Putin’s mobilisation and the potential for a political fallout

Attempts to boost forces in Ukraine appear chaotic and have unleashed rare shows of criticism.

Cars drive near a board with an image of Russian service member Yury Brovko with a slogan reading "Glory to the Heroes of Russia" in Moscow, Russia October 4, 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
A board with an image of a Russian service member with a slogan reading 'Glory to the Heroes of Russia' in Moscow [Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters]

On September 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the first large-scale military mobilisation since World War II.

In a televised speech, he said that the draft was needed to protect the country and its territorial integrity.

The announcement triggered demonstrations and attacks on draft centres across the country and led to the arrest of – according to the prominent protest monitor OVD-Info – some 2,400 people.

The mobilisation roll-out has appeared chaotic.

There have been reports that people who did not meet the conditions for mobilisation, including fathers of four or more children, disabled men or those older than the draft age limit, received notices from the army, which heightened public anger and prompted a rare scattering of criticism from government officials.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians have looked for a way out, fleeing to border crossings with neighbouring countries to leave and dodge the draft.

In the first four days after the announcement, some 260,000 men reportedly travelled abroad. In a survey conducted by the independent pollster Levada Center, close to half of the respondents said they felt fear after the announcement of the mobilisation, and 13 percent – anger.

Thousands who were mobilised have reportedly been deemed unfit for duty and returned home.

While protests have subsided following a heavy-handed crackdown by the authorities, the political fallout of the mobilisation and continuing setbacks in the war in Ukraine could be significant, analysts say.

Putin’s popularity is likely to take a hit and his hold on power may weaken, as tensions between various factions in the political elite grow.

Mobilisation ‘slightly too late’

The Russian army launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, when Putin was facing a dip in approval ratings, after the so-called “Crimea effect” wore off. This term refers to the significant spike in his popularity after Russia occupied and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

The relatively quick and bloodless takeover of foreign territory eight years ago pushed his approval rating from about 60 percent to near 90 percent. The February invasion had a similar effect, bringing ratings from about 65 percent to 80 percent.

But the failure to secure a quick victory, recent setbacks on the front and now the unpopular mobilisation could fuel discontent with the Russian government and Putin himself.

In September, polls showed a drop in his popularity to 77 percent.

What’s more, the mobilisation, launched in response to a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, may not bring a dramatic battlefield reversal that could rally the public around the Russian president.

“I don’t think [the Russian mobilisation] will change the course of this war because it is slightly too late, also probably too little,” Konrad Muzyka, a defence analyst and director of Rochan Consulting, told Al Jazeera.

According to Muzyka, the Russian army will face various challenges in deploying newly drafted soldiers, not only because of their limited experience, but also because the army has not been able to resolve logistical issues, including the provision of proper equipment, arms and even food.

There were reports of low morale among the Russian troops, even before the draft. Rushing drafted soldiers to the battlefield without sufficient training or equipment is likely to exacerbate discontent within the rank and file of the army.

The mobilisation will also not be able to compensate for other significant problems, such as the depletion of heavy weaponry and munition. Reported imports from Iran and North Korea are unlikely to help with it either, Muzyka said.

‘Broken promise’

After the mobilisation order, the prospect of more military defeats and the loss of civilian Russians’ lives in the war has fed public anxiety.

In the Levada Center poll, some 88 percent of respondents said they were worried about the war in Ukraine, up from 74 percent in August.

The Russian government has tried to dress the draft in the same language it used to justify the full-scale invasion in February, referring to fighting Nazism and an existential confrontation with the West, but this time, it has not helped rally public support or assuage fears.

“When Putin draws comparisons to World War II [mobilisation], he is kidding himself. I don’t think this message sells very well in Russia,” Sergey Radchenko, a Wilson E Schmidt Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University, told Al Jazeera.

The foundation of Putin’s legitimacy also seems to be shaken.

The mobilisation has brought the war closer to home for many Russians, who have looked up to the president as a leader who has guaranteed stability, provided socioeconomic comfort and re-established the country’s status as a great power.

According to Anton Barbashin, a political analyst and editorial director of Riddle Russia, involving the Russian population at such a scale reflects a “broken promise of Putin’s foreign policy” – that his foreign military adventures would not enter Russian homes.

But in Barbashin’s view, the growing worries among Russians are unlikely to trigger mass unrest. The loss of legitimacy would lead to an uptick in state violence in order to increase fear and control over the population, he said.

Tensions within the political elite

While political repression may intensify in the near future, this loss of legitimacy could weaken Putin’s grip on power and his ability to balance various vested interests and conflicting groups within the political elite.

In recent days, the frustration within the Russian political elite has come to the fore, as public criticism of draft troubles and war failures has intensified.

Public figures close to Putin, including Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, have openly attacked the defence ministry. Retired Lieutenant General Andrei Gurulyev has also accused the army’s leadership of “lying” and submitting false reports that the situation at the front is good.

In late September, a deputy defence minister responsible for logistics was fired, joining a handful of others who have been removed in recent months due to perceived failures.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s absence from public events until recently fuelled speculations about his differences with Putin.

There have also been reports in Western media of growing discontent within the top brass of the Russian army with the president’s decision-making.

According to Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, professor of Russian politics at King’s College London, the war could exacerbate systemic weaknesses and tensions.

“There is no one-to-one correspondence between a victory in Ukraine and regime survival. [But] the likelihood of survival is indeed lower if Russia loses,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Challenges could arise from different sources, but are most likely to be associated with more radical groups and leaders who wield force (have armies to support them) [such as] Kadyrov [and] Prigozhin.”

Unlike all other regional leaders in Russia, Kadyrov commands a force loyal to him that is separate from the Russian army. He has enjoyed Putin’s public approval for his role in the war.

Prigozhin, who is known as “Putin’s cook”, is the founder of the Wagner mercenary group and has personally been involved in the war recruitment effort.

The presence of Kadyrov’s forces in Ukraine has sparked tensions with the regular army.

Most recently, some of its members were accused of raping two soldiers mobilised from the local population in occupied Donetsk region to fight alongside the Russian army.

According to Radchenko, while a palace coup against Putin is unlikely because he has surrounded himself with loyalists, it is not impossible.

“Given our historical understanding of how these things happen, we can be sure that there are lots of people behind the scenes who are unhappy with Putin’s rule,” he said. “If they decide to move against him, then the involvement of the army would be crucial.”

Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter @mkpetkova

Source: Al Jazeera