Putin Doubles Down on a Bad Hand With Mobilization

The war in Ukraine is going so bad, he’s willing to risk domestic unrest.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on economic issues in Moscow on Feb. 17, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on economic issues in Moscow on Feb. 17, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on economic issues in Moscow on Feb. 17, 2022. Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP

Russian President Vladmir Putin announced a partial mobilization of Russian forces as Moscow’s army is losing ground in the seventh month of what was meant to be a three-day war in Ukraine.

Some 300,000 Russian reservists and men with previous military experience are expected to be called up to the ranks under a new decree which came into force on Wednesday, but it stops short of a full mobilization. The announcement came after a series of disastrous setbacks for Russia in eastern and southern Ukraine, where it has lost huge chunks of territory, equipment, and men. Putin finds himself caught between increasing pressure from Russia’s hawks in the security establishment, who have called for a full-scale mobilization, and fears that doing so could risk domestic political unrest. 

Western officials long predicted that any Kremlin effort to mobilize more troops for the war would create backlash in Russia, and protests broke out after Putin’s announcement. Many of the Russian troops dispatched to Ukraine thus far have been drawn from poorer families and remote regions of the country. With high levels of draft evasion among wealthier families, calling up those with previous military experience enables the Kremlin to stave off mobilizing the sons of the urban elite—those most likely to spark a backlash against a war that the Russian public has largely supported

Russian President Vladmir Putin announced a partial mobilization of Russian forces as Moscow’s army is losing ground in the seventh month of what was meant to be a three-day war in Ukraine.

Some 300,000 Russian reservists and men with previous military experience are expected to be called up to the ranks under a new decree which came into force on Wednesday, but it stops short of a full mobilization. The announcement came after a series of disastrous setbacks for Russia in eastern and southern Ukraine, where it has lost huge chunks of territory, equipment, and men. Putin finds himself caught between increasing pressure from Russia’s hawks in the security establishment, who have called for a full-scale mobilization, and fears that doing so could risk domestic political unrest. 

Western officials long predicted that any Kremlin effort to mobilize more troops for the war would create backlash in Russia, and protests broke out after Putin’s announcement. Many of the Russian troops dispatched to Ukraine thus far have been drawn from poorer families and remote regions of the country. With high levels of draft evasion among wealthier families, calling up those with previous military experience enables the Kremlin to stave off mobilizing the sons of the urban elite—those most likely to spark a backlash against a war that the Russian public has largely supported

Reuters reported sellouts in the sales of one-way plane tickets out of Russia, amid fears that the country’s border could be closed to men of fighting age. Traffic jams clog the border with Finland. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was unable to provide an answer when asked if a travel ban would be imposed on those eligible for conscription. In St. Petersburg, crowds began to gather on the streets for the first time since the early days of the war, chanting “no mobilization,” while police chased away demonstrators in downtown Moscow.  

The move to call up vast numbers of troops from civilian work comes after months of Kremlin denials about the potential of expanding the war effort. It is likely to deal a serious—if not fatal—blow to Putin’s effort to pitch the war as a “special operation” limited to Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that has helped to shield the Kremlin from popular criticism. In the same speech, Putin also announced his support for the referendums this week in four Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine: Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south. Voting is expected to begin Friday. 

The hastily organized referendums have already been rejected by the international community—the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine decried the “sham” votes”—but Russian analysts warned that Putin may seek to claim that any Ukrainian offensives in the region are a direct attack on Russian territory as a pretext to escalate. 

“Foreign troops crossing Russia’s borders, even if the border has just moved, will be used by Putin to justify renaming the ‘special operation’ a war, moving toward mobilization, targeting Ukrainian sites it had previously avoided, and making its nuclear threats less abstract,” tweeted Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on Tuesday.

And Putin made those threats less abstract on Wednesday, saying “I am not bluffing” about using nukes if there were any threat to the “territorial integrity” of Russia.

Western and Ukrainian leaders quickly condemned Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling and dismissed it as posturing. “This is dangerous and reckless nuclear rhetoric. It’s not new as he has done it many times before,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement. “So far we have not seen any changes in the nuclear posture, the nuclear readiness, but we monitor this very closely and we stay vigilant.”

They were equally quick to dismiss the planned referendums. “The referendums will change nothing. It’s an act of desperation for Russia, but it’s not going to help them,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said speaking to the press in New York. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan condemned the “sham referenda” on Tuesday, speaking at the White House. “These are not the actions of a confident country, these are not acts of strength,” he said. 

It’s unclear when and how well the newly mobilized Russian forces could come to bear on Moscow’s war effort. Russia has over two two million reservists, but few are routinely trained. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Wednesday that conscripts would not be sent into battle, though conscripts have previously been sent into war. Analysts noted that it could take several months to fully train new recruits, though conscripting those with previous military experience could shorten that timeline. 

“What they could do is force through the same sort of mobilization that they’ve been doing with these volunteer units where we’ve seen guys deployed to Ukraine with just a month or two of training,” said Mason Clark, a senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, in an interview last week. “That’s what got the Russians into this mess in the first place. They would likely be very combat ineffective,” he said. 

In his speech earlier today, Putin said that reserves conscripted back into service would receive “additional military training” based on their experience before departing for war. But experts expected that even Russia’s snap mobilization, and the effort of training, equipping, and deploying 300,000 additional troops would present a major logistical strain for the already beleaguered military, a conscript force with just one basic training site. Putin could get to that number by extending military service contracts currently in force and deploying troops already serving in Ukraine. Yet from a morale standpoint, experts said, there’s a problem: Russia’s war in Ukraine may increasingly be fought by troops that do not want to be there. 

“The issue is the Russian army is poorly led [and] poorly trained. That starts in basic training, and doesn’t get better during the RU soldier’s time in uniform,” Mark Hertling, the former top U.S. Army general in Europe, tweeted after Putin’s announcement. “And placing “newbies” on a front line that has been mauled, has low morale [and] who don’t want to be [there] portends more disaster.”

But some in the West aren’t clear how quickly the new Russian forces will get to Ukraine, if at all. Two European officials who monitor Russia’s military said it is likely that the new conscripts are not necessarily going to Ukraine, but could instead stay in Russia to replace more military forces going to Ukraine.

“The jury is still out on what type of impact this will have, both on the battlefield situation in Ukraine and politically in Russia, but this is the clearest sign yet that Putin acknowledges the war is not going to plan for him,” said one of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military issues.

Putin’s declaration came as world leaders gathered in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, where the war and the shockwaves it has sent through global food and energy markets is high on the agenda. 

Putin, who has been ostracized by the West following the invasion, is not set to attend the General Assembly. He made a rare trip abroad to Uzbekistan last week for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization where he received an unexpected public rebuke from Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both China and India have been integral to Russia’s plans to pivot its energy exports to Asian markets as it seeks to shield its economy from Western sanctions. 

Also on Tuesday, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament approved new legislation which tightens penalties for desertion, looting, and defection. It also expanded the circumstances under which the law would apply to include armed conflicts as well as periods of mobilization and martial law during combat activities. Russian officials have resisted describing the conflict in Ukraine as a war or invasion, instead deeming it to be a “special military operation.” The penalties approved by the Duma would give Russian troops up to 15 years in jail for desertion and five years for surrendering to Ukrainian forces. Business owners that refuse Kremlin orders to produce for the military could also face four to eight years in prison.

Russian officials have hinted that the Kremlin could use the phony referendum to illegally annex Ukrainian territories and to further escalate the full-scale invasion. Putin’s Kremlin allies also suggested that Russia was keeping all military options on the table in Ukraine, including the use of nuclear weapons. “Encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self-defense,” former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a Telegram message on Tuesday morning.

Western officials said that Russia’s ability to field more troops had been growing worse for months, after elite units faced brutal losses in the early days of the war and Russian authorities struggled to replace rising casualties. “​​We’re seeing the Kremlin increasingly straining to find new recruits to fill out their thin ranks, and the Russians are performing so poorly that the news from Kharkiv province has inspired many Russian volunteers to refuse combat,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Monday. 

U.S. defense officials also said that the paramilitary Wagner Group had tried to recruit Tajiks, Belarusians, and Armenians, as well as 1,500 convicted felons to fight in Ukraine, but that many recruits were refusing to fight, especially after high numbers of casualties among young and inexperienced recruits. 

Conversely, Ukrainian officials were already using the Russian referendum announcements to push for more Western weapons. Mikhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky, called for the United States to send the Army Tactical Missile System, projectiles that can hit Russian targets up to 200 miles away from the front lines, as well as modern tanks, and to impose sanctions on specific Russian industries. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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