Why Putin Hasn’t Launched The Second Mobilization His Army So Desperately Needs
Few believe the Russian government claims that it can recruit 400,000 new troops as volunteers, even with cash bonuses. But the alternative, a nationwide draft, may be too high a risk for Vladimir Putin.
April 1 has traditionally been the date that Russia calls up all able-bodied males who’ve reached the age of 18 to join the ranks of its military reserves. This year, however, Kremlin watchers were expecting the annual conscription to be called off in order to clear the way for a massive second round of nationwide mobilization to support the faltering war in Ukraine.
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Yet, April 1 came and went —and Russian President Vladimir Putin balked again at announcing a new draft, even as Moscow’s troops continue to suffer major losses and Ukraine gears up for a spring counter-offensive.
Why has Putin continued to delay mass mobilization? And what does it say about Russia’s long-term prospects in Ukraine?
The Kremlin’s answer begins with the flipside of a draft: volunteer troops. Russian press reported last month that the Kremlin had sent a secret directive to the country's regions with the objective of signing up 400,000 new volunteers by the end of 2023. Ordinary Russians report aggressive new recruitment campaigns and propaganda messages since mid-January, including promises of exorbitant sums of money for those who sign up.
Failures of first mobilization
In addition, regular summons to report for reserve duty began to be sent out through the mobile application of the state services, requiring a personal visit, where young men are then pressured to sign up to go to the frontline.
The difficulty in getting ordinary Russians to join the war effort has been a problem dating back to the first mobilization last September. According to unofficial data, some 200,000 people were drafted during the first mobilization wave, well short of the 300,000 target. Then too, financial coercion was used, with the payment for joining almost ten times higher than the average wage in some regions.
Meanwhile patriotic lectures will held at state enterprises as part of a campaign of social pressure to enlist; there were also tactics to stop men of conscription age in shopping centers and universities, at exits of subway and public squares, threatening them with fines and criminal responsibility for evasion.
Mobilized Russian servicemen seen on a train at a railway station ahead of departing to the zone of Russia's special military operation on November 30, 2022.
A vicious circle
And even with this system, Putin fell short of the required number of soldiers, with many men of conscription age fleeing Russia to avoid the draft.
On the front, the result of the first wave of mobilization was measured in casualties and failure to roll over Ukrainian territory: at least 150,000 Russians were killed by February, the loss of much of the occupied territories. The exhausting battles for small towns such as Svatovo, Kamianka, Bakhmut, and others have lasted for months and took hundreds of Russian army lives daily.
Thus Putin appears to be caught in a vicious circle: a new nationwide draft is unpopular because of high casualties and troubles on the battlefield — and yet he needs more troops if he wants to turn the tide of the war.
The Kremlin's totalitarian rule would not be unreasonable if the people supported the government. But the first mobilization wave showed that for all their love for their Motherland, few people were willing to go to war in Ukraine. This has been fed by the internet phenomenon of conscripts sending back videos of hungry, ragged soldiers complaining about horrible conditions, lack of payment, unscrupulous commanders, and anger at being used as cannon fodder.
It has gotten to the point where even Kremlin propagandists have begun to complain about poor organization and insufficient army provisions. The failed attempt of the Russian mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group, to compensate for the lack of reservers by recruiting Russian prisoners is perhaps the clearest sign of the desperation.
As one military expert, Andrei Piontkovsky, stated, Russia today fights like the Soviet Union 70 years ago: with waves of people, not advanced weapons.
So how can Putin reboot his war? How will Russia’s depleted army fight off the coming Ukrainian counteroffensive?
Despite total control of the state apparatus, the Russian president still needs national love. When starting the war, Putin took away everything from his supporting elite: yachts, palaces, offshore accounts. Vacationing on the beaches of Europe or educating children in the U.S. is no longer an option.
This all leaves Putin more fragile than he might appear from the outside. So after seeing the first mobilization run out of steam, he knows the second could trigger his own demise.
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