Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement of a “partial mobilisation” of 300,000 Russian personnel to fight in Ukraine sounded decisive. It isn’t.
The official position, fleshed out by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, was that the new Russian conscripts would be drawn from those with past military experience and individuals with special skills.
But the reality is that this is policy on the fly. It will result in a flood of untrained, often elderly and infirm Russians to the front lines. At best it will buy Putin time over another cold Ukrainian winter. At worst it will result in battlefield chaos and potentially mass slaughter.
Either way, the decision means that still more Russians, as well as Ukrainian military personnel and civilians, will be sacrificed on the altar of Putin’s hubris.
Putin’s haphazard call-up
Paradoxically, Putin’s call-up is at once both highly selective and seemingly random.
Russia’s ethnic minorities – many of whom live far from the main power centres of Moscow and St Petersburg – remain primary objects of Russian mobilisation efforts. In particular, Buryats from Russia’s Far East and Dagestanis from the Caucasus have been disproportionately targeted.
Meanwhile, Putin continues to insulate urban elites, who might cause him the most problems if they become radically opposed to the war. Those studying at Russia’s state universities, typically the privileged children of Putin’s “nomenklatura” who will go on to become the next generation of bureaucrats, are exempt from mobilisation.
But those in the second rank of private education institutions, frequently from Russia’s regions, are eligible to be conscripted into private military companies such as the infamous Wagner group, led by “Putin’s chef” Yevgenyi Progozhin.
So much for arguments, then, from domestic nationalists that Russia is the “Third Rome”, peacefully uniting people from different ethnicities and creeds. In fact, as has been the case repeatedly in Russian history, the nation’s minorities continue to be regarded as objects of suspicion and potential dissent, and used as replaceable labour or cannon fodder in Russia’s wars.
There are also signs little thought has gone into who gets called up, and why. Some local districts appear to be operating under a quota system, with police roaming public places and issuing call-ups to passers-by, including people over 60 and those with chronic health problems.
Elsewhere, anti-war demonstrators – as well as innocent bystanders – have been arrested and immediately drafted into the military.
Others called up in the Russian-occupied Donetsk province of Ukraine have been issued Mosin rifles, which were developed in the late 19th century and are no longer in production.
All this is a recipe for military disaster. But there are clear reasons why Putin decided to agree to the mobilisation he had long resisted.
First, Russian hardliners have been calling for him to do more to support the armed forces and bring the campaign to a close. Having expended a large quantity of its precision-guided munitions, and failing to establish air superiority, it’s difficult for Russian forces to accurately strike Ukrainian command-and-control centres, as well as key infrastructure such as power generation.
Mobilising a huge force (which some claim will ultimately reach over a million people) is one way to show his hard-line domestic critics Putin is listening.
Second, a large portion of Russia’s armed forces (some 60-70% of its total conventional capacity) has already been committed to Ukraine, and is nearing exhaustion after seven months without respite. Sending new recruits to the theatre will allow Russian front-line forces to rest and regroup for a fresh effort in the European spring.
All this means Russian offensive operations in Ukraine are effectively on hold. The best that Putin’s conscript army can achieve is to act as a blocking force while Moscow tests European patience and willingness to bear the cost of diminished energy supplies.
At the same time, the Kremlin has upped the ante on its nuclear threats, strongly hinting it would consider using tactical nuclear weapons if the territory it holds in Ukraine’s East (which will be formally annexed by Russia after the sham referenda in four provinces) is attacked by Ukrainian forces.
But Putin’s statement that he is “not bluffing” on the nuclear question should hardly inspire confidence about the power of his position.
Increasingly his are the actions of a damaged leader seeking to convey strength.
A weakened Putin
That in itself raises a conundrum for both Ukraine and the West: might a weakened Putin decide to lash out, and at what point?
As Caitlin Talmadge, a senior expert on nuclear strategy in the United States has recently suggested, leaders faced with certain defeat can decide to take courses of action that might otherwise be irrational.
While using tactical nuclear weapons against Ukrainian (and even NATO) targets might be viewed by Putin as a bad option, he may come to view it as his least-worst one if the strategic situation continues to deteriorate, or if his own domestic power base comes under significant threat.
However, we should also be mindful that Western capitulation is precisely what Putin wants. That would starve Ukraine of vitally needed military supplies, as well as heavy weapons to push its advantage after the impressive gains from its counteroffensive around Kharkiv.
Putin has been consistent throughout the crisis in pursuing a strategy of compellence: to demonstrate to Ukraine and its Western backers that he has a higher appetite for risk.
Under those circumstances, and given both Ukrainian sovereignty and Western credibility are both on the line, it’s absolutely crucial Putin’s adversaries show him who actually occupies the position of strength.