Russian Stealth Mobilization Already A Disaster
Putin is reinforcing failure
Vladimir Putin is trying to mobilize a demobilized population. That sentence makes exactly as much sense as Putin’s mobilization decree. Schizoid policy and secret clauses and utter confusion reign. Conscripts are aimless and drunk. Training rifles are rusted. Cities are wracked by antiwar protests. Every male of fighting age who can afford to leave is leaving the country, or has already left to avoid conscription.
Even if Russians were uniformly enthusiastic, victory is out of reach in Ukraine. Putin’s decree is an emergency measure to prevent the dissolution of Russia. No amount of quasi-qualification matters anymore because mobilization should have happened months ago. The die has been cast, the gambler has come up snake eyes, and I give Putin a generous 1:2 odds of surviving another 365 days. The question now is not whether he can destroy Ukraine, but whether he can destroy Russia on his way to oblivion.
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Mobilization will not matter because Putin ate the seed corn back in May. As he came under heavy criticism from the militant nationalists on Telegram now known collectively as the “milbloggers,” who called for a mass mobilization, Putin ordered the training cadres in the “third battalions” of each BTG (battalion tactical group) to form up with contraktniki, or contract soldiers, and go to war.
Put in plain terms, a lot of the men who were supposed to train the conscripts in the event of war under the Russian military scheme are dead, disabled, or refusing to renew their contracts. Newly-trained formations went into battle and disintegrated during the Kharkiv offensive because they had only the most basic training.
That pressure is especially selective on the technicians who make modern armies work. For example, Russian air superiority has degraded everywhere because so many potential air defense radar operator trainers have received the attention of HARMs as well as priority in precision artillery fire plans.
Suppose 300,000 or a million Russians rallied to the flag and arrived in Ukraine tomorrow. Their communication gear would be no better than what Russian formations have been using since February, indeed it would probably be worse.
Taking a single-channel radio into combat in the 21st Century is quite like taking your musket. Formations using radio tech from 1945 because they lack the competent staff to deliver encryption to everyone on time are easy to track and destroy. And that is probably the best unit this mobilization program will produce.
Russian logistics are already woeful in Ukraine. Add 300,000 Russians and that vulnerability doubles. It will take weeks at least, more likely months for new formations of any utility to get there, and by then it will be winter already. Disaster looms again.
Until this week, Russians were getting bored of the war. That’s not a dig. Americans will be the first to recall how misadventures abroad have always become boring to the public. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan — they were far away, hard to understand, impossible to win, and seemed endless. Americans tired of them, because losing pointless, endless, impossible wars is not fun. Think of sports fans leaving the game early when a team is getting blown out. There’s no personal investment in the result. Russians are not different from the rest of humanity this way.
Putin wanted the war to be over by now. He would like it to not be news anymore, since it is not going well. Now that manpower shortages have forced him to mobilize Russian society, it is impossible to remove Ukraine from the news. It is the news. There is no other news in Russia, anymore.
When you are trying to make news, expectations matter. Putin set an expection of rapid conquest and his forces were repelled from Kyiv. He set an expectation of slow, steady progress in the east and got less than he wanted. He set an expectation of taking Odessa and had to give back Snake Island instead. He set up an expectation that Ukraine was being defeated in Kherson and got the Kharkiv offensive instead.
This week, Putin traded the Azov defenders — the supposed Nazis whose show-trials were supposed to justify the entire endeavor in Ukraine — for his former puppet and some Russian POWs. His reversal has outraged the war party.
Far-right Russian milbloggers criticized the exchange and asked if the Kremlin had given up on the ”de-Nazification” of Ukraine, one of the stated goals of the Russian invasion. Kremlin propagandists had heavily publicized the capture and planned prosecution of Azov personnel, accusing them of being Ukrainian Nazis. Other milbloggers criticized the Kremlin for enabling what they called Ukrainian information operations and ”allowing Kyiv to manipulate the mood in Russia.” Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov described the exchange as ”incomprehensible,” implied that Chechen forces tortured Azov prisoners in captivity, and implied that Russian forces who capture ”Nazis” should kill them rather than take them as POWs if they will be traded back to Ukraine. Torturing or killing POWs is a war crime and violates the Geneva Conventions.
If Putin had called up Russians to “de-Nazify” Ukraine in 2021, they might have responded. If he had done it in February, or March, or April, he might have enough trained troops with adequate equpment to stop Ukraine from further advances, right now. Instead, no one was told to expect a draft. They were repeatedly assured that the special operation only required special recruiting measures.
This week, they heard one number of Russians to be drafted, and then another, much larger, secret number. Russians have learned how to be helpless in these situations. They give up on truth, find some vodka, and post videos on social media.
Putin got 92.8% of the vote in Dagestan during the 2012 federal “elections.” His supposed share of the electorate was even higher in Chechnya. Being near the Caucasus hotspots of Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh, both “republics” are well-positioned to restore fear of Russia in a restive region. Indeed, they are both restive places themselves, these “republics.”
Which is a good reason (from Putin’s point of view) to conscript as many men of fighting age as possible from those places, so that they are in Ukraine getting killed rather than at home causing trouble.
Turns out that manufactured enthusiasm for subject status in Russia’s empire has its limits, though. Ramzan Kadyrov has declined to send any more Chechens to Ukraine. These places are barely Russian, even Russian against their own will. Sham referenda in occupied territories of Ukraine will not inspire them to rally around the flag. Russians have historical and emotional connections to Crimea, so the rapid “victory” and annexation of that territory after 2014 was popular. That is not happening now for Luhansk or Donetsk or Kherson.
Given all of the above, there is one man rising with the tide of defeat. Yevgeny Prigozhin, “Putin’s chef,” had been talked up as a replacement for Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for weeks. Now he has been described as “positioning himself as a god” within Russia as the state military collapses into chaos.
Putin was already reliant on Wagner mercenaries. A Ukrainian victory will mean “today's partial privatization of military operations could end up as one of several factors that unravels the cohesion of the Russian state itself,” writes security academic Alexander Clarkson. There are possbilities worse than Putinism.
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