The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin’s debacle is breaking his country — and he might pay the price

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 20. (Getty Images) (Contributor/Photographer: Contributor/Getty)

Like so much else in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s senseless and vicious assault on Ukraine, his attempt to mobilize Russian men to fight has turned into a debacle. After months of preserving relative calm about the war among the Russian public — through a combination of propaganda, lies, censorship and harsh punishment of criticism and dissent — Mr. Putin has broken the quiet himself. Thousands of Russian men are running for the exits.

Mr. Putin had announced a “partial mobilization,” saying that “only military reservists, primarily those who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialties and corresponding experience, will be called up.” But in recent days, the call-up has grabbed men with no prior military service, including some who are too old or physically incapable of going to war. Moreover, the burden is falling more heavily on small towns and villages and among ethnic minorities.

Outright protest — and chaos — erupted. In the Irkutsk region, a young man shot the chief recruitment officer at a military enlistment station. In Omsk, social media video showed, fighting broke out between drafted men and the police officers forcing them onto buses. The draftees called on the police to die with them in the trenches. Arson attacks have hit recruitment offices in 16 regions since Mr. Putin’s announcement last Wednesday, nearly twice as many incidents since he launched the invasion in February. Since the call-up announcement, 2,398 people have been arrested for protesting. A traffic jam of 5,500 vehicles backed up at the border crossing between Russia and Georgia as men fled the draft, while many others walked and thousands more fled through Finland and other routes. Almost all flights out have been booked for days.

Behind the upheaval is a deeper fissure. For many years, Mr. Putin maintained what scholar Masha Lipman dubbed a “no-participation pact” with a swath of the Russian public: These people agreed to stay out of politics in exchange for the government not interfering in their daily lives. After the war began, many Russians kept quiet or just tried to ignore it; mass protests did not break out. But the mobilization threatens to destroy this compact. Sociologist Greg Yudin notes that Mr. Putin did not initiate a political mobilization before launching the military one. He says Russians are quickly snapping out of lethargy and asking questions that they hadn’t for a long time. This might weaken Mr. Putin still more. Ukraine and its allies must keep the pressure on.

Once again, Mr. Putin’s lies and absurdities fall before the truth. The “partial mobilization” of reservists turns out to be a desperate grab for cannon fodder. The “referendums” in captured territory are a travesty of democracy. The “special military operation” turns out to be a long and painful war. Mr. Putin lashes out at “neo-Nazis,” but his own troops stand accused of the most horrible war crimes.

The darkest truth is that Mr. Putin — the aggressor, the lone reason for this war — has wasted tens of thousands of lives for nothing and now threatens to add more atop a dismal pile of shame.

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