The million-man mistake: Russians hit the streets after Putin mobilization decree

Did Vladimir Putin miscalculate again? Late yesterday, the Russian dictator announced a series of moves to bolster his failing campaign in Ukraine, including the annexation efforts that will take place as Ukrainian forces take back ground from Russia. Putin also declared a partial mobilization of Russian veterans, the number of which he left vague.

However, the Kremlin now puts that figure at one million men:

The sheer size of that upper limit might be intended to make Ukraine nervous enough to agree to a negotiated settlement. So too might be Putin’s nearly-explicit threat of nuclear weapons use. However, the latter is almost certainly a bluff intended for Putin’s home audience, and perhaps especially to rally his oligarchs.

The former might be a bluff too, ISW suggests. Putin can’t mobilize hundreds of thousands of men that simply, and he certainly can’t arm and train them. It’s also not clear how many of this “new” mobilization have already been sent to Ukraine:

It is not clear how much of the Russian reserve has already been deployed to fight in Ukraine. Western intelligence officials reportedly said in November 2021 that Russia had called up “tens of thousands of reservists” as part of its pre-war mobilization.[4] Ukrainian military officials reported in June 2022 that Russian forces had committed 80,000 members of the mobilized reserve to fight in Ukraine.[5] The Russian military likely called up the most combat-ready reserves in that pre-war mobilization effort, which suggests that the current partial mobilization will begin by drawing on less combat-ready personnel from the outset.

Russian reserves are poorly trained to begin with and receive no refresher training once their conscription period is completed. Russian mandatory military service is only one year, which gives conscripts little time to learn how to be soldiers, to begin with. The absence of refresher training after that initial period accelerates the degradation of learned soldier skills over time. Shoigu referred to the intent of calling up reservists with “combat experience,” but very few Russian reservists other than those now serving in Ukraine have any combat experience.[6]

Reports conflict regarding how much training reservists called up in the partial mobilization will receive.  Shoigu described a deliberate training process that would familiarize or re-familiarize mobilized reservists with crew, team, detachment, and then platoon-level operations before deploying them to fight. That process should take weeks, if not months, to bring reservists from civilian life to war readiness. Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security head Viktor Bondarev reportedly said that mobilized reservists would train for over a month before being deployed.[7] A military commissariat in Kursk Oblast, on the other hand, reportedly announced that reservists under 30 would deploy immediately with no additional training.[8]

And even the nuclear threat is different in context than Western reports suggested:

Putin framed his comments about the possibility of Russian nuclear weapons use in the context of supposed Western threats to use nuclear weapons against Russia. He claimed that Western officials were talking about “the possibility and permissibility of using weapons of mass destruction—nuclear weapons—against Russia.” He continued, “I wish to remind those who allow themselves such statements about Russia that our country also has various means of attack…”  His comment on this topic concludes by noting that Russia would use all means at its disposal in response to a threat to “the territorial integrity of our country, for the defense of Russia and our people.” That comment could be interpreted as applying in advance to the soon-to-be annexed areas of occupied Ukraine, but its placement in the speech and context do not by any means make such an interpretation obvious. Nor is Putin’s language in making this comment different from formal Kremlin policy or from previous statements by Russian officials. Putin’s speech should not be read as an explicit threat that Russia would use nuclear weapons against Ukraine if Ukraine continues counter-offensives against occupied territories after annexation.

In other words, Putin may have intended this less as a signal to the West than as a rallying cry for his subjects. Like so much of what Putin does, it’s a callback to mightier Soviet days, when the world and the West trembled at Russia’s military might and Moscow had a large say in how the world worked. However, even the Soviets never used nuclear weapons to avoid military humiliation, such as in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the world actually did defer to Moscow … until Putin’s invasion this year revealed his military to be a corrupt, bloated, mismanaged paper tiger that couldn’t operate beyond its own borders.

Perhaps this message is still selling with Putin’s oligarch cronies. It clearly isn’t working with the Russian people. Those with the wherewithal to flee are spending thousands of dollars for the last plane out. The rest are going into the street, chanting “Send Putin to the front!”

This looks like another miscalculation by Putin, although almost an inevitable one. Putin hid the actual outcome of his military invasion from the public, including the reality that it was an invasion. He claimed that Ukrainians had been held hostage by a neo-Nazi clique, that they would welcome Russian intervention, and that their superior forces would easily overwhelm Kyiv and force the government to flee. Seven months later, few Russians could have actually believed any of that, but demanding a large-scale mobilization to rescue Putin’s position in Ukraine makes all the shabby lies too obvious to ignore — even for Muscovites who have largely managed to avoid combat service, until now.

Putin’s big speech likely didn’t have the effect of rallying Russians on the basis of their imperial ambitions and history. It almost certainly had the effect of exposing his failures and those of the Russian military that Putin had assured them was among the world’s elite. They’re now looking to get out, or perhaps hopefully force Putin out instead.

What comes next if they succeed? That’s a headache for another day … but it’s definitely a day that’s coming closer.

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