Far from being a silver bullet, the move will only exacerbate tensions in the country
JADE MCGLYNN 24 September 2022 • 8:00pm
Diners gasped as the riot police thudded the man’s head against the windows of the chic Moscow restaurant. Arrested for demonstrating against mobilisation, it is very likely he will now be sent to fight in Ukraine.
Just 12 hours earlier, Vladimir Putin had taken to the podium with a pre-recorded speech to announce partial mobilisation in what he’s no longer calling Russia’s “special military operation” against Ukraine but its full-blown war against Nato and the West. This means at least 300,000 military reservists will be drafted to bolster Russian forces who are struggling in Ukraine. In response, thousands of Russians took to the streets across almost 40 cities in the largest protests since March.
Putin has long faced calls from his Right, the so-called “party of war”, to announce full mobilisation. The decision to declare partial mobilisation was apparently made under pressure from the United Russia leader Andrei Turchak, technocratic former president-turned-rhetorical genocidaire Dmitry Medvedev, and Rosgvardia leader Viktor Zolotov.
This “party of war” believes – or at least vociferously espouses – the more extreme variants of the Kremlin’s mythology on the war against Ukraine: Kyiv is overrun with Nazis, Ukraine does not exist, this war is Russia’s existential fight against the West, Russia is liberating Ukraine from Satan-worshipping Anglo-Saxons and militant Baltic gays, and so on.
Most Russians also believe Nazis control Ukraine and that Nato is out to undermine Russia, but they don’t engage with the war in the same existential terms. They may have prejudices with which the Kremlin’s propaganda resonates, but they are passive not active supporters.
And until now the Kremlin has done everything in its power to keep it that way. The structure of sociopolitical life in Russia is such that it actively and deliberately hinders political agency, both for the Kremlin as well as against. This is why the police carted off pro-war advocates during Wednesday’s anti-mobilisation protests as well as those against the draft. It is why the Kremlin busses in apparatchiks for rallies, rather than genuine supporters. And it is why the government, up until now, has been luring contractors to war with salaries up to seven times the local average rather than the promise of a civilisational crusade.
In a poll taken shortly before Putin’s draft announcement, 80 per cent of Russians opposed mobilisation, with those who will be drafted the softest core. Those who can are now fleeing, leading to steep price rises for flights out of Russia and long queues at the borders. For those without the means to run, it is unclear to what extent, if they weren’t already attracted by incredible salaries to slay ostensible Nazis, they will be effective or willing fighters.
This is why the decision to mobilise, in temporarily resolving an intra-elite threat, is certainly no silver bullet to the Russian army’s failures.
By contrast, it will likely decrease morale yet further, since military contractors, many of whom were said to be despondent and preparing to leave the army to cash in their cheques, now have to stay at the front indefinitely.
Forced mobilisation will also aggravate existing class and racial tensions within and beyond the army, as the rich can afford to leave or buy their way out of the draft. It will also fail to deal with the underpreparedness of Russian soldiers, especially since there is already evidence that the promised training to new recruits will not actually be delivered.
Finally, the way the mobilisation process is organised, granting governors considerable powers, will only exacerbate the morale-destroying corruption that has undermined the modernisation of the Russian army.
Given these realities, it is hard to see what mobilisation will achieve. Then again, Putin bade farewell to reality when he invaded Ukraine. He shows little desire to reconnect, at least for now.