraine, waves of Russians began fleeing the country, rightly suspecting this was just the first wave of call-ups.
In Ukraine, by contrast, many men have returned home to serve when their country needed them, after the initial government order that barred Ukraine’s fighting-age men from leaving the country as Russia invaded. In Finland, even NHL hockey stars return from America to do military service.
Any successful conscription or mobilization begins with respect for the citizens who are being turned into soldiers. Otherwise, they’ll foil the military effort by not showing up or not doing their best—and in Russia's case dramatically demonstrating to the world that Putin’s war, and his rule, is in trouble.
In his surprise address to the nation on Wednesday, Putin said, “I find it necessary to support the proposal of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff on partial mobilization in the Russian Federation to defend our motherland and its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to ensure the safety of our people and people in the liberated territories.”
“Partial” meant the immediate call-up of some 300,000 reservists, but reports already indicate the number could be far greater. Social media is flooded with videos of tearful scenes as called-up men take their leave from their families, while other men ease their unexpected journey to the barracks by taking to the bottle. The news also prompted many other men to swiftly drive to the border with visa-free Georgia or to book flights to Georgia and other countries (including Serbia) that don’t require visas for Russian citizens. At the time of writing, flights to Tbilisi, Belgrade, and Dubai are sold out for the next week or so, and after that they’re exorbitantly expensive or moderately expensive with stopovers in places like Grozny.
It’s hardly surprising that the men are escaping. War service is never pleasant in the first place. Putin’s problem goes far beyond the ugliness of war. Russia’s men are showing the world that Putin’s “partial mobilization” demonstrates that they don’t believe in his war, and thus in his government. And it demonstrates that they don’t believe the mobilization is partial at all.
They’re extremely perceptive. Even though this week’s announcement introduced partial mobilization, Russians can’t be sure that it will remain so. “Until Wednesday 21 September they tried recruiting volunteers, and it didn’t succeed. So they had to mobilize,” Gudrun Persson, a Russia analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency and the lead author of the authoritative Russian Military Capability in a Ten-Year Perspective, told me. “And there’s nothing in the presidential decree that explains what ‘partial’ means, nor is it a term in current legislation. This is mobilization, full stop, for the third time in Russia’s history. The previous times were 1914 and 1941.”
Being part of the first mobilization since World War II doesn’t bode well for the men now arriving in the barracks, and those who may be about to receive their call-up notice. “Until now, the problems Russian conscripts faced mostly involved dedovshchina (hazing), dying during exercises and poor, even if improving, service conditions,” Katarzyna Zysk, an expert on the Russian military at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, told me. “Now, on top of that, there’s a significant risk of becoming cannon fodder.”
Ordinarily, ex-conscripts who are part of the Russian military reserves would not be sent to fight in foreign countries. But because the referendums conducted in Russian-held Ukrainian territories immediately after Putin’s mobilization announcement mean those territories will soon count as Russia, the reservists can be sent there too. “The Russian armed forces are trying to salvage whatever they can and prevent another Kharkiv, where soldiers and civilian representatives appear to have just turned around and fled,” Persson explained.
Putin, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, and their advisers are painfully aware that few men want to serve in Russia’s armed forces. For decades, young Russian men have used highly innovative ways (including PhD studies) to avoid being conscripted, and since the invasion of Ukraine the armed forces have faced such recruitment problems that many contract soldiers have simply seen their contracts extended involuntarily. “Since 2008, Russia has been trying to get away from its large mobilization armed forces, and instead create a professional force, mobile, with a lot of air power,” Persson said, “And now they do this. This is like World War I, and they’ve not practiced for this contingency involving hundreds of thousands – and possibly more – rudimentarily trained ex-conscripts being sent to the war.”
Shoigu has taken pains to emphasize that draftees will be placed in support roles rather than frontline combat, a logical message to send considering that at least 300,000 families would rebel if their sons were made immediate cannon fodder. But Russia’s military seemed unprepared to receive even support troops. “The Russian armed forces’ endemic corruption is becoming obvious once again,” Persson said. “Soldiers are arriving at their bases and there are no uniforms for them, nothing. It’s shocking.”
The mobilization could have some effect on the war, if Russia’s military manages to temporarily substitute reservists for exhausted contract soldiers. But draftees are hardly going to give their best. “We’ve seen in this war how decisive the will to fight is. The Ukrainians have it. But the Russian soldiers don’t understand why they’re there. The mobilization is hardly going to improve the men’s will to fight,” said Zysk.
What a contrast to Ukraine, but also to Finland, which in 1939 faced formidable Soviet invaders. To the Soviets, Finland, a newly independent and badly divided country whose armed forces were extremely rudimentary, seemed an easy conquest. But the Finns believed in their country, they believed in their country’s leadership and especially in their commander, Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, a strategic genius who managed to turn the country’s rag-tag army of 90 percent reservists into a cunning insurgency force that so bedeviled the Red Army that Moscow withdrew after 105 days. While Finland was forced to relinquish some territory, it remained independent.
Russia’s mobilization debacle is playing out for all the world to see. And Putin is testing Russians’ faith in his war and his regime. The men now being served call-up papers may not be politically minded, but their efforts to avoid becoming cannon fodder could turn the mobilization into a movement against Putin’s war—and his regime.