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Putin’s War Has Come Home to Russia

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 26: (RUSSIA OUT) A Russian officer of the military enlistment office (L) invites Alexander, 26, a resident of Moscow’s Central Distrcict and a reserve corporal of Russian army (R) to the bus at the mobilization center during the departure to the military training center, on September 26, 2022 in Moscow, Russia. President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization last week, which could see 300,000 people summoned to serve in the war. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images) (Photographer: Contributor/Getty Images Europe)

The so-called “partial mobilization” announced by Vladimir Putin last week has changed the character of the Ukraine war for Russians in a matter of days. And for all the ensuing scenes of disarray and unrest within Russia, the mobilization’s impact will soon change the character of the war for Ukrainians, too.

Less than a week into the mobilization, whether it’s really “partial” or general is hard to tell. Putin’s decree has a conspicuously missing paragraph — Item 6 is immediately followed by Item 8. According to Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, the classified Item 7 deals with the number of people to be mobilized. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu put that at 300,000 people, and Peskov has denied media reports that the actual number in the decree is 1 million or 1.2 million people — but the absence of a precise number fits the situation on the ground best.

Putin said in his address to the nation on Sept. 21 that only people who had done mandatory service in the military, had a skill that was in short supply (such as artillery or tank training) and, preferably, combat experience would be called up. It soon transpired, however, that quotas had been handed down to local draft offices, and many of them rushed to grab every man they could get lest they be accused of insufficient zeal. That has meant calling up people with disqualifying health conditions, those who never served, those who are too old — over 40 — to be privates. In some areas, draft notices have been delivered in the dead of night, their recipients required to show up at the recruitment center the following morning. In the republic of Dagestan in the Northern Caucasus, the indiscriminate mobilization has sparked riots and clashes with police. And in Eastern Siberia, a local man shot and badly wounded the official in charge of the local draft office — apparently for calling up a friend of the shooter who had not even done the mandatory service.

Far-right activists and Kremlin propagandists are campaigning against such “excesses.” RT propaganda channel chief Margarita Simonyan and prime-time show host Vladimir Solovyov have offered their Telegram channels to those wishing to report mobilization irregularities, and they’ve published summaries of some egregious cases. The idea is to create a semblance of a “civil society response” — in the absence of an actual civil society — to keep the mobilization from turning into a chaotic round-up of all men with two hands, two feet and enough strength to lift a Kalashnikov. And yet, even if this effort means that some inexperienced or sick men aren’t called up, it won’t change the Kremlin’s motives for mobilizing or fix the Russian military’s inefficiencies — both factors that require the mobilization to be “partial” on paper only.

The motives go beyond the replenishment of army units decimated by attrition. Almost inevitably, the mobilization signifies a transition from what Putin has termed “a special military operation” to a full-on war, and perhaps in the near future an officially declared one. Calling the war by its true name gives the Kremlin some advantages that its far-right critics have been pointing out for months.

The biggest of these is the Russian population’s engagement and investment in the outcome of the Ukraine adventure. Putin has lost his early bet on his professional military, and on pretending, for the sake of a majority of Russians, that nothing extraordinary was going on. Now, he needs to generate mass engagement fast — and, for all the fear and dismay the mobilization has caused, he will likely achieve that goal, inasmuch as it is feasible at all.

True, because Putin did not close the borders as he announced the mobilization, men unwilling to be sent to Ukraine flooded border crossings with Kazakhstan and Georgia, countries that allow Russians to enter visa-free. Indeed, Putin appears to have decided not to hold back those most unwilling to serve. The idea would be to only keep those men who either don’t mind being called up to “defend the Motherland” — a previously passive but essentially patriotic group — or who fear the uncertainties of emigration more than they fear being killed or maimed in the war.

Some of these men may be unfit for service or initially reluctant to fight, but they can be counted on to achieve a certain cohesion of purpose — and a kind of Stockholm syndrome. Even those who never dreamed of volunteering for the campaign soon will blame Ukrainians, rather than their own country or Putin personally, for their predicament — and they’ll do what they must to survive.Moreover, since the mobilization was announced, Russia has unmistakably become a country at war. Not fighting for one’s country — even when it is as deeply in the wrong as Russia is today — is, to many Russian men, ultimate cowardice. As David Nuriev, a rapper known as Ptakha, explained when asked if he would fight if called up, “I will not be the weak link.” He’d be fighting for his family and his home, he said, “not for any of this crap” — meaning, obviously, not for Putin’s convoluted explanation of why Russia invaded Ukraine.

The Kremlin hopes to capitalize on that kind of sentiment, tapping an attachment to Russia, a sense that if it loses, the loss will be personal, too. And if that attachment, not so much skills or professionalism, is the main selection criterion, the mobilization is only “partial” until the pool of people who meet it is exhausted.

Even if the Kremlin actually sought the best-trained reservists, however, the mobilization machine would have been unable to deliver. Right-wing Telegram channels carry reports of reservists being driven aimlessly between military units after being mobilized, attempts by military commanders to confiscate gear the recruits bring with them, rusty Kalashnikovs being handed out, a lack of actual training on training grounds. Some people appear to have been deployed close to the front lines days after being called up. The draft offices’ record-keeping has deteriorated since the end of the Cold War; no one has believed for decades that Russia would actually need to mobilize. Since Russia moved toward a professional army in the mid-2000s and mandatory service was cut from two years to one, the military’s ability to train large numbers of recruits has declined, and Ukrainian campaign losses have cut into the cadre of officers and sergeants capable of passing on important skills. The initial chaos will, of course, eventually subside — but by then, many men who barely remember what they learned years ago will have been sent into battle.

Having launched the Ukraine invasion for emotional reasons and suffered predictable failures, Putin is compelled to take greater and greater risks. When these men start getting killed and coffins flow to parts of Russia that haven’t known much grief so far, including the big cities, Russian women, always a reliable support base for Putin, may respond with an unexpected vehemence. Desertion and draft-dodging will be widespread. The proliferation of firearms is especially dangerous in Russia, one of the global leaders in violent crime. The economy will suffer from the loss of millions of men — both those called up and those hiding from the draft. According to economist Vladislav Inozemtsev, if before the mobilization Russia could hope to lose only 4% to 5% of GDP, a 10% drop is more likely now.

The engagement generated by the mobilization is far from certain to offset these inevitable consequences. Nor are the new recruits guaranteed to reverse the course of the fighting, smothering Ukraine’s initiative and depriving it of the current numerical advantage. Ukraine may yet gain more ground before Russia can field the bulk of the newly mobilized troops.

And yet, their impending arrival at the front cannot but change the course of the conflict. “Of course it’s bad news for us,” Financial Times quoted a Ukrainian fighter as saying. “Even if they don’t have motivation, they’ll have a gun.” 

In the view of Igor Girkin (Strelkov), the far-right veteran of the 2014 Ukraine war who correctly predicted Russia’s military setbacks and who has called for a mobilization since the invasion began, the influx of fresh troops can help Russia keep the conquered territory through October and November, giving it a chance to continue the war and perhaps eventually go back on the attack. The alternative would have been certain defeat and humiliation. Strelkov and other Russian nationalists know, however — and Putin knows, too — that mobilization will hardly eliminate that dismal prospect. Too much life, time and materiel have been gambled away in Putin’s vanity-fueled “special operation” for the grim reality of war to turn out inevitably in the Russian imperialists’ favor.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

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• Take Putin’s Nuclear Threat Seriously, But Not Too Seriously: Hal Brands

• An Off-Ramp for Putin Is Repugnant But Necessary: Clive Crook

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”

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