The so-called “partial mobilization” announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week has changed the character of the Ukraine war for Russians in a matter of days — and for all the ensuing scenes of disarray and unrest within Russia, the mobilization’s impact will soon change the character of the war for Ukrainians, too.
Less than a week into the mobilization, whether it is really partial or general is hard to tell.
Putin’s decree has a conspicuously missing paragraph — Item 6 is immediately followed by Item 8.
Illustration: Mountain People
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the classified Item 7 deals with the number of people to be mobilized.
Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu put that at 300,000 people, and Peskov has denied media reports that the actual number in the decree is 1 million or 1.2 million people — but the absence of a precise number fits the situation on the ground best.
Putin on Wednesday last week said in his address to the nation that only people who had done mandatory service in the military, had a skill that was in short supply (such as artillery or tank training) and, preferably, combat experience would be called up.
However, it soon transpired that quotas had been handed down to local draft offices, and many of them rushed to grab every man they could get lest they be accused of insufficient zeal.
That has meant calling up people with disqualifying health conditions, those who never served, those who are too old — older than 40 — to be privates.
In some areas, draft notices have been delivered in the dead of night, their recipients required to show up at the recruitment center the following morning.
In Dagestan in the northern Caucasus, the indiscriminate mobilization has sparked riots and clashes with police. In eastern Siberia, a local man allegedly shot and severely wounded the official in charge of the local draft office — apparently for calling up a friend of the shooter who had not even done the mandatory service.
Far-right political influencers and Kremlin propagandists are campaigning against such “excesses.”
Margarita Simonyan, who heads the RT propaganda TV channel, and prime-time show host Vladimir Solovyov have offered their Telegram channels to those wishing to report mobilization irregularities, and they have published summaries of some egregious cases.
The idea is to create a semblance of a “civil society response” — in the absence of an actual civil society — to keep the mobilization from turning into a chaotic roundup of all men with two hands, two feet and enough strength to lift a Kalashnikov.
However, even if this effort means that some inexperienced or sick men are not called up, it would not change the Kremlin’s motives for mobilizing or fix the Russian military’s inefficiencies — factors that require the mobilization to be “partial” on paper only.
The motives go beyond the replenishment of army units decimated by attrition. Almost inevitably, the mobilization signifies a transition from what Putin has termed “a special military operation” to a full-on war, and perhaps in the near future an officially declared one.
Calling the war by its true name gives the Kremlin some advantages that its far-right critics have been pointing out for months.
The biggest of these is the Russian population’s engagement and investment in the outcome of the Ukraine adventure.
Putin has lost his early bet on his professional military, and on pretending, for the sake of a majority of Russians, that nothing extraordinary was going on. Now, he needs to generate mass engagement fast — and, for all the fear and dismay the mobilization has caused, he will likely achieve that goal, inasmuch as it is feasible at all.
True, because Putin did not close the borders as he announced the mobilization, men unwilling to be sent to Ukraine flooded border crossings with Kazakhstan and Georgia, countries that allow Russians to enter visa-free. Indeed, Putin appears to have decided not to hold back those most unwilling to serve. The idea would be to only keep those men who either do not mind being called up to “defend the motherland” — a previously passive, but essentially patriotic group — or who fear the uncertainties of emigration more than they fear being killed or injured in the war.
Some of these men might be unfit for service or initially reluctant to fight, but they can be counted on to achieve a certain cohesion of purpose — and a kind of Stockholm syndrome. Even those who never dreamed of volunteering for the campaign will soon blame Ukrainians, rather than their own country or Putin personally, for their predicament — and they will do what they must to survive.
Moreover, since the mobilization was announced, Russia has unmistakably become a country at war. Not fighting for one’s country — even when it is as deeply in the wrong as Russia is today — is, to many Russian men, ultimate cowardice.
As David Nuriev, a rapper known as Ptakha, explained when asked if he would fight if called up: “I will not be the weak link.”
He said he would be fighting for his family and his home, but “not for any of this crap” — meaning, obviously, not for Putin’s convoluted explanation of why Russia invaded Ukraine.
The Kremlin hopes to capitalize on that kind of sentiment, tapping an attachment to Russia, a sense that if it loses, the loss would be personal, too.
If that attachment, not so much skills or professionalism, is the main selection criterion, the mobilization is only “partial” until the pool of people who meet it is exhausted.
However, even if the Kremlin sought the best-trained reservists, the mobilization machine would have been unable to deliver.
Right-wing Telegram channels carry reports of reservists being driven aimlessly between military units after being mobilized, attempts by military commanders to confiscate gear the recruits bring with them, rusty Kalashnikovs being handed out and a lack of actual training on training grounds.
Some people appear to have been deployed close to the front lines days after being called up.
The draft offices’ record-keeping has deteriorated since the end of the Cold War, as for decades no one has believed that Russia would need to mobilize.
Since Russia moved toward a professional army in the mid-2000s and mandatory service was cut from two years to one, the military’s ability to train large numbers of recruits has declined, and Ukrainian campaign losses have cut into the cadre of officers and sergeants capable of passing on important skills.
The initial chaos will, of course, eventually subside — but by then, many men who barely remember what they learned years ago will have been sent into battle.
Having launched the Ukraine invasion for emotional reasons and suffered predictable failures, Putin is compelled to take increasingly greater risks. When these men start getting killed and coffins flow to parts of Russia that have not known much grief so far, including the big cities, Russian women, always a reliable support base for Putin, might respond with an unexpected vehemence.
Desertion and draft-dodging will be widespread. The proliferation of firearms is especially dangerous in Russia, one of the global leaders in violent crime. The economy will suffer from the loss of millions of men — those called up and those hiding from the draft.
Economist Vladislav Inozemtsev said that before the mobilization Russia could hope to lose only 4 to 5 percent of GDP, but a 10 percent drop is more likely now.
The engagement generated by the mobilization is far from certain to offset these inevitable consequences. Nor are the new recruits guaranteed to reverse the course of the fighting, smothering Ukraine’s initiative and depriving it of a numerical advantage. Ukraine might yet gain more ground before Russia can field the bulk of the newly mobilized troops.
However, their impending arrival at the front cannot but change the course of the conflict.
“Of course it’s bad news for us,” the Financial Times quoted a Ukrainian fighter as saying. “Even if they don’t have motivation, they’ll have a gun.”
In the view of Igor Girkin, known by the alias Igor Strelkov, a far-right veteran of the 2014 Ukraine war who correctly predicted Russia’s military setbacks and who has called for a mobilization since the invasion began, the influx of fresh troops can help Russia keep the conquered territory through next month and November, giving it a chance to continue the war and perhaps eventually go back on the attack.
The alternative would have been certain defeat and humiliation. Strelkov and other Russian nationalists know — and Putin knows, too — that mobilization will hardly eliminate that dismal prospect.
Too much life, time and materiel have been gambled away in Putin’s vanity-fueled “special operation” for the grim reality of war to turn out inevitably in the Russian imperialists’ favor.
Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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