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What does Putin’s partial military mobilization mean for Russia and Ukraine?

A banner reading, “The task will be executed,” on a building in downtown Moscow on Wednesday. (Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of reservists as his country faces setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine. The move, announced in an address to his nation on Wednesday, marks Russia’s first military mobilization since World War II.

Putin’s order was swiftly condemned by U.S. and European officials. It coincides with a significant Russian troop shortage in Ukraine and follows major setbacks in the Kremlin’s “special military operation” amid a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive around Kharkiv. Here’s what to know about Putin’s order and what it means for Russia and the war in Ukraine.

What does partial mobilization mean?

Partial mobilization is a term for when specific groups of people will be called up to serve in Russia’s armed forces. It is different from a general mobilization, which involves drafting from the general population, refocusing the entire economy and essentially setting the whole country on a warpath, hitting a pause on normalcy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 21 ordered a partial military mobilization, as Moscow's troops battle a Ukrainian counteroffensive. (Video: Reuters)

How many Russian reservists will be called up by Putin?

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Wednesday following Putin’s address that Russia would call as many as 300,000 reservists to military service. Russians have reportedly already begun to receive notices summoning them to appear for service.

Shoigu said the country’s “mobilization resource amounts to 25 million people, and a little more than 1 percent of this number falls under partial mobilization” as ordered by Putin.

If true, this is a significant increase: Russia is believed to have invaded Ukraine with about 150,000 troops in late February — so an additional 300,000 is more than double that. While it’s unclear how exactly the reservists would be deployed, Putin’s move follows reports of heavy troop losses in Ukraine. It would be the first military mobilization in the history of modern Russia.

Outside estimates of the number of reservists available to Russian military leaders vary. The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank that closely tracks the war in Ukraine, previously said Russia has more than 2 million reservists, including former conscripts and contract soldiers. However, “few are actively trained or prepared for war,” the ISW said. Only about 10 percent of them receive ongoing training after they complete their basic military service, it added.

Under Putin’s “partial mobilization,” several groups of people are entitled to avoid being called up: students, parents with four or more small children, people essential to crucial industry operations and caregivers, among others.

How significant is Putin’s partial mobilization?

Rob Lee, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia program, characterized Wednesday’s announcement as “one of the most significant/riskiest political decisions Putin has ever made.”

In the short term, Lee wrote on Twitter, the partial mobilization of reservists and new measures to forcibly extend the contracts of volunteers currently serving in Ukraine “could be enough to prevent a collapse of Russian forces. Otherwise, Russia’s manpower issues could have become catastrophic this winter when many short-term volunteers likely would not sign another contract.”

“But the war will now increasingly be fought on the Russian side by people who do not want to be there,” Lee added, likely fueling a lack of morale and unit cohesion among Russian forces.

Reserves are essential components to many countries’ war efforts. For example, nearly half of U.S. service members deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 20 years reportedly came from the National Guard and reserves, and those groups took about 18 percent of the casualties.

Russia’s reservists are not nearly as well organized as the U.S. National Guard and reserve troops, according to Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher with the RAND Corporation. “They’re calling them up out of cold storage, basically,” she said.

Why would Russia need a partial mobilization?

Moscow is facing a significant troop shortage, despite recent recruitment efforts that have included enlisting prisoners and sending volunteers to the front lines with little training, analysts said. “Putin likely hopes to improve Russian force generation capabilities by calling on the Russian people to volunteer for a war to ‘defend’ newly claimed Russian territory,” the Institute for the Study of War said of the annexation plans.

Shoigu said Wednesday that Moscow has lost 5,937 soldiers in the war — the first official casualty figure that Russia has given since the end of March, when its Defense Ministry claimed that 1,351 soldiers had died. Shoigu’s speech, coming on the heels of Putin’s partial mobilization, highlights an apparent contradiction between the relatively low casualty count claimed by the Kremlin and its move to call up reservists.

Western intelligence agencies estimate the Russian death toll to be far higher. “There’s no perfect number,” CIA Director William J. Burns told the Aspen Security Forum in July. “I think the latest estimates from the U.S. intelligence community would be … something in the vicinity of 15,000 killed and maybe three times that wounded, so a quite significant set of losses.”

Colin Kahl, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, said last month that “the Russians have probably taken [70,000] or 80,000 casualties in less than six months,” a number that includes soldiers who were killed and wounded in combat. “That number might be a little lower, a little higher, but I think that’s kind of in the ballpark, which is pretty remarkable considering that the Russians have achieved none of Vladimir Putin’s objectives at the beginning of the war,” Kahl said.

Who within Russia will be called up to serve?

According to Putin and Shoigu, the mobilization will affect Russians who served in the military and are now listed as reservists, as well as those who have military occupations, which could include medical workers and various technical specialists. “Only citizens who are currently in the reserve and, above all, those who served in the armed forces, have certain military specialties and relevant experience will be subject to conscription for military service,” Putin said Wednesday, adding that they will receive “additional military training.”

Russian law experts note that the cap of 300,000 people announced by Shoigu can be revised upward if necessary, as the decree issued by the Kremlin is broad — most likely on purpose, to allow for reinterpretation.

Putin drafts up to 300,000 reservists, backs annexation amid war losses

In a move likely to inflame tensions within Russian society, the head of the Russian parliament’s defense committee, Andrei Kartapolov, said the geographic distribution of reservists would be based on population size, meaning that the most populated regions of the country, including the capital, Moscow, would have to send the highest number of soldiers. “Each [region] of the Russian Federation receives a distribution order based on its capabilities,” Kartapolov said Wednesday.

How long will soldiers have to serve under partial mobilization?

The Kremlin did not specify Wednesday how long reservists called up under the partial mobilization would have to serve — and the presidential decree is light on details. “The decree does not give any details of mobilization and is formulated as broadly as possible, so the President leaves it at the discretion of the Defense Minister,” Pavel Chikov, a lawyer who leads the Agora International Human Rights Group, wrote on Telegram.

Putin’s decree also automatically prolongs existing soldiers’ contracts “until the end of the period of mobilization,” barring them from leaving the front lines indefinitely. This would potentially affect thousands of men who already signed short-term contracts as part of a nationwide recruitment campaign largely viewed as a “shadow mobilization” that sought to replenish losses over the summer without officially acknowledging that the operation requires a wider effort.

The letters left behind by demoralized Russian soldiers as they fled

How will the partial mobilization work?

Chikov, the human rights lawyer, said the process will start with reservists receiving their mobilization orders. This has already begun happening: Four people in different Russian cities told The Washington Post they have either received the summons or saw officers hand them to their colleagues or relatives. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.

“These are men who have served in the army and have signed a contract to stay in the reserve,” Chikov said, adding that the next wave of orders will affect reservists falling into three categories depending on their age and rank.

Rapid loss of territory in Ukraine reveals spent Russian military

According to Chikov, the Defense Ministry will form quotas for mobilization for each of the 85 regions of Russia, and officials there will be responsible for implementing the quotas. Last week, several regions backed a proposal from the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, to “self-mobilize” by pledging to send volunteer units with 1,000 soldiers to the war.

How did Russians react to the partial mobilization announcement?

Protesters gathered in Moscow on Sept. 21 after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial military mobilization in Russia. (Video: AP)

Small antiwar protests broke out across Russia, including in Moscow, following Putin’s announcement. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, according to independent Russian protest-monitoring group OVD-Info.

Rumors of a military mobilization first spread in Russia in February and March — in the early stages of what the Kremlin continues to call its “special military operation” in Ukraine — and led to a mass exodus of Russians, who fled to nearby Turkey, Georgia and Armenia.

Following Putin’s address Wednesday, Russian airfare aggregators reported that all direct flights from Moscow to the few visa-free destinations still available to Russians had sold out within minutes. Much of the discussion on Russian social media revolved around possible ways to flee the country.

Some Russians seeking to avoid being called up will find other countries’ borders shut to them: On Wednesday, the foreign minister of Latvia, a member of the European Union that shares a land border with Russia, said his country “will not issue humanitarian or other types of visas to those Russian citizens who avoid mobilization,” citing security concerns.

Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics also said Latvia will press forward with restrictions on border crossings for most Russian nationals with Schengen visas, which the country announced this month along with fellow Baltic nations Estonia and Lithuania.

The E.U. has already banned Russian flights from E.U. airspace and recently agreed to suspend a visa facilitation accord with Russia, making it more difficult and expensive for Russian tourists to get visas.

Ban Russian tourists? E.U. is divided on visa restrictions.

It is not immediately clear whether Russia’s own borders will be shut for all potentially eligible Russians or just to those who already received a summons. The Kremlin on Wednesday afternoon declined to comment on that, saying only that “clarifications will be available later.”

Rachel Pannett, Claire Parker, Emily Rauhala and Beatriz Ríos contributed to this report, which has been updated.

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