Russian conscription, Putin’s last gamble?

Vladimir Putin at 9 am on Wednesday addressed the Russian people through a message, declaring a partial mobilization in Russia, citing threats from NATO.

Referring to the partial conscription decision, which comes into effect today, he said it only affects those registered as reservists. Addressing those who enlist, he assured them that “they will be given all the privileges that all those who are already in service have”.

The first reactions

Already in Russia, within a few hours there is a wave of exit from the country, from young people who are afraid of being called up for service. This wave is not “massive” in the sense of hundreds of thousands, but it is certainly visible and intense, filling flights abroad and queuing at borders in neighboring countries.

Who can participate in such an “exit”? The most prosperous of the middle class (the oligarchs have already ensured their immunity from such measures), of the big cities mainly, educated young people, with the possibility of finding work in other countries. In other words, a brain drain, which had already manifested itself with the start of the war – to a mild but still visible degree – that finds a new way out.

We will see how the rest of society, which does not have such options, will deal with this. As well as how the Russian citizen will react when the Ukrainian “adventure” gets even closer to him, with the mobilization of his relatives, acquaintances and friends and with any losses. And already, as e.g. write the Moscow Times small local mobilizations appeared in the poorest areas of the country, e.g. in autonomous republics in Siberia, in Buryatia and Saka, with posters that “our men, fathers and brothers, do not want to kill other fathers and husbands”.

The goals of Kremlin

The Donbass is a clear target for Putin and Russia, which will be integrated into Russian territory like Crimea, while it was also mentioned in the upcoming referendums in the four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine.

Russia is trying to fight the war in Ukraine on the cheap, shielding its citizens from any real consequences, but the Ukrainian resistance is crushing the Russian units sent to invade.

Russia wants to stabilize profits and pump some new resources into a business. Russia has always called this operation “special”, not wanting to make it look like a huge war, but Ukraine gave Russia a real war because Kyiv did not fall as Moscow believed, and instead resulted in a hard conflict A recent series of counterattacks by Ukraine changed the tempo and put Russia off balance (please read the analysis “Should Putin make decisisions after Defeat?“).

Moscow’s desire to fight the war on the cheap is demonstrated by its reluctance to commit most of its armed forces, not making much use of its air force and instead sending in mercenaries, fighters from peripheral regions such as Chechnya, and even conscripting prisoners to fight.

Russia is also relying on separatist regions in Ukraine to help deal with the fighting and suffering. The whole point here was to let Moscow go about business as usual. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently went to Uzbekistan for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting, where he met other authoritarians.

Putin: Talking openly about war and maybe global

However, Putin’s speech did not only contain the news of conscription. Which is clearly an admission of defeat, acknowledging that a normal war is now being waged in Ukraine and not a “special military operation”.

Putin said this bluntly, justifying the partial mobilization as “to protect our motherland, its independence and territorial integrity, as well as our people in the liberated areas (including Donbass-Crimea)”. To continue that “today our armed forces operate on a front that exceeds 1,000 kilometers and face not only neo-Nazi forces (including Ukrainian) but the entire war machine, collectively of the West. NATO is conducting reconnaissance operations along the south in Russia. Washington, London and Brussels are directly pressuring Kyiv to transfer the war to our country. And they openly say that Russia must be defeated on the battlefield by any means.”

This wording – in a sense – is an open challenge and a warning that for Russia now the war has already become “global”. The battlefield may still be confined within Ukraine, but Putin tells us that this should not be a given.

And the reference to the fact that the territorial integrity of his country is threatened, as well as the fact that “the Westerners are pressuring the Ukrainians to attack inside Russia”, makes a big impression. Images that are on the one hand destructive, on the other necessary to create the political background for even greater mobilization in the future, now invoking the survival of the “Russian world”. Where, of course, in the conclusion, we still have a reference to the country’s nuclear power: “I want to remind… that our country also has various means of (mass) destruction and in some cases more modern than those of the NATO countries. And when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, of course we will use all means at our disposal to protect Russia and its people. This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons, let them know that they can be turned against them.”

Why now Conscription?

Putin wants to create a multipolar world order and reduce US influence in the world. But he can’t do that if he can’t win wars and Russia is losing in Ukraine.

It is unclear whether the mobilization could mean new attacks by Moscow or simply a way to consolidate gains it has already made. He appears to want referendums to be held in Ukraine so that Moscow can annex more territory, as it did with Crimea in 2014.

Putin wants to create a multipolar world order and reduce US influence in the world. But he can’t do that if he can’t win wars and Russia is losing in Ukraine.

It is unclear whether the mobilization could mean new attacks by Moscow or simply a way to consolidate gains it has already made. He appears to want referendums to be held in Ukraine so that Moscow can annex more territory, as it did with Crimea in 2014.

Russia has caused the population of some areas it conquered to flee, leaving behind people who may prefer Moscow’s rule. Some Russian-speaking Ukrainians often had ties to Moscow and preferred pro-Russian politicians. Russia used these Ukrainians in 2014 to destroy the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Crimea, a region that was once part of Russia, was also removed from Ukraine. Moscow’s view is that part of Ukraine historically belongs to Russia and that the people there are Russians, not Ukrainians. This is part of a kind of neo-imperialist policy of Moscow.

But like all empires, Russia prefers to be on the cheap strategies and sticks to divide and conquer tactics. He did not want to commit hundreds of thousands of troops. Putin has sought to reform Russia’s armed forces over the past two decades, creating what he sees as a new military model. But this army did not perform well in Ukraine.

Russia traditionally relied on conscripts and masses of men to wage war, overcoming initial failures with brute force. Thus Russia defeated the Nazis and also the Chechens. But 2022 may be different. Moscow does not want to sacrifice people like it did in the 1940s or 1990s. Ukraine is also supported by the West and is getting better equipment every day and Russia is unable to replace its equipment.

Conscription could be part of the end-game strategy for Moscow. Mobilize and consolidate whatever gains are left and then pretend to have won the war with some kind of brokered peace, possibly a Turkish brokered peace.

What is Russian partial conscription anyway?

Certainly necessary from the Russian point of view, as the war in Ukraine is not progressing as the Kremlin thought. But also a one-way street, as other power options (eg use of tactical nukes, massive conventional bombing of Kiev) are – fortunately still – hideous options. Russia is not in the phase of “absurdity”, but it sees that it must wage a total war, in order to achieve something permanent, which it can present as a “profit” internally and internationally (with the occupation of all of Donbas to remain the main objective).

As we have seen, however, conscription, while admitting the crisis, will also cause a crisis. Social, political, organizational crisis in the army, crisis of jurisdiction, management at the front, accounting crisis, crisis of supply, education, movement, crisis of relations with the separatists. Perhaps a crisis of acceptance by the young people of the country, who in the next few days will receive the ranking paper, where we will see if there will be reactions. So the Putin administration is taking a significant but unavoidable risk in attempting to lead a huge country into a war of attrition. Is this a “roll” by Putin who personally takes responsibility for ordering and announcing the bad news? Yes, but not his last. As he himself implies by talking about nuclear, that is the really last move which he has mentioned time and time again, to the extent of trivializing it.

The Conclusion

The overall conclusion, however, is that it is again proven that Russia made a major mistake in its invasion of Ukraine. In a space where he had made a bold move in 2014, sequestering areas of the neighboring country (even if he had not formally incorporated them, which he is trying to do now), without finding serious international reactions.

In a region where a combination of diplomatic pressure, small concessions, the administration of Zelensky – who had been elected on the promise of a peaceful end to border clashes with separatists – perhaps small military “warning” operations would be enough to keep Ukraine “in ice’ in perpetuity. Instead, the unjust total invasion was chosen, without the necessary analysis that would show all its dark prospects. That is, when the “recruitment” of geostrategic clarity was needed and not infantry.

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