Reports are circulating that Putin might use May 9, Russia's "Victory Day", to announce a mass mobilization of the war in Ukraine. That would be a huge escalation for what's still referred to as a "special military operation," and has so far mostly counted on recruits far from major population centers.
The general ineffectiveness of the Russian army’s military capacities has been one of the biggest surprises of the invasion of Ukraine. Over the past two decades, the West has once again come to fear the Russian army that had been greatly expanded after the low moment at the end of the Cold War.
But since the beginning of the Ukraine invasion, Russia, considered the world’s second most powerful military force, has been hampered by strategic and technical failures. There were early reports of Russian soldiers’ looting because of shortages of food and fuel, as well as poor troop morale.
But what if it's ultimately a question of recruitment? In light of Russia’s lack of progress in Ukraine, British Defense Minister Ben Wallace has suggested — and the word “suggested” is really important here — that Russian President Vladimir Putin could use “Victory Day” on May 9, which commemorates the country’s defeat over Nazi Germany, to announce a mass mobilization of Russians as part of a “war against the Nazis.”
But is such a move really likely? And, more to the point, is it even possible?
Catch-22 for Putin
Blogger and politician Maxim Katz, who had to leave Russia with his entire editorial staff as part of the Kremlin’s crackdown, is now one of the few remaining reliable Russian-language resources on what is happening in Russia and the impact of its actions on world events.
His latest video is devoted specifically to Russian mobilization, which is still formally non-existent because no war has been declared in Russia — with only a "special military operation in Donbas" officially taking place.
As Katz explains, if we leave out the possibility of using a nuclear weapon, Putin has two options — to announce a nation-wide mobilization or to lose this war.
An emboldened West is providing more arms to Ukraine as its troops achieve greater success. There’s less need for compromise, including territory loss, and such a move is increasingly difficult politically. It’s clear that Ukraine would counterattack to liberate occupied territories. There would be no middle-ground agreement or compromise.
That means that when Putin completely exhausts his army reserves, the war will not be put on a pause like eight years ago. Such a move would result in a military defeat.
Putin needs hundreds of thousands on the front.
To refill the army, the Russian government has been trying to recruit people for a while. There is a huge campaign in the country hunting people for “3 months” military contracts. But it’s not effective enough. The army needs hundreds of thousands of people on the front and millions in reserve for such a war. This is not a question of “if” — it’s “when”.
A special military operation is not a war
But mobilizing the country will be difficult for Putin. “Special military operation” means nothing is happening for the average citizen — your life is not changing, sit down in front of your TVs to watch a distant war.
The other difficulty is that it would change who the average soldier is. Take these current data points: 75% of Russian citizens live in cities; 77% are ethnically Russian. Other ethnic groups, excluding Tatars and Ukrainians, are 1% or even lower. But statistics show that those who have died in this war are mostly rural people from national republics, namely Buryatia and Dagestan.
Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, or Novosibirsk, where the average Russian citizen lives, have not been receiving corpses or been exposed to near daily funerals. The towns that have sacrificed their sons in the first two months of the war are places that journalists don't tend to go.
Indeed, any nationwide mobilization that Putin has in mind can’t be limited just in these distant national republics. The illusion of a peaceful life will be destroyed in cities.
Russian tanks take part in a military exercice in February in the Leningrad Region, Russia.
Pillars of the regime
The most obvious mobilization resources are the 1.5 million people who wear uniforms — like police and the National Guard of Russia. Of course, they are not soldiers, but many of them were at least once in the army and can pass some formal shooting and physical tests.
But such people, who are supposed to be pillars of the regime, do not want to go to war and risk never paying off their privileged mortgages. So, a real massive mobilization is very unlikely.
More probable is the Kremlin issuing some uncertain bureaucratic document like a “simplified procedure of mobilization during the special operation” that doesn’t bind anyone in any way or make anyone responsible.
Following the government to the grave
At the end of his video, Maxim Katz addresses Russians, asking them not to follow the government to the grave.
If you agree with the government, it might cost you your life.
Remember, he points out, you are just a civilian in an officially peaceful time. You don’t have to do anything. They can sacrifice your life during this hidden mobilization, but only if you buy this performance played out by your superiors.
"Don't do it. Your refusal will have no real consequences — even your manager won’t be really angry with you.Tomorrow will be a new day. But if you agree with the government, it might cost you your life." Despite continued basic support for the war, this captures the attitude in Russia today when it comes to the question of personal sacrifice.
Mass mobilization or lose the war? Maybe Putin doesn't really have a choice.
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