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The script for conscripts: Inside Putin’s (partial) mobilization

A Russian service member stands next to a mobile recruitment center for military service under contract in Rostov-on-Don.

A Russian service member stands next to a mobile recruitment center for military service under contract in Rostov-on-Don.

REUTERS/Sergey Pivovarov

Russia is raising the stakes in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin’s call for the partial mobilization of Russian reservists — along with holding referenda in occupied parts as well as threatening to use nuclear weapons — has come in the wake of his troops suffering stunning losses at the hands of Kyiv. While the referenda are expected to be sham votes, and nukes are way up the escalation ladder, the mobilization edict is the most immediate of Putin’s three latest moves.

It’s also already affecting the cost, politics, and operations of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Logistically, the mobilization might be bigger than it looks. The 300,000 reservists being asked to report for duty is just the number that’s been announced for now. But the decree is vague by design, as Russian law allows for the spigot effect: once mobilization is underway, any number of men can be called in.

“The Kremlin calls it ‘partial’ so as not to cause panic among the population, but in practice, we are dealing with the first wave of general mobilization,” says Jamestown Foundation analyst Kseniya Kirillova. In early September, she correctly predicted that the referenda — which aim to induct some 15% of Ukrainian territory into Russia — and the mobilization would go hand-in-hand.

Still, Kirillova doubts the call-up will significantly affect the course of the war.

The Institute for the Study of War assesses that Russia has lost 50% to 90% of its strength in some units due to Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive, including vast amounts of armor and vehicles. That means that even if Putin gets more men on the ground, he’s not going to have enough equipment for them to move around.

There are five main arguments to be skeptical about Putin’s mobilization.

  1. Capacity: conscripts are expected to get just two weeks of training.
  2. Infrastructure: housing and kitting out the new troops won’t be easy.
  3. Deployment: coercing men to fight is no good for unit cohesion or morale.
  4. Attrition: the best men and machines have been lost, so further induction will cover quantity, not quality.
  5. ”He [Putin] is losing”: although officially the Kremlin claims to have lost just under 6,000 men, a massive mobilization indicates clear desperation and likely hides larger losses.

Still, 300,000 fresh boots on the ground are nothing to sneeze at. Putin’s reservist contingent alone would be the world’s 15th largest military, keeping in mind that Russia already has the world’s fifth-largest standing army.

“These forces won’t win the war, but in the short term they could prevent Russia from losing,” says Christopher Dougherty from the Center for a New American Security. This said, he admits it’ll take more than “third-rate forces using 40-year-old weapons to give the Russians an edge,” even if they are enough to absorb Ukraine’s limited supply of Western weapons.

Also, Putin has other conventional military tricks up his sleeve. For Dougherty, who heads the CNAS wargaming lab, Russia might pursue “a more concerted effort to choke off the flow of Western supplies through conventional strikes or Spetznaz [Special Forces] attacks on the lines of communication.” That would give Putin more options and depth, both of which were in short supply before and likely led to the Kharkiv collapse.

But regardless of whether the Russians are preparing to sustain or intensify combat, there is a worst-case scenario for Putin.

“Mobilization could spark greater internal resistance — even regime change — to the extent a broader call-up is unpopular, battlefield losses persist, sanctions bite deeper into the economy, or elites or parts of the security sector sour on the regime or public unrest surges,” says William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation.

That’s a lot of moving parts, but regime change in Moscow isn’t quite upon us. While the announcement has been met by some protests, with military-age men taking flights and cars out and going into hiding to flee conscription, Putin has countered by staging massive pro-war rallies. Reports of thousands of volunteers signing up have also emerged.

Still, considering the political stakes of risking popular dissent against the war, could getting bogged down in Ukraine and then resorting to conscription be turning this conflict into Putin’s Vietnam with the US draft?

“Vietnam didn’t become Vietnam for a long time,” says Sam Greene, a professor of Russian politics at King’s College London and the director for democratic resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis. Putin, he adds, can probably survive this current political moment in terms of public opinion against the war.

For now, Green explains, there’s no organized anti-war movement, partly because it's illegal and partly because the Russians have tried to sell their people a short and quick conflict they don’t have to pay much for. Also, he asks, what happens if you do mobilize against the conflict? “You go to jail. So it's not fully comparable to the US in the ‘60s … unless it becomes a war of attrition.”

“That would involve putting thousands or hundreds of thousands of new troops on the frontlines just to keep things stable on a regular basis and keep on asking the population to keep on making that sacrifice right, '' Greene says. “How is that going to be swallowed?”

While Russia’s top independent pollster says that support for the war has remained static since it began, with 75% in favor, Kirillova argues that even before the announcement of the call-up the tide had begun to turn. Mobilization will certainly strengthen this trend, even though Moscow is searching for new troops in mostly far-flung rural areas where the political opposition is more diluted.

The crux of the mobilization is for Putin to gain a foothold in the already captured territories of Ukraine, she says. “It is possible that he is hoping for a new deal with the West in exchange for a promise not to continue the offensive.”

Finally, the Russian leader is also betting that winter is coming.

Kremlin strategists, Kirillova notes, believe that Europe will not survive the energy crisis and will be much more inclined to compromise in a few weeks. In that case, Putin will never give up the temptation to press on in Ukraine.

“War is now the backbone of Putin's ideology, and he will not be able to abandon it.”

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