Vladimir Putin’s September 21 order to mobilize additional manpower for Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine is already being executed. How quickly the new troops can be trained and deployed, in what quantities, and to what effect, remain questions that only time can answer.
But at the moment, the clearest consensus to be found among observers in Russia, Ukraine, and the West is this: these are the steps of a country that is losing a war.
Only two weeks ago, General Ben Hodges (ret.), former commanding general of the United States Army Europe, predicted that Ukrainian forces would take back Russian-occupied Crimea “within a year.” Yesterday’s announcement from the Kremlin only served to reinforce that expectation.
“The partial mobilization announcement lacks a coherent explanation and reveals that President Putin knows the situation in Ukraine is deteriorating,” Hodges told Newsweek. “The Kremlin is desperate. Because of this announcement, I am even more confident in Ukrainian success.”
Russian military expert Vladislav Shurygin, a supporter of his country’s political leadership, nevertheless agreed with the retired American general that the Russian army in its current form was not capable of prevailing in the war.
“If we had tried to persevere with our current level of forces, the war would have dragged on endlessly,” he said Newsweek. “The Ukrainian army has improved to the point that Russia requires greater numbers than it can currently deploy.”
Shurygin was careful to note that Putin’s order does not have the potential to affect the balance of forces immediately.
“Over the next four months at least, the situation on the ground will not change,” he said. “These new call-ups will need to be armed, clothed, trained, and integrated into units before they can be sent to the front.”
For Ukraine, the reality that Russia does not have additional troops ready to deploy immediately offers a window of opportunity.
“Now is the moment to provide Ukraine with all the weaponry that it needs in order to finish the war before winter, when Russia’s newly mobilized troops will start arriving at the frontline,” Oleksiy Honcharenko, a member of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, told Newsweek.
“Mobilization is a desperate gesture from Putin,” he added. “It can prolong the war, but it cannot change the final result. And if Ukraine is provided with adequate assistance immediately, we can make sure that it doesn’t even prolong the war.”
The Kremlin had long resisted taking the political risk of declaring even a “partial” mobilization. So long as Russia’s campaign to eliminate Ukrainian statehood remained a televised abstraction for most Russians, the prospects of mass resistance from Russian society remained all but negligible.
For seven months, as Russia sent a mix of contract soldiers, semi-private mercenaries, Chechen militiamen and forcibly conscripted Donbas residents to do the looting and dying, Russian society remained largely untouched by the war.
That situation may finally be changing. In the hours after the “partial mobilization” was announced, “how to break one’s arm” started trending on search engines in Russia. Telegram channels showed videos of protesters chanting “Putin to the trenches, Putin to the trenches.”
Russian cars formed long lines at the country’s borders with Mongolia, Georgia, and Finland as military aged men sought refuge abroad. In Dagestan, a group of older-looking military-aged men publicly argued with an employee of a military recruiting office.
Still, despite acts of resistance from some potential call-ups, plenty of Russian men were already on their way back into uniform. Telegram channels also featured videos of Chechen men calmly gathering at their local recruiting office. Busloads of reservists in Blagoveshchensk could be seen shipping off with their duffel bags packed.
Scenes of tearful farewells in the Sakha Republic of the country’s impoverished Far East, which has borne a disproportionate share of Russia’s casualties in the war thus far, also spread on social media. TV Rain spoke with an activist in Ulan-Ude who said that several local men who lacked military experience were being ordered to report for duty anyway.
Lev Shlosberg, a political activist from the liberal Yabloko Party, told Newsweek that the effects of Putin’s announcement were already being felt in his native city of Pskov.
“People are very scared,” Shlosberg said. “Military recruiters are going to the workplaces of potential call-ups, and the managers of these firms are obliged to participate by handing over their employees.”
“The fact that Defense Minister Shoigu disclosed 25 million as the quantity of available reservists demonstrates the scale of their search,” he added. “They’re looking for people with specialized military skills, preferably with combat experience, and they’re looking for them among a wide pool of people.”
But Shlosberg said it remains to be seen if the army is capable of handling such an onslaught of recruits.
“This shows the scale of their ambitions,” he said. “But no one outside of the army can know how many new soldiers the military is actually capable of training, arming and outfitting.”
Shlosberg, who opposes Russia’s “special military operation,” was not surprised at the command to mobilize. After the success of Ukraine’s recent counterattack in the Kharkiv region, not even the Kremlin could still maintain that its campaign was going according to plan.
“The events around Kharkiv made it clear that the army in its current form could not hold the front,” he said. “On the 24th of February we were told that the fighting would be finished within a few days. The political leadership of the country clearly did not have an accurate picture of the situation then, and we cannot even imagine what picture of events exists inside Putin’s head now.”
“Still, the very fact that they are talking about calling up 300,000 reservists is confirmation that they understand the army was not coping with the situation,” Shlosberg added.