Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement of a “partial mobilization” of 300,000 Russian troops to fight in Ukraine sounded decisive. It is not.
The official position, fleshed out by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, was that the new Russian conscripts would be recruited from among those with previous military experience and those with special skills.
But the reality is that this is a policy on the fly. It will result in a flood of untrained, often elderly and infirm, Russians on the front lines. At best, it buys Putin time for another cold Ukrainian winter. At worst, this will lead to chaos on the battlefield and possibly mass slaughter.
In any case, the decision means more Russians, as well as Ukrainian military and civilians, will be sacrificed on the altar of Putin’s hubris.
Putin’s arbitrary call
Paradoxically, Putin’s appointment is both highly selective and seemingly random.
Russia’s ethnic minorities – many of whom live far from the main power centers of Moscow and St Petersburg – remain prime targets for Russian mobilization efforts. In particular, Buryats from Russia’s Far East and Dagestanis from the Caucasus were disproportionately attacked.
Meanwhile, Putin continues to isolate the urban elites, who could cause him the most trouble if they radically oppose the war. Those studying at Russia’s state universities, usually the privileged children of Putin’s “nomenklatura” who go on to become the next generation of bureaucrats, are exempt from mobilization.
But the ones in the second row of private educational institutionsoften from the regions of Russia, can be drafted into private military companies such as the notorious Wagner Group, run by “Putin’s cook” Yevgenyi Progozhin.
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So much for the arguments of domestic nationalists that Russia is the “Third Rome”, peacefully uniting people of different ethnicities and faiths. Indeed, as has happened repeatedly throughout Russian history, the nation’s minorities continue to be viewed as objects of suspicion and potential disagreement, and used as replaceable labor or cannon fodder in Russia’s wars.
There are also signs that little thought has been given to who will be called up and why. Some local counties appear to be operating under a quota system, with police roaming public spaces and phoning passers-by, including those over 60 and those with chronic health conditions.
Elsewhere, anti-war protesters – as well as innocent bystanders – were arrested and immediately drafted into the military.
An estimated 261,000 Russian males have fled the country. Conscripts were presented with old and poorly preserved old military equipment, including rusty assault rifles.
Others drafted into the Russian-occupied Donetsk province of Ukraine received Mosin rifles, which were developed in the late 19th century and are no longer in production.
All of this is a recipe for military disaster. But there are clear reasons why Putin decided to agree to the mobilization, which he had long resisted.
First, Russian hardliners are urging him to do more to support the armed forces and end the campaign. Having spent a large amount of its precision-guided munitions and failed to establish air superiority, Russian forces are finding it difficult to accurately hit Ukrainian command and control centers, as well as critical infrastructure such as power generation.
Mobilizing a massive military force (which some say will eventually reach over a million people) is a way of showing his uncompromising domestic critics that Putin is listening.
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Secondly, a large part of the Russian armed forces (about 60-70% of their total conventional capacity) is already stationed in Ukraine and after seven months of non-stop deployment it is almost exhausted. Sending new recruits to the theater of war will allow Russian front-line troops to rest and regroup for new efforts in the European Spring.
All of this means that Russian offensive operations in Ukraine are practically on hold. The best that Putin’s army of recruits can do is act as a blocking force while Moscow tests Europe’s patience and willingness to bear the cost of reduced energy supplies.
At the same time, the Kremlin has upped the use of its nuclear threats, clearly indicating that it would consider using tactical nuclear weapons if the territory it holds in eastern Ukraine (which will be formally annexed by Russia following mock referendums in four provinces) , this is attacked by Ukrainian troops.
But Putin’s statement that he is “not bluffing” on the nuclear issue should hardly inspire confidence in the power of his position.
Increasingly, it is the actions of a damaged leader who seek to instill strength.
A weakened Putin
That alone poses a conundrum for both Ukraine and the West: could a weakened Putin decide to lash out, and at what point?
As Caitlin Talmadgea senior nuclear strategy expert in the United States recently suggested that in the face of certain defeat, leaders may choose to choose courses of action that would otherwise be irrational.
While using tactical nuclear weapons against Ukrainian (and even NATO) targets could be seen by Putin as a bad option, he could see it as his least-worst option if the strategic situation continues to deteriorate or if his own domestic power base falters significantly in danger.
However, we should also be aware that Western surrender is exactly what Putin wants. That would starve Ukraine of much-needed military supplies and heavy weapons to extend its advantage after impressive gains from its Kharkiv counteroffensive.
Putin has consistently pursued a strategy of compulsiveness throughout the crisis: to demonstrate to Ukraine and its Western backers that he has a higher risk-taking attitude.
In these circumstances, and with both Ukrainian sovereignty and Western credibility at stake, it is absolutely crucial that Putin’s opponents show him who actually holds the position of strength.
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