The Kremlin has been unable to cover up the domestic fallout from the “partial mobilisation” that Russian President Vladimir Putin decreed on 21 September in the hope of reversing the recent setbacks Russia has encountered on various fronts in Ukraine, most notably in Kharkiv.
Media reports and videos circulating over social media tell of the “great escape” of thousands of Russian reservists to Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Finland and other neighbouring countries. The phenomenon exposes cracks in the image the Russian leadership has marketed for months of overwhelming public support for its “special operation” in Ukraine.
In March 2022, at the end of the first month of the war, an opinion poll conducted by the Levada Centre for Public Opinion Research in Russia found that 83 per cent of respondents supported Putin and 81 per cent supported the military operation. More than 46 per cent of those polled supported their army’s military operations in general but not necessarily the one in Ukraine.
Another survey conducted by the same centre in August found that support for the operation had declined to 76 per cent. The decline may seem minor until two other significant results are added. First, 48 per cent of those polled favoured continuing with the war, while 44 per cent called for peace talks, indicating a split in public opinion on the war. Second, 30 per cent of the respondents said that they did not support the military, the majority of them young people in the 18-24 age bracket.
At another level, judging by the scale of the protests in Dagestan and Siberia, there appears to be mounting discontent at regional disparities in the distribution of the burden of the call-up.
Until recently at least, the Caucasus where Dagestan is situated has long been the most pro-Putin region of the Russian Federation. According to press reports, the anti-draft protests have now spread to 38 other areas after Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu announced that the conscription would be done gradually in terms of numbers of recruits and areas covered.
Russian security forces have dispersed the anti-conscription demonstrators, arresting hundreds in accordance with recently amended laws stiffening the penalties for disobeying military related regulations such as complying with the mobilisation of reserves. These actions have failed to halt the protests, which are likely to increase in tandem with the growing tide of potential conscripts across the borders, which Russian authorities say they have not closed.
Most analysts agree that the Russians’ confidence in Putin and Russian military leaders has been deeply shaken by the “partial mobilisation,” which has confirmed suspicions that their government’s intervention in Ukraine is not a “special operation” but a war. The defence minister’s remarks about “all-out war” with Europe if it does not cease its support for Ukraine and hints at nuclear warfare, augmented by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s announcement that his country’s warplanes have been modified to carry nuclear weapons, have increased the alarm and fuelled the current “great escape” from Russian territory.
The Russian Federation has never called a military mobilisation before. The last one was in the former Soviet Union during World War II, or more than seven decades ago. Putin’s decree is, therefore, nothing less than historic. It would have to have been preceded by preparations for the logistics and phasing of the call-up, training or re-training programmes, and deployment.
In an attempt to allay concerns, Shoigu said that the reserves would not be deployed on the front lines. However, two factors call this into doubt. First, the mobilisation decree states that it is limited to reserves, or individuals who have already served in the military. Yet, news of this decree coincided with the enlistment of a new cohort of recruits.
The Russian media broadcast footage from inside recruiting stations of new soldiers, some being emotionally seen off by their parents to unknown destinations. There was nothing to rule out the idea that Ukraine might be unified in the light of the mobilisation decree plus the fact that depending on the results of the referendums in eastern Ukraine those territories could become parts of Russia and require the further deployment of defence forces.
Second, although Shoigu said that the reserves would be stationed away from the front lines in accordance with their previous military qualifications and expertise, if Russia is to reverse its losses it will need large numbers of troops for precisely the fronts from which it has withdrawn, such as Kharkiv.
The Russian mobilisation will also have to overcome another complication, which is how to equip all the new troops with arms, a daunting task even if the recruitment is done in stages and the recruits are stationed away from the front lines.
Up until this point, Russia has deployed around 100,000 troops in Ukraine. Quadrupling this number necessitates mobilising major resources to make much more equipment available and, even before then, to train very large numbers.
Not only will this take time, it will also require the type of training that can make even previously trained reserves combat-ready for the conditions of the war in Ukraine. Otherwise, they will become easy prey for Ukrainian forces fortified by growing influxes of sophisticated Western weapons.
In response to Putin’s mobilisation decree, Washington announced another large package of both defensive and offensive arms for Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed for more tanks and other weapons to help Ukrainian forces hold on to recently regained territories.
Given such challenges, Moscow may resort to alternatives. One has been suggested by the recent admission of the founder of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, that he originally created this private military company to fight alongside ethnic Russians and native Russian speakers in the Donbas after the Civil War broke out in Ukraine in 2014.
Another alternative would be to hire mercenaries from other conflict zones that Russia has been engaged in, especially in the Middle East. That said, it is unclear how Russia would fund any such militias in the light of the economic straits it faces due to international sanctions.
There is no doubt that the Kremlin has taken its gamble on the war in Ukraine to another level. Not only is it now girding up for the battle to regain the initiative on the ground in Ukraine, it also has to grapple with major challenges on the home front, a battle that is no less dangerous.
The scope and magnitude of the risks could expand should Moscow opt to resort to the nuclear threat as a means of extricating itself from its current predicament and turning the tables against Kyiv.
The latter scenario has been looming more likely following Putin’s meeting with Lukashenko, who has previously asked Moscow to reopen its nuclear bases in Belarus. The more any belligerent brandishes the nuclear option, the greater the risk a war could spiral out of control in incalculable and unimaginable ways.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.