Vladimir Putin’s reality denial has ended. It was already evident to everyone else that his plan for the “operation” in Ukraine was not working, but he stuck to it with an almost religious fervor. On the battlefield, the military was forced to apply patches to the fraying fabric of the original plan, rather than develop something new, even as the Ukrainian army steadily achieved superiority both in numbers and equipment.
This month’s Ukrainian counteroffensives seemed, finally, to have an awakening effect on the Russian leader. From the Kremlin’s point of view, defeat was an escalation, and it needed a response. The cold shower Putin was treated to at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand by leaders of several supposedly sympathetic countries didn’t help either.
Putin had several options as his war went wrong — mobilization, a tactical nuclear strike, and/or massive attacks against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. Each option had a target – mobilization to help match increasing Ukrainian military capabilities; a nuclear attack to send a signal to the US and Europe, and an attack on infrastructure to cause a new refugee crisis with millions of people fleeing to Europe during the harsh winter months (this would therefore be designed to target European governments.)
The two last options were extremely risky, much like the initial Kremlin plan of attack on Ukraine, developed by Russia’s Security Council.
For months, the military has lobbied for the first option. From its point of view, the setbacks in Ukraine were not caused by bad training, weak logistics, and outdated communications, but because of bad intelligence, and a lack of soldiers. Having taken control of tactical intelligence gathering in the summer (though it didn’t help), additional manpower became the key demand.
The Russian officer corps believes the army still has well-trained units like its spetsnaz brigades, but that those troops have been misused and wasted because of the lack of regular infantry — easy to train and easy to replenish with the newly mobilized. They also think this is exactly the problem the Ukrainians had at the beginning of the war, and which they successfully overcame.
Putin was reluctant to agree to this (for the familiar reason that it brings the reality of war home to ordinary Russians) so he first tried something else, giving the green light to recruit prisoners and an attack on energy infrastructure. Neither worked sufficiently well to change the course of the war.
Mobilization might easily become a game changer, both on the battlefield in Ukraine and in Russia, but not necessarily in the way it is intended.
Since September 21, every Russian family has been put on notice that their sons, brothers, and fathers could be sent to war, and they might never come back. Nothing similar has happened to the Russians since 1945, and it has delivered a cold thrill of fear throughout the country.
Domestically, the crisis caused by mobilization has already blown open Russia’s supposedly sovereign internet censorship. The system was meant to curtail information spreading in a region or two – to prevent news about protests from spreading to the rest of the country and so break the chain of digitally delivered inspiration that can fuel revolutions.
But Putin’s mobilization decree has affected every region of the country – from Buryatia to Moscow — and censors cannot cope with the traffic of videos on Telegram and elsewhere showing crying women and depressed men of all generations being loaded into buses, to take them directly to the battlefield.
It is also a game changer in the relationship between the military and business. Those companies, small and big, which have been granted military contracts to help withstand sanctions or were simply left alone to pretend they were conducting business as usual, must now surrender their staff to the army. This creates new pressure on the political stability of the regime.
A mass mobilization is also a powerful tool of coercion for the entire population — nobody knows who might be drafted next. No one is untouched.
This helps to feed an air of uncertainty. The current crisis could turn either way — it could intimidate the population, forcing them to think only about themselves and their loved ones (while coming to hate the Ukrainians), thus effectively destroying the last vestiges of civil society. But the crisis could also poison parts of society that were traditionally loyal to the Kremlin — the majority of regions and businesses — and prompt them to turn against Putin.
Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.