After months of telling Russia's citizens that everything was going according to plan in his special military operation in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin on September 21, 2022, declared partial mobilization:
Russian reservists prepare to board trains following the partial mobilization (Source: Altapress.ru)
Today, our armed forces, as I have mentioned, are fighting on the line of contact that is over 1,000 kilometers long, fighting not only against neo-Nazi units but actually the entire military machine of the collective West.
"In this situation, I consider it necessary to take the following decision, which is fully adequate to the threats we are facing. More precisely, I find it necessary to support the proposal of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff on partial mobilization in the Russian Federation to defend our Motherland and its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to ensure the safety of our people and people in the liberated territories.
"As I have said, we are talking about partial mobilization. In other words, only military reservists, primarily those who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialties and corresponding experience, will be called up."
Reactions in Russia to Putin's announcement differed, but there was agreement that Putin had reached this decision under duress, and the call up was a belated acknowledgement that the operation was undertaken with insufficient manpower, and an underestimation of the West's willingness to supply modern weaponry to Ukraine that would play a telling role.
The pro-Putin Vzglyad in an article predicting the successful transformation of the special military operation wrote:
"But it’s indeed extremely important to saturate the frontline with personnel. According to rough estimates, number-wise the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and its allies lag behind the accepted military science standards (in particular, the number of soldiers per kilometer of front) by a factor of four.
"Meanwhile, in a number of areas this indicator is even worse, since in the areas where troops are engaged in offensive actions, the [requisite] concentration of troops and resources is greater...
"The enemy, on the other hand, has long since turned to total war principles and doesn’t count losses and the number of mobilized men. The Ukrainian side has an almost limitless (for this theater) mobilization resource, because they have no restrictions on conscription. Mobilization in Ukraine has a total character, the elderly, seriously ill and even disabled people are being drafted into the ZSU. Under such conditions, the enemy can form what it calls operational reserves and flood the front line with manpower in endless attempts to counterattack.
"This is one of the worst tactics of warfare that originated in the mid-20th century, but the enemy uses it, which means it must be responded to. Consequently, a larger part of the mobilized conscripts must simply fill the front line, thus eliminating the dangerous numerical advantage of the ZSU [Ukrainian Armed Forces."
Russia had paid a price for fielding a campaign with insufficient forces:
" On the other hand, exactly in the Donbass [our army] has to face the ZSU’s echeloned defense, for which the available forces are also insufficient. The standards for the number of personnel for the offensive and defensive operations didn’t came out of the blue, the cost of this knowledge was paid with human lives."
Increased manpower was also a way to counter Western weaponry:
SUPPORT OUR WORK
"But there is one additional nuance. Considering the ZSU tactics, it’s imperative to 'shut off' all of the long-range artillery systems and MLRS provided to Ukraine by the West, the same is true for all of Ukrainian tactical air defense. These arms strike civilian targets. This entire 'orchestra' must be silenced. And counter-battery warfare requires experienced artillerymen, gunners, UAV operators, and scouts."
With the supplement in manpower the fighting would be turned around:
"First of all, the Russian Armed Forces won’t be distracted any longer by provisionally 'weak,' that is, undermanned sections of the front. Furthermore, it will then be possible to forget about constantly plugging holes in the defense by redeploying forces from one sector to another, as an operational reserve would appear.
"The planning of offensive operations will become regular, and several offensives can be carried out simultaneously at different frontlines. Finally, with the help of the new reinforcements, the consequences of Western-made arms use, which has become prevalent in the ZSU’s actions over the past month, can be mitigated."
An editorial in Nezavisimaya Gazeta described the turmoil that the partial mobilization decree had created. It claimed that the decree had transformed the war from something remote to a conflict central to most citizens. Putin, as a very cautious leader, would have not taken this measure willingly, but only due to a realization that Russia had a "narrow corridor of opportunities". The editorial wrote:
"The announcement of a partial mobilization aroused a neurotic social reaction. Sociologists will have a further say. May be. So far, we can only observe a politicized reaction resembling panic in social networks and equally panicky or, conversely, practical reasoning in store waiting lines, primarily by the female half of the population. Numerous rumors that have hit the Russians find fertile ground. There are no queues at the military registration and enlistment offices, while tickets for the next flights to visa-free countries are sold out. The protest actions, promptly dispersed by the police, did not become a significant political event.
"The cautious politician Vladimir Putin almost never takes steps that threaten to shake the bedrock of his power - the confidence of the absolute majority of the population and an unattainable [approval] rating. The last time that happened was when he claimed responsibility for a highly controversial increase in the retirement age. Now the risks are considerably higher. Partial mobilization is not just an unexpected decision. It influences the attitude of a part of society towards the special military operation. The military conflict taking place somewhere in the distance, where, as it turned out from the message of Sergei Shoigu, thousands of young people are dying, penetrates ever deeper into the pores of society, becomes the lynchpin that influencing its behavior, including political.
"It is assumed that the mobilization will directly affect 300,000 men who will be torn from their family and work. Most of the mobilized men are probably primarily concerned about guarantees for their families, and the authorities promptly promised to take care of this. As the events of September 21 showed, practical issues that arise along the way - such as loan restructuring - can be resolved in real time in a matter of minutes.
"However, partial mobilization has an impact on the average person's speculative thinking. Will it be limited to the indicated figure, will millions not fall into its web, will the exit from the region of residence be restricted to persons formally within the scope of the decree, what about travel abroad, etc. Lack of reliable information breeds mistrust and rumors.
"The already difficult economic situation is likely to be exacerbated by both new sanctions pressure and the removal of a third of a million full-fledged workers from the economy.
"Vladimir Putin deliberately takes these unpopular steps, appealing to patriotism as a key feature in the Russian national character. Deprivation, loss and adversity have often accompanied patriotism in the history of our country's recent past. You get used to it easily. That's not the problem. The problem is that patriotic feelings are most frequently in demand precisely when the level and quality of life are rapidly falling. Patriotism is rarely spoken of during the years of economic expansion and rising incomes. Patriotism is manifested in the growth of the citizens' wellbeing, becoming synonymous with a good life. Patriotism as a request for a sacrifice in the quality of life is fraught with the growth of discontent, that is still latent.
"Well, Vladimir Putin makes all decisions with open eyes, consciously. There is no doubt about it. Therefore, he really understands the narrow corridor of opportunities for Russia in today's confrontation with Ukraine. Without partial mobilization, victory cannot be achieved. And without a victory, you can't keep any rating. So, the current popularity level can be sacrificed if there is a victory ahead that will wipe out many of the campaign's mistakes.
"By his decision on partial mobilization, Putin effectively informed society that the situation, although planned, is difficult and requires the full mobilization of all forces without society. Without illusions –[that means] all."
If the Nezavisimaya Gazeta editorial was non-committal about the success of partial mobilization, the celebrated blogger El-Murid (Anatoly Nesmiyan) a persistent critic of the war is convinced that the measure will fall flat.
"In our particular case, both factors converged- both stupidity and the impossibility of even theoretically admitting the possibility of defeat.
"Therefore, when it even dawned on the Kremlin that the organizational structures of the military administration do not draw out competition with Ukrainian ones, that the military technologies of the 19th century are unable of withstanding the technologies of conducting, albeit greatly simplified, but still network-centric hostilities... and [Russia's] resource potential suddenly turned out to be counterbalanced by not too large-scale, but steady deliveries of modern Western weapons (not fake Putin cartoons, but real weapons, albeit 20-30 years old) - the threat of defeat loomed even for them.
"What could be the answer? Two options. No more and no less. The use of nuclear weapons or mobilization. Both options are bad, both options without the possibility of "rollback". Which by itself is proof of a disaster, since it is in a disaster that the rule applies: there are no good solutions. If they exist at all, they are always bad, the choice can only be made between very bad and slightly less bad. In practice, this means that the adopted solution does not remove the problem, it can retard it or aggravate it."
Nuclear weapons were ruled out since it implied loss of control by the top military echelons, and because Russia feared the Western response to Russia's employing such weapons. The remaining option was mobilization.
However, "if someone in the Kremlin has the illusion that it’s all about mobilizing 300 thousand and that’s it, then very soon this 'someone' will realize how badly he was mistaken."
The decision was improvised in the face of the deteriorating military situation:
"On September 13, [Leonid] Slutsky and [Dmitry] Peskov angrily reject the very idea [of mobilization], and already on September 21, they are avidly hawking it. A week later, a picture crystallized in the helmsman's [Putin's] head, that was a millimeter closer to reality than it was before. And so, he ordered: go mobilize. It doesn't matter what was said a week ago.
"And there really is nowhere to go. If you leave everything as it is, then in a month or two the Armed Forces of Ukraine will return to Mariupol."
It is not enough to mobilize 300 thousand bodies, warns Nesmiyan. These bodies have to be fed equipped and officered, and given the devastating losses in equipment and officers, this cannot be accomplished. Russia is already using vintage 1937 weaponry.