United Russia and Partial Mobilization

May 30, 2023
  • Ilya Kalinin

    Visiting Research Scholar, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies
Ilya Kalinin looks at the issues that the Russian regime has encountered during the war with Ukraine and sees a paradoxical internal challenge that makes victory costlier for this power than defeat.
Another Victory Day celebrated in Russia again served to demonstrate what became clear right after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine: it is possible to use the rhetoric of a just, patriotic war uniting the healthy forces of the nation and the state that embodies them in a fight against its numerous enemies as much as you want and for almost any reason. These enemies could be political opponents of the current regime or critical artists, the LGBT community or the collective West, internal corruption or external competitors in the energy market. This militaristic rhetoric, which refers to the symbolic legacy of the Great Patriotic War, used to be effective, up until the state, while using it, attacked its neighbor, starting a real war on foreign soil.

The patriotic alarm clock: to wake you up and put you to sleep

As soon as the metaphorical regime that employs this rhetoric collided with the principle of reality, it fundamentally failed, and the consequences of this failure have to be compensated by the intensity of its use. The gap between the patriotic rhetoric of opposition to a “new march on Russia” by those “who got together neo-Nazi scum from all over the world for this” (from Putin’s speech at the Victory Parade on May 9, 2023) and the reality of the war that Russia is waging in Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson, has to be bridged with the incessant repetition of hardened formulas synthesized by the propaganda machine. How it works can be compared to the principle of riding a bicycle: stop and you will fall off. So it is here: stopping the propaganda stream threatens an inevitable meeting with a monstrous reality, from which both the producers of this stream and its consumers are trying to hide.

The arguments used to substantiate and justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine are well known. However, the propaganda efforts undertaken by the authorities to make Russian citizens believe in these explanations obviously outweigh their effect. And it is not only that these arguments, by their very nature, are not very convincing, given that they force you to deny the obvious – the fact of an attack on another state. Denying the obvious has long been part of the ontology of the official Kremlin discourse, having become not only its modus operandi, but also the modus vivendi of those who voice it. Thus, the words of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that “we didn’t invade Ukraine” may cause confusion or cognitive dissonance among readers of his interview in the BBC. For those who exist within the “non-binary logic” proceeding from this discourse, “not everything is so simple:” a superficial empirical fact (the attack on Ukraine) gives way to a deep historical meaning (“protection of a peaceful sky” over the heads of Russian citizens). However, in addition to this – unfortunate, but surmountable – external limitation from reality,
“The propaganda strategy of the Kremlin has to take into account internal barriers, forcing it to acrobatically balance on the verge between calls for national mobilization and the demobilizing intonation with which they are made.”
This intonation can be strained and hysterical or routinely bureaucratic – the main thing is that its collective addressee retains the conscious or subconscious capacity to doubt its sincerity. This element of semi-disguised self-revelation – like subliminal advertising – is always included in the propaganda magic shows, since its true objective is to maintain the general level of social anxiety, but in no case bring it to alarmist limits. The patriotic signal should be clearly audible, but not change anything in the existing socio-psychological soundscape. It should work like the usual sound of a morning alarm clock, going off exactly to let you know that nothing happened, that today is the same as yesterday.

The commonplaces used by the official discourse, such as “a new march on Russia” and “neo-Nazi scum from all over the world,” create a rhetorical landscape that is both dramatic and psychologically recognizable, almost comforting. Its pragmatics translates the current political situation into the format of a school lesson on the history of the fatherland, which supposes the correct answers in advance, since the events studied during this lesson ended in the past. Moreover, they not only ended, but also set out a persistent narrative matrix for future repetitions. A “new march” means “another” – and we know how the previous ones ended. “Neo-Nazi scum?” But 73 years ago, “we” already defeated Nazism, which incidentally came from the West. So, the situation, dear fellow citizens, is complicated, but manageable, as it does not contain anything fundamentally new: we just need to repeat what Russia has done multiple times to protect itself and its interests. And since an outward demonstration of readiness to repeat the victorious historical experience during the past 20 years has become a state-encouraged form of social inaction, the patriotic signal that continues to be relayed by the state sounds more like background noise than a message. In other words, it should disturb and soothe at the same time, plunging society into an atmosphere of a habitual routine consisting of a combination of aggression and passivity – triumph over all enemies experienced in a state of sleep. It is just that now the recipe for stability has begun to include a new seasoning called the “special military operation.”

On mobilization, unity and totality

When the “partial mobilization” was announced in September 2022, almost all Putin regime critics exposed the falsity of its definition as “partial.” I will not argue about how technically it corresponded to that definition and how much it was really limited to strictly defined social groups sent to the front. In this, literal sense, it really was not so much “partial” as “chaotic.” However, the official definition given to it – “partial” – reflects not so much the letter (it rather contradicts it), but the spirit of the mobilization that the Russian leadership is ready to undertake. Total mobilization, entirely controlled by the state (as has taken place under totalitarian regimes), is not on the horizon of possibilities – at least for now.
Mass and grassroots national-patriotic mobilization of society threatens the current Russian state almost more than it does the Ukrainian state.
This fork sets the frequency range for propaganda broadcasting, which should mobilize society within strictly defined limits, not allowing the “man with a gun” to feel like an agent of history.

That is why the “partial mobilization” is the only possible form of mobilization for the Kremlin, which is trying with all its might to maintain during the war the status quo ante bellum. The logic behind this is simple. Mobilization is necessary, but only as a last resort and only partially. What part of society and how much should be mobilized – that will be reported in the media. Obedience to historical fate is required from the population, not enthusiasm. Victory should be the result of collective trust in the state, which acts as the inheritor of past achievements and the guarantor of future ones, and not the result of an independent collective effort whereby the nation could acquire its own agency, independent of the established state system.
A poster to sign up for military service: "5 steps to join on a contract. Call 117". Source: VK
Forces that are not satisfied with the “partial” (i.e. actually fictitious, bureaucratic, formal) nature of the mobilization have already begun to crystallize around the prospect of a second scenario: voenkory (war bloggers) and their subscribers, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s supporters and mercenaries, the motley communities and movements that recently united as the Angry Patriots Club. Supporters of the war are mobilizing, but the process is taking place according to a logic completely outside the framework of state propaganda. And this is the logic of the war itself – indifferent to attempts to rhetorically drape it in the historical garb of the Soviet past and the victory over Nazism. In early May, Prigozhin clearly and essentially correctly said in an interview with one voenkor: “They [the Ukrainian armed forces] say quite plainly that the offensive will be on the ground, not on TV, because so far in our country everyone thinks that you need to do everything on TV and celebrate Victory Day. Victory Day is the victory of our grandfathers, we did not do a thing to deserve this victory.”

The Kremlin is seeing a second front open within Russia itself, and it must take this oppositional energy into account, organizing and channeling it in the right direction so that in the future its monopoly on the patriotic agenda does not turn into a target of patriotic attack. There is a well-founded version that at least part of this “civilian” patriotic activity was inspired by the Presidential Administration to use it in future elections against part of the elite, which will be blamed for military defeats. That is entirely possible. Putin used similar tactics in the 2012 and 2018 elections, distancing himself from the party of power and aligning himself with the so-called Popular Front that he created. However, regardless of the genealogy of these movements, the current regime needs to disarm and neutralize any (even ideologically close) independent grassroots initiative, transform its desire for collective mobilization into the format of managed and “partial” mobilization – partial in terms of its goals, means, the social-psychological engagement of the mobilized. This is a generic feature of the Russian political system:
“Whereas during Putin’s first two presidential terms (2000-2008), the government was oriented toward managed – i.e. partial – democracy, his fourth term is ending under the banner of partial – managed – mobilization.
Perhaps real – i.e. unmanaged – mobilization threatens Putin’s political future even more than real democracy (after all, true democracy is a form of collective political mobilization) – at least it is higher on the list of immediate threats.

Partial mobilization is the battlefield form of the Putin regime, which is incapable of creating a total state and afraid of the totalization of society. It has mastered governing through social atomization, bureaucratic parceling and political dissemination, building its power on the destruction of any organically formed whole and reassembling the remaining elements into a situational construction of unity, passed off as a key ideological value.
A Russian Army poster". Source: Wiki Commons
A frozen conflict and a frozen Russia

On this verge between declared political unity, which acts as an ideological pseudomorph of social totality, and partial mobilization (which is a way to avoid real social totalization at the time when it seems necessary), the established system of power is trying to hold on. It is already beginning to seem that it is ready to lose the war if only to maintain at least a partially familiar coordinate system. “Angry patriots,” speak about the authorities’ betrayal, though in reality it is not a betrayal, but their being true to themselves, to the ideas about the world and the habits of exploiting it that the Russian political elite managed to form.

This war, which most elites did not need but they had to support, was at first perceived as a tool for maintaining power, and in exactly the form in which they were accustomed to exercising it. However, now the war is becoming just about the biggest obstacle to the realization of this main, single goal. And the point is not only that Russia faced military resistance in Ukraine that was unexpected by its leadership, as well as a consolidated and tough reaction from powerful international organizations and states. The truly fundamental problem for the Russian regime in the situation that it has created for itself is not outside, but inside. External pressure acts as a reactant, making these internal processes develop faster. The further things go, the more the following becomes clear: victory in this war is possible only through a radical restructuring of not just the entire system of government, but the entire system of political, social, economic relations that make up the nature of this regime. In other words, the only way to win the war is to give up everything that the war was started to preserve. And if the price of victory is that the authorities must make such sacrifices (meaning sacrifice themselves), nothing will remain of this regime –rather, one name will remain: “Putin.”

The ideal way out of the situation would be a “freezing” of the conflict – not in the sense of halting the hostilities, but in the sense of “freezing” them at the level that took shape after the defeat of the Russian army in the autumn of 2022. Such a freezing of the war that would preserve the existing frontline situation without particularly changing anything within the country itself could help “freeze... Russia so that it does not ‘rot,’” as conservative thinker Konstantin Leontiev called on the Russian government to do in the early 1880s when he was working at the Varshavsky dnevnik (Warsaw diary) newspaper.

However, the inconvenience of a real war is that it involves two sides. Moreover, the opponent in this case is not just an imaginary projection of the Kremlin’s own fears or desires, acting in such a way as to provide its vis-à-vis with the opportunity to freely realize them.
“Before Russia got into a real war, it successfully defeated its opponents, especially the ones that were a continuation of itself, a part of the picture of the world that it itself had created.”
These victories were not only virtual and grotesquely fanciful, as in the case of Russian tanks, which, according to some “experts,” if given the order, were said to be able to reach the Atlantic coast in a couple of weeks. These victories could have been quite real, even when they were based on no less real defeats. Thus, Russia’s failures in its foreign policy struggle to be recognized by the West as a commensurate center of power were converted into successes in the field of domestic identity politics. Having failed to achieve the desired political recognition from the “collective West,” Russia pared its losses by defeating “Western values.” While the gas pipelines (gas bonds) encountered external resistance that prevented Russia from becoming an energy superpower, only “internal enemies” stood in the way of building spiritual bonds (dukhovnye skrepy”), which since 2012 began to strengthen Russia from the inside. And in these wars, where the threats were constructed and appointed by the Russian state itself, it was always victorious.

The cost of war and the price of victory

The fatal mistake to attack Ukraine was due to the fact that, in the minds of the people making the decision, Ukraine fell into the same category of internal threats that they were used to inventing to immediately produce a “symmetrical response” and win. A “historically insolvent” state that arose due to the “political thoughtlessness” of previous generations of Russian leaders, Ukraine was seen by them as something like an internal Russian oppositional leader, a “conductor of Western influence” “bearing a threat to the territorial integrity and constitutional order of Russia.” And now what was supposed to bring a real victory over a fictitious threat to the Russian state is growing into a real threat to the Russian regime, from which it is trying to shield itself with fictitious victories.
Vladimir Putin at the Victory Day Parade on May 9, 2023. Source Wiki Commons
That is why the obvious propaganda move to refer to the legacy of the Great Patriotic War for inspiring examples of patriotism is beginning to idle. Moreover, this idling is not only because the historical context of the wars is incongruous. The formal ubiquity of military-patriotic commemoration – from school curricula to the visual appearance of public spaces, from the mass media to monumental propaganda – is beginning to increasingly resemble the ideological regime of late socialism, which did not imply the psychological involvement of an agent in the political rituals played out with his participation. The solemn iconography of Vladimir Putin, sitting surrounded by veterans and watching the parade on May 9, 2023, refers not so much to the era of the Great Patriotic War, but to the late Brezhnev era, with the only difference being that the members of the then-Politburo could still stand, holding onto the podium of the mausoleum.
“The massive bombardment of the population with replicated images and slogans of patriotic propaganda will only lead to meaning and emotional inflation, and in a fairly short time.”
Based on their own experience in the late Soviet Union, the current generation of people responsible for both this agitprop campaign and the policy initiating it are well aware of this. Paradoxically, this painfully familiar symbolic arsenal of the Great Patriotic War, which in peacetime served as a means of affective mobilization and consolidation of Russian society, now, during the war, it seems, has begun to be used more as a means of collective psychological anesthesia, framing an extraordinary situation as something familiar and well known.

Regardless of how much this is part of the perceived tasks of the current symbolic policy, the structural effect is aimed at ensuring that only an empty shell remains from the legacy of that war, involving automated and superficial identification that does not require internal mobilization of an agent, who is ready to save the fatherland at any cost when it faces mortal danger. No matter how high the cost of war for the Russian budget, the price of victory, which would require changing the very nature of the Russian political regime, is unacceptable for it. Such a victory – one for all – is not needed. Because if such a victory is nevertheless won, it will go to another regime.
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