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Russia’s mobilization won’t fix its military problems

What Putin’s troop surge can — and can’t — do in Ukraine.

Two police officers in riot control gear walk on either side of a protester with his arms held behind his back.
Police officers detain a man in Moscow on September 24, 2022, following calls to protest against the partial mobilization announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin this week announced that 300,000 more men would need to fight in his increasingly difficult and costly war in Ukraine. But amid Ukrainian victories, major strategic and personnel problems in the Russian armed forces, and domestic frustrations over the mobilization announcement, whether Putin can accomplish his goals in Ukraine — and the nature of those goals at this stage — isn’t clear.

“In the face of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin told Russians in a rancorous speech on Wednesday, referencing Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and casting its invasion of Ukraine as a defensive war.

Putin also blamed the West and NATO for encroaching on Russian territory — including in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine, which Russia is attempting to annex by holding referenda. Those referenda — in which votes are reportedly being cast at gunpoint or otherwise coerced — could complicate the future of the conflict if Russia considers those areas its sovereign territory.

Putin’s mobilization has already begun, as have widespread anti-mobilization protests and efforts by potential draftees to avoid the fighting. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, the Russian military has already started issuing orders in Crimea among the Tatar population, a Turkic ethnic group indigenous to Crimea which has historically been oppressed by Russian and Soviet governments. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians living in Russian-occupied territory and subject to Russia’s mobilization efforts to “do the most important thing — save your own lives, and help us weaken and destroy the occupiers” in a national address Friday. “Hide from the Russian mobilization by any means,” he said. “Avoid conscription letters. Try to get to the free territory of Ukraine.”

The mobilization orders are supposed to apply only to reservists with combat experience, but there have been reports of indiscriminate conscription. Some Russian men, even those who technically aren’t eligible for mobilization, are fleeing the country, and after Putin announced the order, according to Reuters, direct flights from Moscow to Istanbul and Yerevan, Armenia, both of which Russians can enter without a visa, quickly sold out.

While it’s not clear how many people have yet been called into service during this partial mobilization, the effort itself has been swift; independent Russian outlet Meduza reported that in Buryatia, a region in Siberia on Mongolia’s northern border, orders for the draft-eligible came down the day of Putin’s announcement.

Russian popular opinion supports the war — but not mobilization

Putin’s partial mobilization is an acknowledgement that the war is going badly for Russia after its rout in Ukraine’s Kharkiv oblast earlier in September, and represents an escalation of the conflict.

“[The] Kharkiv counteroffensive was an embarrassing defeat for Putin and the announcement of partial mobilization and renewed threats to deploy nuclear weapons indicates that Putin is under a lot of pressure to respond to it,” according to Natia Seskuria, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute who specializes in Russian foreign and domestic policy.

Though Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has said that the mobilization will be limited and gradual, “already there appears to be a disconnect between how it was described by Putin and Shoigu in their announcements of the policy and how it is being carried out,” Bryn Rosenfeld, a professor of government at Cornell University, told Vox via email.

According to Rosenfeld, “the details of how the mobilization order will be interpreted will either reassure lots of Russian men that they’re not really at risk — that mobilization is happening somewhere else, that it doesn’t really affect them or people like them, or they could become convinced that mobilization could actually pull in people like themselves.”

As of Sunday, it appears as though the latter is coming to pass. Thus far, Putin has been able to keep the war distant from ordinary people, keeping their lives as routine as possible; the mobilization order brings the war too close, Seskuria said.

“The war is no longer a distant event fought by a professional army so it can change the sentiments of Russians as it becomes clear that Russia is struggling in Ukraine and the war is now getting closer to ordinary citizens,” she told Vox via email.

Russians in cities from St. Petersburg in the west to Ulan-Ude in the east turned out to protest the orders this week, in defiance of a law criminalizing protests again the military. On Sunday alone, the New York Times reported, 745 people were detained, citing the human rights group OVD-Info. According to Seskuria, protesters have been punished with the fate they were trying to avoid: “Demonstrators who joined the protests across different cities in Russia have been detained and sent to military commissariats.”

The ongoing protests are primarily against mobilization, however, not against the war overall. Though there were mass public protests in Russia in the beginning of the war, “they did not turn into a mass anti-war movement,” Seskuria explained, for a combination of reasons — the overwhelming presence of state propaganda, as well as harsh punishments for even referring to the operation as a war.

Additionally, according to Seskuria, “polls by Levada Center [an independent polling firm in Moscow] have shown that Putin’s ratings rose up to 83 percent since the beginning of the war. It is hard to measure what the real level of support is, but historically Russians have supported wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, and Putin’s ratings grew in the aftermath of these wars.”

Polls don’t necessarily tell the whole story, though. “Support for the war appears to be high among virtually all social groups, including among young men,” Rosenfeld told Vox. “But young people have been less supportive of the war than other Russians, and long before the war they were less supportive of Vladimir Putin.”

According to Rosenfeld, young Russians “have also been less willing to answer pollsters’ questions about the war. So there’s been a question already for some time about how much slack there might be in their true support — a question that matters a lot more now with mobilization.”

Putin has also been working to keep the war away from his main constituency, ethnic Russians, with poorer and ethnic minorities bearing the brunt of the costs of fighting. That’s made the war distant for most Russians, shoring up support for the conflict overall. But although some of those minority regions have “distinctive military cultures,” Rosenfeld explained, “there is also rising discontent at the war’s disproportionate burdens that have exploded in angry scenes at military recruitment centers.

Russians who choose to leave rather than fight are limited in terms of escape routes; Finland, for example, is the only European Union country bordering Russia still accepting Russians on tourist visas. Land routes from Russia into Finland, as well as Georgia and Mongolia, have been clogged since Wednesday by those attempting to flee, the Guardian’s Pjotr Sauer reported on Thursday.

People shared tips about how to leave or avoid being called up on the messaging platform Telegram, with some groups like Rospartizan advocating for armed resistance against the mobilization effort. Indeed, as Meduza reported, there have been some incidents of arson at local military commissariats and government offices.

Resisting the mobilization orders carries with it harsh penalties; according to legislation Putin approved this week, people who leave the country to avoid service or stay and refuse risk up to 10 years in prison for their actions. “Before [the new law] was passed new stamps appeared in passports for ‘refusniks,’ soldiers who refuse to take part in the special operation,” Rosenfeld said. “The stamp equates refusing with desertion. They say things like ‘Deserter!’ ‘Prone to betrayal!’ The stamp goes right into a military ID,” she said. “So there’s an effort to create tremendous stigma.”

An influx of troops won’t change the fact that Russia’s military is a mess

Even if Putin is able to effectively carry out the mobilization, it’s unlikely that thousands of badly trained troops without a coherent command structure headed to the front lines will make a decisive difference for Russia.

Those that do fight, willingly or not, will receive about two weeks of training before deploying. Many reservists will have combat experience, and some may even have specialized experience, like driving tanks, but that doesn’t mean that they’re skilled soldiers who can operate the latest weapons technology. Reservists in the US, for example, are organized, with a regular training cycle and the ability to mobilize quickly when needed; that’s not the case in Russia.

“It remains uncertain how these reservists will be trained or who will train them and how they will be equipped,” Seskuria said, and even if they have previously served as conscripts in the armed forces, “they are largely unprepared, lack battlefield experience, and would require high-level training that Russia is unlikely to provide.”

Additionally, a vast influx of Russian troops won’t fix the glaring problems in the military’s command structure — deficiencies which contributed significantly to Russia’s humiliating, messy retreat from areas in Kharkiv oblast earlier in September, where rather than removing or destroying their equipment and using artillery to hold off the Ukrainians until they could execute an orderly retreat, many Russian troops simply left their positions, weapons in place

“We’ve seen such high levels of Russian officer casualties, and the officers coming are even less experienced,” Mason Clark, the Russia lead at the Institute for the Study of War told Vox in a mid-September interview. As a result, the junior-level officers going to the frontline now won’t necessarily have the training or experience to effectively lead their units — which are likely to be poorly trained themselves.

Not only is Ukraine taking out commanders on the battlefield, Putin has also taken to firing them or shifting command responsibilities as Russia’s military continuously fails to meet his goals in Ukraine. “We’ve gotten vague reports of officers being moved in and out,” Clark said. “That certainly is not helping create an effective and stable command structure.” On Saturday, for example, Putin “released” Gen. Dmitry Bulgakov, who was managing the Russian military’s logistical operations in Ukraine, in favor of Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, the architect of the Mariupol siege, according to the BBC.

Putin is also reportedly becoming increasingly involved in strategy, refusing to let troops withdraw from Kherson, though doing so would save Russian lives and preserve equipment. According to the New York Times, Putin has told commanders that he is in charge of making battlefield decisions, creating tensions within the highest ranks.

According to Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies for the Center for Naval Analyses, Russia’s decision to move up reservists with so little training “suggests Russian [military] desperation to stabilize their lines by throwing people at the front.”

Despite that apparent desperation, however, the war is is likely to drag on as Russia mobilizes more troops, becoming more costly not only for Ukraine and Russia, but for the countries supporting Ukraine with weapons, humanitarian aid, and sanctions against Russia, which will continue to drive up fuel costs.

And as those troops come to the front, Russia could pursue a familiar, brutal tactic. One way Russia found success on battlefields in Syria and Chechnya was through pure destruction; the siege in Mariupol followed along similar lines. As Rita Konaev, the deputy director of analysis at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, pointed out in a tweet Wednesday, “Russian military power is not about effectiveness. It’s about destruction.”

“The very simple truth is that just because something is going terribly wrong doesn’t mean it has to change or end soon,” Konaev wrote. “Even losing can take years.”