Russia’s first mobilization since World War II and annexations of occupied territories in Ukraine: Putin said it would not happen, he said when he announced his “special operation” in February. Seven months later, he resorts to draconian measures to end the heavy defeats of the Russian army.
What should have been a brief operation to ‘denazify’ Ukraine is now, in Putin’s words, an existential struggle for Russia’s survival against NATO. After NATO member states first dissolved the Soviet Union, they have now pointed the barrel of the gun at Russia itself, Putin said in a televised speech to the people of him Wednesday.
He announced the riskiest decisions of his presidency. He will send hundreds of thousands of reservists to the front in Ukraine through “partial mobilization”. Soldiers are prohibited from leaving service or refusing to be deployed before the end of the war. The occupied territory is annexed to Russia.
Putin’s contingency plan appears to be primarily a desperate attempt to pressure Ukraine and its Western arms suppliers to stop the humiliating counterattacks. This weekend the Kremlin will hold referendums on joining Russia in the occupied parts of the provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya. The result is certain, as the Kremlin organizes the vote and at the same time says that the residents are looking forward to joining Russia. Putin, for example, is trying to transform the occupied territory into Russian territory which, he said on Wednesday, is protected by “all means at our disposal”. This is not a bluff. ‘
But Ukraine and Western governments are assuming a bluff. Ukrainian President Zelensky described the referendum as “noise” to divert attention from Russia’s losses. The US government, by far Kiev’s main arms supplier, called Putin’s mobilization a sign of Russian weakness and failure.
Benefit only in spring
Mobilization will not help the exhausted and demoralized Russian army in the short term. The calling, training and equipping of reservists take months as winter approaches. Military analysts predict that the Russian military will not be able to benefit from the mobilization until next spring.
Meanwhile, Putin is bringing war to every Russian living room. Russia claims to have 25 million reservists with military experience. Sergei Shoygu, the Russian defense minister, tried to reassure the Russians on state television that “only” 300,000 of them will be summoned.
But there are signs of panic from Russia. Human rights organization Agora was convened on Wednesday with questions about soldiers’ rights. Online search engines have seen an explosive increase in searches for “How do I get out of Russia”. There were traffic jams at the border crossings, flight tickets to foreign destinations were sold out. Hundreds of people took to the streets despite the threat of years in prison.
The Russians fear that they, or their loved ones, will be sent to a war front that has seemed distant to most in the past seven months. In Moscow, except for the closures of Western stores and McDonald’s, there were no sign of war.
“Society will slowly become irritated and deeply indignant,” Kremlin expert Tatyana Stanovaja said Wednesday. He does not expect mass protests, but deep discontent and attempts to avoid mobilization. “This is Putin’s erosion of power in its purest form.”