Turning an imperialist into a patriotic war
September 23, 2022
  • Nikolay Petrov

    Senior Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, The Royal Institute of International 

Nikolai Petrov analyzes what drove Putin to announce a "partial mobilization" and argues that the decision was a sign of weakness, not strength. Mobilization should make Russian society reconsider its attitude toward the war.
The first page of the Decree of the President of Russia "On the announcement of partial mobilization in the Russian Federation". Source: Wiki Commons
On the morning of September 21, President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization,” while Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu specified that about 300,000 reservists would be called up for the “special operation” that is still not officially called a war. A day earlier, the occupation administrations in Ukraine announced referendums for September 23-27 on seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia. Meanwhile, the Duma quickly pushed through amendments to the Criminal Code in the second and third readings, incorporating the concepts of “mobilization” and “martial law” and toughening the penalties “during the period of mobilization or martial law, in wartime” for a number of articles, including Article 337 on absence without leave (up to 10 years in a penal colony), Article 338 on desertion (up to 15 years) and Article 339 on failure to carry out military duties by feigning illness or some other way (up to 10 years). The amendments were made to a government bill adopted in July in the first reading that had nothing to do with the war in Ukraine.

"Partial mobilization" and people’s reaction

As Putin’s speech was being broadcast, the decree on partial mobilization was signed. In the closed section, according to Putin's press secretary Dmitri Peskov, the number of people to be mobilized is given. According to Novaya Gazeta. Europe, the seventh paragraph of the mobilization decree statesthat up to a million people can be drafted into the army. Against the backdrop of rapidly toughening legislation – reminiscent of Stalin’s time – which now threatens major penalties for resisting the mobilization, refusing to fight in the war and desertion, the “partial mobilization" was prepared in advance and swiftly launched. The regional authorities immediately put into place mobilization measures. Concerned that people who don’t want to be sent to the front will seek to leave the country, the authorities in Kursk Region have already banned citizens who are in the reserve from leaving the region without permission from the local military registration and enlistment office.
"Forced to maneuver between the saner party of war and the crazy party of war, Putin took the step that the latter party wanted him to take, the one that he himself had not decided on for a long time."
The move, made on the first day of high-level meetings at the 77th UN General Assembly, pushed him back in the global spotlight, which looked to be what the Kremlin was after. However, for the external audience it was more an act of intimidation than a way to reverse the military situation – even if the announced mobilization is successful, before winter it won’t be able to impact the situation at the front in any way. In addition, given the low quality of training for reservists, the military impact can’t be assumed to be significant. Military expert Michael Kofman tweeted: "mobilization and stop-loss might help Moscow stem the deteriorating quantity of the force, but not the deteriorating quality of the force and its morale."

Meanwhile, disagreement with the war in Russian society spilled over into mass protests in dozens of cities, with about 1,500 people detained on September 21, according to OVD-Info.

Hasty referendums

The unexpected and hasty referendums called in the occupied territories of Ukraine are attributable to a couple factors. Just a week earlier, the Kremlin had backed away from the idea after a successful counteroffensive by the Ukrainian army, which broke the territorial status quo that had changed little since March. The sudden referendums look like an attempt to seize the initiative politically since it wasn’t possible to seize the territories by military means. It is also an attempt to turn an aggressive war into a patriotic war, as if the four territories seized from Ukraine become part of Russia, military operations there will automatically turn into a war on the “territory of the Russian Federation” with all the political (psychological) and military consequences, including the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons in response to aggression “on the territory of Russia.”

Putin's recent meetings at the SCO summit – where the leaders of China, India and other non-Western countries publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the protracted war and urged Putin to end it – also seem to have played a role.
Advertising poster for PMC Wagner. Source: VK
Can the Kremlin pull off the announced mobilization?

A separate question is how feasible the “partial” mobilization announced by the Kremlin is, as the mobilization campaigns seemed to change as often as the strategy for the war in Ukraine did, and none of them was fully implemented. At first, after a “short, victorious war” wasn’t pulled off, the plan became to recruit volunteers into the army through BARS, the Combat Army Reserve, which had been widely promoted since last summer. Then, when the Ministry of Defense failed to recruit enough manpower, the creation of "volunteer battalions" was entrusted to the regional authorities, who, having “leaned on” business, “bought” socially and economically disadvantaged people who in turn were offered relatively (by Russian standards) big cash payments. Besides the regional authorities, it was also Yevgeny Prigozhin and his businesses, who offered the “freedom to fight” and a pardon after six months while recruiting “volunteers” among inmates serving sentences in correctional institutions. None of these efforts produced results that satisfied the army, either quantitatively or qualitatively. Meanwhile, the outflow of contraktniks from the attacking army has picked up – they legally couldn’t be obliged to fight in a special military operation on foreign territory.

The mobilization won’t just putting 300,000 pairs of boots on the battlefield. Before that happens, those who have been mobilized must be "put under arms,” more or less trained (by whom? Officers recalled from the front?), equipped and armed. A competent command staff is needed, though they are already in short supply at the front. And neither accelerated courses for lieutenants, nor undereducated cadets graduating military schools early – as reported by the media – will not be able to solve the problem in the foreseeable future. 

"The Kremlin would like to fight by quantity rather than quality, but in the foreseeable future that will not work."
The announced, large-scale mobilization won’t work either – as the war in Ukraine shows, among other things, neither the Putin system as a whole nor the army as a part of it is adapted to solve complex systemic tasks that require serious coordination and consideration of different interests and factors. This inability is the flip side of Putin’s super-personalist system, where there is not and cannot be any independent players except for the one and only one.

Nevertheless, it seems that carrying out a large-scale mobilization is not on the table at the moment – for now, the military is intensely recruiting several groups of the scarcest specialists to plug holes that have formed.

The repressive nature of the regime is inevitably worsening. A crackdown is inevitable against objectors and deserters, but also in relation to manifestations of disloyalty, as well as members of the elite. By putting interactions with society into a mobilization regime, and moving away from depoliticization and toward coercion, including coercion to give one's life, Putin is finally turning the regime from a police state into a brutal repressive state. The Kremlin's ideological tools – to unite the nation and stir up a "noble fury" – are vastly outmatched.
Reservists at the military registration and enlistment office of the Ketovsky district of the Kurgan region. Source: VK
Mobilization is a sign of weakness, not strength

Radically changing the game both inside and outside the country, raising the stakes, looks like a manifestation of Putin's weakness rather than strength. Inside the country, his main priority has been to maintain complete control over the political space and elites. Today, to do that, he has to maneuver between the saner war party and the crazy war party and make tough decisions. By announcing the mobilization, Putin took a step toward the party of insane war mongers from which he had refrained for a long time. And this step, regardless of the Kremlin's plans, could have very serious consequences – not so much for intra-elite balance sheets or in the military theater, but for Russian society. Already doomed by the inability of the system to govern, the mobilization should make society reconsider its attitude toward war. Now, the war is no longer distant and alien for the public: it comes to every home, and its meaning remains unclear and far from the majority. And no referendum will force people to think of Zaporizhzhia Region, where “the enemy will attack Russia,” as their homeland for which one should give his life.
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