In Other News – Defeat on the Battlefield Has Brought the War Home to Russia – 9/22/2022

September 22, 2022

Defeat on the battlefield has brought the war home to Russia. The recent Ukrainian counterattack against the Russians dramatically reduced Moscow’s hold of the Kharkiv region and laid bare both the Russian military’s weaknesses and human rights abuses. No longer able to deny Russia’s military struggles, and with an increasing PR problem underway, on Wednesday Putin declared a “partial mobilization” of national reservists. The announcement is a significant elevation of the war and quickly set off a spark of activity within Russia: long lines formed at the Finnish, Mongolian and Georgian borders, flight prices to exit the country skyrocketed, and thousands of Russians took to the streets in protest. Although the Kremlin has assured its populace that the mobilization is limited to 300,000 reservists, other reports highlighted a section of the decree that wasn’t available to the public and would allow armed forces to draft up to a million military personnel.

The decree appears purposefully vague and the “partial mobilization”- a process that hasn’t happened in Russia since World War II and only a handful of times in history before that – is already being met with skepticism, confusion, and fear. It’s likely that the federal authorities will pin the responsibility on local leaders to work out the details, as they did with Covid measures. But this leaves room for discrepancy, and unverified social media reports indicate that individuals who aren’t in the reserves, including some recently arrested for anti-war protest activity, are already receiving mobilization orders. Further, on September 20, Russia’s State Duma passed new legislation that upped the penalties for “crimes against military service”, seemingly in anticipation of more widespread protests.

Indeed, the motivation and preparedness level of the new Russian troops- and of those currently serving whose short-term contracts have been indefinitely extended, is questionable. While Russia has an estimated two million reservists or more, including some with previous military experience, only a small percentage of these are battle-ready. It’s also uncertain if the newly mobilized soldiers will be willing to fight with any conviction. In some minority regions of Russia, like Dagestan, which already lost a disproportionate number of men during the initial stages of the war, protests are sparking, and some residents even reportedly barricaded the federal highway to protest the mobilization effort.

The Dagestani protestors, and others throughout the nation, assert that the war isn’t about protecting the Russian homeland but about protecting Putin’s political stature. While questions abound on the specifics of the “partial mobilization” and its efficacy, it’s a clear admission that Putin isn’t happy with the state of war effort. And just as he’s under pressure from his own hardliner contingent, Putin’s political allies, like the leaders of India and China, have started to hint at their discontent with the conflict. This week even Turkish President Erdogan, who was instrumental in mediating the recent Russian-Ukrainian prisoner swap largely in Ukraine’s favor, publicly urged Putin to return the occupied territories back to Ukraine.

However, as of now, Putin does not seem deterred by the emerging criticism. Instead, he’s fully evolved the official narrative from one of “liberating” Ukrainians from neo-Nazis, to “protecting” the Russian state against NATO’s aggression. Putin’s also moving forward on sham “referendums” slated to begin on Friday in Russian-occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. Further, under increasing domestic and international pressure, Putin’s resumed his psychological ploy of nuclear saber-rattling. But until he’s facing the prospect of an all-out defeat in Ukraine, and we’re still far from that threshold, it’s unlikely that he’d resort to such extreme measures.