As much as he tried to, Vladimir Putin could not avoid the nationwide mobilization of new recruits. But now he can no longer hide from a war he chose for his nation — and more than ever, his own destiny is riding on the result.
Besides all the chest-thumping, Vladimir Putin has been busy this week moving around his administrative chess pieces.
Wednesday’s announcement of the “partial” mobilization of military recruits was preceded by a flurry of legislative activity in the Kremlin: first, coordinating with the pro-Russian authorities in several of the occupied territories of Ukraine, binding referendums were pushed through to officially make conquered land part of Russia. The next day, amendments to the Criminal Code on mobilization and martial law were unanimously adopted in two readings. And immediately after Putin's speech, introducing increased penalties for acts of desertion and refusal to serve in the military.
The pieces are in place to escalate the war dramatically, allowing Moscow the pretext that Ukraine’s efforts to take back its land is now an attack on Russian territory.
Next move, however, goes to the people back in Mother Russia. There, we have seen the expected street protests, with at least 1,200 people detained in 24 Russian cities. The revolution didn't happen, but nobody was expecting it.
Signs of an exodus
More telling is what we’re seeing from online travel booking websites: All direct flights to nations that do not require Russian visas are sold out until Friday at least. Google Trends in Russian also shows a spike in the search term “leaving Russia.” Meanwhile, on the ground, officials Thursday from the Finland-Russia border report that arrivals in Finland increased by nearly 40% in the 24 hours after Putin's announcement.
Yes, Putin’s mobilization of new soldiers set off an instant exodus of people looking to flee the country, no doubt many of them military-age males.
Russians have been dodging military service for decades.
It should be pointed out that Russians are well-practiced at evading laws, and have been dodging military service for decades. But it will take on another dimension now, as Russian opposition and human rights media have published tips and contacts of organizations that will help to avoid the draft.
There are multiple signs that Putin's plan to assemble a new army quickly was doomed from the start. U.S. think tank The Institute for the Study of War believes that the mobilization in Russia "will not generate significant usable Russian combat power for months" as it will take a long time to train Russian reservists to be war-ready. It is not even clear if this conscription will manage to offset the current rate of Russian casualties.
Walking past the Sverdlovsk Region Military Commissariat.
Nothing “partial” about this
But the reality may in fact be more sinister, or desperate, than any short-term needs. First, let’s look at the target number: 300,000 reservists, as specified by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. In announcing the mobilization, Putin called it "partial" and said that only "citizens who are currently in reserve, and above all those who have served in the ranks of the Armed Forces, have certain military occupations and relevant experience, are subject to conscription."
However, the mobilization decree, published on the Kremlin website, not only doesn’t contain the word "partial," but also includes no restrictions on the total number, category, or professional training of the draftees.
The Russian independent media outlet Vazhnye Istorii quotes military expert Yury Fedorov as saying that Russia does not have 300,000 trained soldiers, meaning they will have to send to the front anyone they manage to find.
"About 60,000 people went through the two Chechen wars,” Fedorov explained. “They are mostly privates, you can mobilize them up to the age of 35, and the war ended almost 20 years ago. So with the experience of the Chechen wars, only officers can be mobilized. Some people served in the Afghan War, but it ended 33 years ago. If a man finished his service even at 20, he's 53 now. I doubt he is of any value to the armed forces.”
Federov said that among those who fought in Syria, few have combat experience, if you don't consider the private mercenaries of the Wagner company. The pilots have experience, but it is limited to dropping bombs on the insurgents with impunity. “Therefore, it is impossible to call up 300,000 people with combat experience. It is a lie.”
Another unattractive option is recruiting from prison. Reports this summer confirmed secret conscription to the front began in the Russian prisons, where Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner group, personally came to recruit volunteers. Throughout the summer, Prigozhin made the pitch to inmates serving long sentences, including convicted murderers and rapists, promising them wages unprecedented by Russian standards, funeral benefits, and a full amnesty after six months of service.
With all this information in the 21 colonies that Prigozhin visited, he managed to recruit about 10,000 inmates, according to Olga Podoplyova, head of the legal department at Russia Sitting.
Russia's best-known inmate is Alexei Navalny, Putin's chief political opponent who survived a poisoning attempt. Writing from jail, he offered an interesting perspective on the attempts to turn to prisons to help fight the war:
"People in jail, of course, are different. There are probably a couple of militants, too. But I declare with full responsibility that in 90% of cases: the murderer is a heavy drinker who once got so drunk that he stabbed a neighbor, a drinking buddy, or (more often) his wife 18 times; the robber is just a guy in search of money, maybe stole iPhones from malls or school kids," Navalny quipped. "Gosh, if they're recruiting here for the war, what state is the regular Russian army? Is it completely gone?"
A bright future?
During his 22 years in power, Vladimir Putin has constructed a parallel reality within the state, constantly rewriting the past and distorting the present. He declared the collapse of the USSR a tragedy, called Ukraine an invention of Lenin, and convinced Russians that NATO was an imminent threat and neo-Nazis had taken over Kyiv. He told his people that the brutal, full-fledged invasion of a neighboring country of 44 million was not a war but a “special military operation.”
Sadly, too many Russians believed the lies, which are unfurled with gusto night after night on national television.
And throughout the seven months of the war, the same propaganda had convinced the Russians that everything was going according to plan, that the Ukrainian army was withering away, and that Russian military losses were negligible. A week ago, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov assured the nation that there would be no mobilization or martial law because Russia was in control of the situation at the front.
Reality has broken through the façade of the totalitarian regime.
And then, from one day to the next, there is mobilization. It's wartime. The real prospect for the average young male Russian (and his family) is that tomorrow he may have to rise from his spot on the sofa, from where he's been comfortably watching the reassuring news, and head to the front.
Sure, the elite will find a way around, but that leaves millions of families this week facing a very cold near-term future. Reality has broken through the façade of the totalitarian regime, where uttering one little truth can bring down the whole match-stick castle of lies.
Nobody knows this better than Putin himself, which is why the mobilization was put off until there was no alternative — and virtually every political and military experts inside Russia was convinced that he wouldn’t dare do it.
But now, two weeks shy of his 70th birthday, the would-be emperor from Saint Petersburg has no clothes.
Do not expect to see mass protests. What will happen instead will occur behind closed doors, after Putin reaches into Russian families and plucks out reticent young recruits and sends them to the frontline without proper training or adequate equipment.
Creating a fresh wave of cannon fodder will lead to a new escalation at the frontline, to massive numbers of casualties on both sides. It will not, however, offer any progress — and certainly not victory — for Putin. For when the funeral bells start tolling, not in Dagestan or Buryatia but Moscow and Saint Petersburg, the Kremlin will have a new war to fight: against the forces gathering from within to overthrow the aging dictator.
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