EconomyEditor's PickFrustrated and snubbed, Putin is running out of options

September 20, 2022

IT’S BEEN a bad few weeks for Vladimir Putin.

First, a significant strategic defeat in Ukraine, after a stunning counteroffensive that dealt a blow to the Kremlin’s ambitions in the east. Then, what was supposed to be a gathering of likeminded leaders in Uzbekistan mostly served to remind him of his weakened status, as the Russian president was given short shrift by China and then chided by India. Meanwhile, in a neighborhood where Moscow is supposedly security guarantor, there has been fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and clashes continue on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Putin is under pressure at home, too, with criticism from surprising corners. On Sunday, Alla Pugacheva, a much-loved pop singer who has been a household name for Russians for decades, posted a message criticizing “illusory aims” in Ukraine that have made Russia “a pariah” that weighs “heavily on the lives of its citizens.” On the other side, nationalists are furious at inept military leadership, forcing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to warn that criticism would be fine — until it wasn’t: “The line is extremely thin. One should be very careful here.”

Yet it’s hard to avoid the reality of an unravelling campaign, and calls for national mobilization to solve all these concerns are growing too loud to ignore. Putin said last week that there was “no hurry” in Ukraine — his assumption clearly remains that the Russian regime can outlast Western resolve — and there would be no changes to the plan. But he made a point of saying Russia was “not fighting with a full army.”

For many, given the expansive goals at stake, that’s the problem.

They argue Putin can’t win with his current strategy. National mobilization would add resources and manpower, widening the pool of fighters. But that’s theory. In practice, calling a spade a spade is all but unthinkable for the Kremlin, which still has no clearly articulated plan for Ukraine and has spent months separating ordinary Russians from reality on the frontline. Worst of all, it may already be too late, anyway.

For now, it’s certainly an unusually sonorous public discussion. In a rare outburst, former MP Boris Nadezhdin argued during a television talk show that it would be impossible to “beat Ukraine with these resources, with this ‘colonial war’ method, with contract soldiers, mercenaries, and no general mobilization.” He added: “We either call for mobilization and go for a full-scale war, or we get out.” He suggested peace talks; other participants shouted him down.

Days later, Gennady Zyuganov, the head of Russia’s Communist Party and voice of the Kremlin-tolerated opposition, sought “maximum mobilization” and became the highest-profile figure to call the assault a war. “A war is something you can’t stop even if you want to,” he said in the Duma last week. “You have to fight to the end.”

For Zyuganov, security-forces hawks or figures like Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-regime leader of the southern region of Chechnya whose militia is fighting in Ukraine, the benefit of mobilization is to add manpower and move the economy onto a war footing, focusing squarely on military production. But it’s an option that Putin, who depends on an illusion of stability and normalcy, is reluctant to take.

Three reasons come to mind. Most obviously, it would be an admission of failure. A special military operation that, seven months in, becomes a war, is hard to portray as a success.

Second, mobilization requires undoing the passivity on which Putin has built his regime. It involves galvanizing citizens who have largely been encouraged to sit out a war that was supposed to be surgical and swift. This was an assault that — unlike, say, the disastrous Soviet decade in Afghanistan — was supposed to be fought by paid volunteers, recruited from the country’s poorest (and often ethnically non-Russian) provinces, places like Tuva or Dagestan. Ordinary folks in larger cities could support a war that demanded nothing from them.

As Yuval Weber of Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service in Washington, DC put it to me, these masses in the middle are the real risk for the Kremlin, far more than the nationalist right. They are the ones on whom the regime has long relied, men and women who have been lulled into apathy but would now need to be whipped into a frenzy. More involved (and sending their own kin to war), they may well start asking awkward questions about Putin’s effectiveness.

Then there’s the third problem — mass mobilization will be a huge challenge. The logistics are complex. The economy will not easily stomach the cost of losing workers, resistance to the draft is escalating and will only keep increasing as soldiers return from the front. Not to mention that men are needed now — but getting recruits through training will take months, given Russia does not have a strong, well-prepared reserve force. Nor is it clear how reservists and young conscripts, for now officially spared the frontline, can solve fundamental problems of leadership, morale, and materiel.

And yet Russia can’t remain stuck fighting an existential war it has waged with too few men, losing them and their weapons at a staggering rate — US officials last month put the figure for killed or wounded since the start of the war at up to 80,000, though numbers vary widely.

There’s still danger Russia that could escalate, or use a supposedly growing threat to push through a declaration of war. As Ben Noble of University College London points out, increasing Kremlin talk of unprecedented NATO support for Ukraine may well be creating options for a regime that sees very few. The West, officials could eventually argue, forced Moscow’s hand.

But for now the Kremlin is betting on the next best thing — encouraging regions and mercenaries to mobilize on the state’s behalf, ignoring already deep coordination problems between fighting units.

Footage emerged last week of a man bearing a striking resemblance to sanctioned businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin addressing detainees in a prison on behalf of mercenary group Wagner, promising to commute sentences for service. “If you serve six months (in Wagner), you are free,” he says. “If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it’s not for you, we will execute you.”

Even more telling, though, was Prigozhin’s response on social media after the video went viral: “It’s either private military companies and prisoners, or your children,” he wrote. “Decide for yourself.”

BLOOMBERG OPINION

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