Mobilized Chaos: Responses to Putin’s Partial Mobilization

Armed police carrying away a protester

Putin’s war against Ukraine is not going as planned. Following numerous battlefield setbacks, Russian President Vladmir Putin announced a partial mobilization during a national address. Russian news services report that more than 200,000 people have been enlisted into the Russian army since the announcement on September 21, but the fleeing population posed another unexpected problem for the Kremlin. 

Russia began its invasion of Ukraine with the hope for a quick war ending with the annexation of Ukraine. Faced with strong countering forces from the Ukrainian troops, Putin reduced his main objective to only taking control of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. And when this plan also fell through, Russia’s objectives shifted to obtaining Eastern and Southern Ukrainian territories and thereby creating a land bridge connecting to its occupied Crimea territories. Just a day before the partial mobilization, four Russian-controlled areas began organizing referendums to surrender to Russia, the results of which are yet to be determined.

Striving to reverse the course of the stagnant invasion, Putin ordered the supposedly partial mobilization to conscript 300,000 reservists into the Russian army. In reality, however, there exist widespread reports of men being drafted regardless of their eligibility, including elderly and disabled individuals. Complaints about the conditions within the army and the lack of training and equipment also emerged, which rapidly developed into protests in dozens of cities. Within a week, at least 1472 protesters have been detained. In response, Putin announced in a meeting with the Security Council of Russia that “those who have been drafted without proper grounds must be sent home.” Nonetheless, reports of conscription of the ineligible persisted. 

Within hours of the mobilization, heavy traffic flooded border crossings with neighboring countries as Russians fled the country, worrying about further traveling restrictions that the government may soon impose. Since September 21, over 200,000 Russians have entered neighboring Kazakhstan alone. Nine days later, 69,000 Russians had arrived in Georgia. The European Union also reported that at least 66,000 Russians crossed into the bloc in a single week, with most coming through Finland. From September 26 to October 3, 30,000 Russians crossed the Finnish border, and only around 18,000 left for Russia during the same period. The wave of Russian emigration reflected a general anti-war sentiment, with most refugees claiming they plan on permanently leaving Russia. 

Many countries welcomed the Russian emigrants. Mongolia, for instance, temporarily eased residency requirements for Russians, and promptly hosted 12,000 emigrants by October 2. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister also directly appealed to the mobilized soldiers, saying that “If you were mobilized and you ended up on the territory of Ukraine, you can simply surrender.” 

In response, the Russian parliament approved a bill that will toughen punishments for various crimes committed during mobilization periods, among which are desertion and surrender. 

Western experts reached the consensus that Russia’s escalation of the war reflected its failing military campaign. According to them, Russia’s lack of readiness for a long war compounded by continuous battlefield setbacks and superior Ukrainian military recruitment have already set the stage for a failing war, and Putin’s desperation for military participants provides strong evidence for this theory. Additionally, Kyiv’s Western allies have also regarded the referendums in the four regions as a sham to deter Ukraine’s counteroffensive. As a Pentagon spokesman stated, “like Russia’s planned sham referenda to annex territory in Ukraine, the announcement and associated threats are another sign that Russia is struggling to salvage its illegal occupation of Ukraine.” In addition, U.S. officials point out the deported Russian fighters included thousands of young men from major cities, which could severely undermine Putin’s domestic support.

However, according to the Kremlin, Russia’s “special military operation” is going according to plan as its newly mobilized troops enter Ukraine, providing another layer of reinforcements for Russia. Meanwhile, though the referendums were largely dismissed by Western officials, they could also create a pathway for Russia to fully annex the four regions. If this succeeds, the Kremlin would be able to frame Ukrainian counterattacks as blows to Russia itself. Under this pretext, Putin can easily escalate its assault on Ukraine, by “us[ing] all the means at our disposal” to protect Russia’s “territorial integrity.” 

All things considered, while the war currently leans towards Ukraine and its allies, it is evident that Putin is unwilling to give up just yet. Many speculated that a full mobilization was on the way, which increased the outpour of Russians into neighboring countries. With the threat of nuclear involvement, which can easily escalate the war into a global scale, tensions remain at an all-time high.

By Arielsie Li

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