Putin’s 'partial mobilization' has unleashed more turmoil at home than in Ukraine

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After delaying it overnight, much to the frustration of a sleepless Russian press corps, President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday morning announced a “partial mobilization” in Russia to replenish the ranks of a “special military operation” meant to be long over by now. Yet few observers or political stakeholders in the West think this half-cocked call-up will fundamentally alter the calculus on the battlefield, where Ukraine’s counteroffensives have been surprisingly effective. Moreover, Putin’s vague threats against the “collective West” have been met with more shrugs and yawns in the United States and Europe. If anything, there is more panic in Russia.

Partial mobilization, Russia’s first since World War II, falls well short of mass conscription and is likely to be confined (for now) to the country’s 300,000 reservists. Contract soldiers already deployed in Ukraine will see their service indefinitely extended just as the weather cools and winter approaches. “This is a very risky step from Putin,” a senior Western intelligence officer told Yahoo News. “There are big doubts whether this call-up will succeed in the first place, and if not, what message will it send. It also increases public antiwar and anti-regime sentiment throughout Russia.”

That has already begun.

A demonstrator jumps on a police officer
A demonstrator in Moscow jumps on a police officer to prevent his friend from being detained during a protest against military mobilization. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

“No to war!” people chanted in the Old Arbat, a famous street in Moscow. “Life for our children!” they shouted in St. Petersburg, along with the more provocative “Putin in the trenches!” The president’s ukase (edict) has been met with chaos and confusion in the streets. Authorities even have difficulty distinguishing the war objectors from the proponents. One man wearing a Russian Army sweatshirt in Yekaterinburg declared, "I am leaving for war tomorrow. ... I am for Russia,” before he too was hauled away by the authorities, presumably because they mistook him for an antiwar demonstrator.

In the past several hours, flights out of Moscow have skyrocketed in price, with some carriers charging as much as $16,000 a ticket to travel to Dubai. And that’s on one of the few flights still available: All planes to visa-free countries were completely sold out, according to the Russian news portal RBC.

Partial mobilization has also already separated those in Russian society who qualify for the frontlines from those who do not.

A colleague of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny rang up Nikolai Peskov, the son of Putin’s press secretary, pretending to be an enlistment officer and demanding that Peskov report for a medical examination. “You must understand,” replied the younger Peskov, who is also a correspondent for the Kremlin-controlled RT media network, “if you know that I am Mr. Peskov, how much it is not entirely correct for me to be there. In short, I will solve it on a different level.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while delivering a speech.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at an event in Veliky Novgorod, Russia. (Ilya Pitalev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Outside of the internal strife surrounding the decision, the influx of manpower will not suddenly transform the depleted Russian army into a more capable fighting force.

Putin’s call-up will not suddenly establish Russian air superiority over Ukraine — something the Russian Ministry of Defense has frequently boasted of achieving, despite having lost 55 combat aircraft since Feb. 24, and at least four in the last two weeks.

It won’t let Russian ground forces counter Ukraine’s supremely effective Western-supplied missile artillery, which the Kremlin can seemingly neither locate nor destroy, despite the Russian Ministry of Defense’s claims to have eliminated more High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) than Ukraine has been sent.

It won’t solve crippling morale and leadership problems in the Russian army — it’s likely to make them worse.

When Ukraine’s intelligence service publishes the intercepted phone calls of Russian contract soldiers, who sign up for service for a fixed period of time, a consistent theme is their intent to leave the Russian army at the end of the enlistment due to the horrendous conditions and high casualties they’re experiencing. Not allowing these kontraktniki the prospect of an end to their service effectively means soldiers wanting to go home will now be forced to stay until they’re killed or wounded on the battlefield. Some of these contract soldiers may simply refuse to fight, preferring to take their chances with a Russian military court or as POWs instead of risking returning home in zinc coffins. (Also underwhelming is the fact that at least some mobilized soldiers will be sent to Ukraine without so much as basic training.)

Ukrainian soldiers sit on a armored personnel carrier
Ukrainian soldiers on their way to the frontline in the Donetsk region on Wednesday. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

“This feels more like an act of desperation than one of escalation and will probably be taken that way,” said Eliot Cohen, a former counselor in the U.S. State Department and now the dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “There have always been those in the West whose fear of Russia outweighs their support of Ukraine, but on the whole, it seems to me the U.S. and its allies have been remarkably staunch.”

That staunchness was further displayed Wednesday amid the United Nations General Assembly, as Putin obliquely threatened once again to use nuclear weapons if Russia’s “territorial unity” came under threat. Yet Russian territory, as defined by Moscow, is now expected to expand into areas that Russia only partly or tenuously holds.

Putin alluded in his speech to backing a series of slated “referendums” in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine — Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — all designed to legitimize their forcible annexation by Moscow. Yet none of these regions is fully under Russian military occupation. The provincial capital of Zaporizhzhia, in fact, is still governed by a Ukrainian political administration. Kherson, where Kyiv has been pressing a gradual, weeks-long counteroffensive, is increasingly falling back into Ukrainian hands. And the strategically important city of Lyman, in Donetsk, is nearly encircled by Ukrainian forces.

There is no indication that Kyiv intends to slow or halt its counteroffensives. “The only appropriate response to Putin’s belligerent threats is to double down on supporting Ukraine,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted Wednesday. “More sanctions on Russia. More weapons to Ukraine.” An officer in Ukraine’s military intelligence agency told Yahoo News before Putin’s speech that sham referenda and mobilization were long expected and have already been factored into Ukraine’s strategy. “We saw it coming and we’re prepared,” the officer said.

Police officers confront demonstrators in St. Petersburg
Police officers confront demonstrators in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Wednesday. (Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images)

As did Ukraine’s Western partners.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO's secretary-general, echoed the need to “step up support for Ukraine.” Ditto Kajsa Ollongren, the defense minister of the Netherlands. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, once seen as a wobbly rung on the ladder of European escalation, was unambiguous. Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Macron declared, “Those who are silent now on this new imperialism, or are secretly complicit with it, show a new cynicism that is tearing down the global order without which peace is not possible.”

The question now is: Will Putin treat any attacks on Russian forces in soon-to-be-annexed territories as an attack on Russia itself? The short answer is: No one really knows, and he may not either. However, the Kremlin’s combative public rhetoric often overstates eventual Russian actions, and humiliation on the battlefield is routinely met with the deployment of euphemisms rather than WMD.

Russia illegally seized and annexed Crimea in 2014, yet the Crimean Peninsula has been under sustained bombardment by the Ukrainians for the first time in eight years, using drones and as-yet-unknown long-range weapons systems. On Aug. 9, Ukraine’s military hit the Saki air base, which lies 180 miles behind enemy lines and is home to much of the Black Sea Fleet’s naval aviation group, more than half of which was wiped out by a “series of successful missile attacks,” according to Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces.

That certainly translated as an infringement upon Russia’s internal — but internationally unrecognized — definition of “territorial unity.” Indeed, Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and now the deputy chairman of its security council, had even warned on the messaging platform Telegram that any attack on Crimea would precipitate a “judgment day” response “very fast and hard.” But a day after the Saki air base bombing, Medvedev quietly deleted his post. The Russian Ministry of Defense, meanwhile, denied that the attack had even happened, writing off explosions as an “accident.” Nor has it yet acknowledged a total rout in Kharkiv, where Ukrainians reclaimed as many as 3,500 square miles of land in the past three weeks, much of it owing to the flight of terrified Russian soldiers. That defeat, according to the Kremlin, was a “regrouping.”