Vladimir’s last throw – and why it won’t work

In memoriam Vasko Nachev

The recent declaration of “partial mobilization” in Russia means that Vladimir Putin is reacting to the spectacular military reverses he has suffered in Ukraine by intensifying the conflict and throwing more men, money and material at it. There are many good reasons to suppose that this won’t work – and that terminal failure could be apparent sooner rather than later.

How long will the war in Ukraine last? That’s the subject of an ongoing debate – following the recent counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces – concerning the range of reactions that could come from Moscow and the “partial mobilization” Russian president Vladimir Putin has already announced.

The critical variable is the extent of the new resources – both soldiers and military hardware – that Mr Putin can bring into the equation in his attempt to consolidate his earlier territorial gains. The prevailing view seems to be that, although Russia’s military standing has been tarnished, the country still holds a vast, and to a certain extent an unknown, hidden potential for fighting a protracted battle, which could last for the next four or five years.

I beg to differ. I think that that the war will end in the next six months – or a year at most. And here is the logic of this view and an analysis to support it.

In its current format – that of a limited military operation (LMO) – the war is doomed to end sooner rather than later. What Mr Putin expected to be a quick victory within a week, or a maximum of one month, has just passed the milestone of 210 days on the battlefield. To take an architectural analogy: if you had originally planned to build a cottage, you’re unlikely to end up with a castle or a skyscraper, no matter how much effort and resources you put into the project later on. Your foundation just won’t allow it. As with buildings, so with battlefields: poor planning of the LMO at the start makes “upgrading” the operation later on very difficult – or at least far less productive in terms of costs and benefits.

The mobilisation mantra

The current buzzword in Moscow is “mobilisation”. This has rapidly acquired the status of a silver bullet – a simple remedy that will cure everything. But “mobilisation” is easier said than done.

While the Ukrainian armed forces conduct regular rotations, a shortage of manpower means that Russia’s troops must more or less stay put in the field, without rotation, until they are killed, wounded, or captured. The “partial mobilisation” that has been declared might be seen as an attempt to resolve, or at least alleviate, this problem.

However, Russia will not be able to sustain a prolonged war campaign without a continuous and uninterrupted flow of combat-ready troops, unless and until it raises the stakes and scales up its military effort beyond socially acceptable and economically feasible levels.

Consider a simple fact: Russia’s is perceived as the world’s “second most powerful” army; and yet it has been reduced to importing ammunition! That alone shows beyond doubt that the Russian military-industrial complex (MIC) has been seriously degraded, and is incapable of meeting the army’s wartime supply requirements without shifting the whole economy onto a war footing. This isn’t just Western propaganda or wishful thinking. Mr Putin actually alluded to this state of affairs during his recent meetings with the armed forces’ top brass and MIC managers.

Which is where we came in: can Russia’s president succeed in putting Russia on a war footing and achieving “mobilisation”?

Vlad’s army

In an important sense, Mr Putin has so far been trying to wage an “inconspicuous” war.

Now, some role in the fighting is being played by conscripts (i.e. young men doing the usual 12 months of compulsory military service). And the role of “private military companies” (PMCs) – notably Yevgenii Prigozhin’s “Wagner Group” – is not to be discounted either. Effectively consisting of Russian mercenaries hired by the Russian state, these have some advantages. PMC employees are experienced (if ageing) ex-soldiers, often with a background in the special forces and a useful track record of combat and atrocity in Russia’s interventions in Syria and Africa. They are also “off the books” for the purposes of publicity and casualty statistics. Admittedly, it is not clear what will be the effects of Mr Prigozhin’s recent attempts to recruit among the inmates of Russia’s prisons. But the point stands: PMCs have been important.

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However, even more important is the fact that Mr Putin has been relying heavily on ‘kontraktniki‘ – contract soldiers. These are typically men with military experience hired “on the books”, on relatively short-term contracts, on a voluntary basis and on financial terms that are reasonably good (at least relative to the pittance that conscripts receive). A good many of the kontraktniki come from the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. But the main recruiting grounds have been Russia’s Far East; the Siberian republics* of Altai, Tuva, and Buryatia; Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya; and other republics in Russia’s North Caucasus, like Dagestan. Many kontraktniki are members of non-Russian ethnic groups.

Hiring of soldiers from Moscow and St. Petersburg has been kept as low as possible, with a view to minimising the anger of metropolitan publics about high numbers of dead and wounded. Put bluntly, those dying are mostly other people’s sons and aren’t even Russians. To some extent it has worked. But it may not work for much longer.

For Mr Putin isn’t being straight with the Russian people. Despite calls from politicians of various parties -including the ruling party United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya/ER) – and from many propagandists, he didn’t dare tell Russians that the idea of a “partial” mobilisation was bogus. The target of 300,000 has been in the headlines. But under the decree authorising it, there are in fact no limits to the number of reservists that could be called upon to serve. Since there are, in theory and potentially, around 20 million eligible reservists, that’s quite a number. Obviously, there aren’t the officers or the arms to allow the call-up of anywhere near that many. But it does mean that, any time Mr Putin decides he needs more cannon fodder, he can the mass mobilization targets.

Crossing thresholds

Now, here we come to an important topic: the threshold of pain and sacrifice that is acceptable to, or at any rate endurable by, Russians in the name of their country’s imperial glory. That threshold is certainly high. No EU nation lulled by decades of peace could accept the casualty rates that Russians have (so far) endured.

But there are three caveats.

  • One is that Russians are fighting, not EU members, but Ukrainians.
  • Another is that Ukrainians, who are defending their homeland – in some cases a homeland they weren’t entirely sure they had until the myopic Mr Putin turned his artillery on them – can match the “sacrifice trump card” that Vladimir the Misguided is playing.
  • And the third is that Ukraine has access to modern Western weapons that can hit Mr Putin hard – and hit him where it hurts.

The combination of these three factors means that the Ukrainians can thwart whatever Mr Putin comes up with in a conventional war, regardless of mobilization numbers.

That, of course, raises the question of whether the desperate Russian leader might go nuclear, an option mentioned with increasing frequency of late by him and by the more unhinged types of Russian pundits, parliamentarians, and Putin henchmen. That’s a different subject – or at least a different article – but for now I would simply observe the following:

  • First, that the purely military purposes that would be served by using battlefield nukes in Ukraine are debatable;
  • Second, that the likelihood of “reaping the whirlwind” in the aftermath must weigh heavily on Mr Putin if he is still thinking straight, and – if he isn’t –on the colleagues and military men who would need to cooperate in putting such a decision into effect, And, incidentally, who might well think that willingness to cross this particular threshold was a sign that Mr Putin had become an unacceptably dangerous liability;
  • And, third, that a nuclear threat exposes Mr Putin’s weakness rather than his power. Hence his insistence that he is not bluffing, which he would not need if the threat was credible.

Deal-breaker

Despite all the propaganda hype, the military campaign in Ukraine will never get the status of a new Great Patriotic War, a struggle for the Motherland’s survival. Most Russians simply can’t identify “the Motherland” with annexed Ukrainian territories. Up to this point, Mr Putin’s deal with his compatriots has been straightforward: he would conduct a limited military operation, but Russians wouldn’t bear the brunt of the war. Partial mobilization and the addition of 300,000 reservists to Mr Putin’s battle force in Ukraine would alter that deal – if it happens. But so far it’s an intention, not a fact. Success in making it a fact would be fraught with risks: an expanded army and stepped up operations would mean even more dead and wounded. But even the process of trying to make it a fact would also be risky and bumpy.

Enforcing the call-up – even if it’s “only” of 300,000 reservists – is likely to spell social turmoil. It will probably involve large-scale refusals to serve and mass desertions. The prospect of it already seems to have triggered exodus on a significant scale among those able to leave the country. Dealing with all that will involve taking propaganda to new heights and even more brutal repression. That’s apparently fine with Russia’s parliament, the Federal Assembly, which has recently voted through changes in the Penal Code increasing jail terms for avoiding conscription and military service. But these will not fix the problem. The basic difficulty is that Mr Putin lied about the LMO, and Russians have lost faith in him.

The morale and fighting spirit of the Russian army, which has been sent into a foreign country on a mission whose objectives are quite unclear, will hardly be boosted by patriotic chants and mobilisation soundbites. Not only is the news from the frontline unambiguously bad. Much of the army is actually living that news from day to day.

Moreover, public opinion won’t exactly be encouraged by a certain lack of transparency about the small print of mobilization, which will not go unnoticed in anything but the very short term. Not only has Mr Putin been quiet about the potential extent of mobilization. He has also deliberately withheld information on the criteria for selecting reservists– whether in terms of category, age or geography.

Reality check

Something striking is happening on the propaganda front too. Mr Putin’s propaganda machine has run out of steam and seems unable to secure the blind support that the faltering president needs. Even the controlled central TV channels seem lost, forced to allow limited debate on how the LMO is failing, accommodating the idea that Russia may not win in Ukraine. A fresh surge of propaganda adrenaline will be of little use unless it is supported by “good” news from the frontline. And, even supposing mobilization proceeds smoothly, such supportive news seems highly unlikely at the moment or any time soon, as it will take weeks, if not months, for any new force of mobilised reservists to arrive and have an impact the battlefield.

Lacking convenient facts, Mr Putin and his hybrid war machine will have to resort to inventing a victorious virtual reality. The Kremlin’s challenge is to sell a renewed war effort amidst gloom and doom, with the number of dead now above 50,000 and over 120,000 ‘medical’ casualties – including the wounded and MIAs, which has necessitated the mobilization. When Mr Putin promised a quick victory seven months ago, he shot himself in the foot, as today it is impossible to change the narrative and convince ordinary Russians that it is time for a Great Patriotic War against NATO and the ‘devilishly cunning West’. Russia’s controlled media and docile social survey agencies don’t find it hard to talk of, and perhaps even believe in, surreally high levels of support for Mr Putin – 80% is the figure mentioned nowadays. But such assertions are generally contrived or downright fantasy. And in the rare instances when they accurate, the support in question is passive in character, not involving respondents’ willingness to sacrifice their lives for the man in the Kremlin.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Another mounting problem for the Kremlin, bound to intensify with time, is the lack of a solid economic backstop. The Russian economy is in an irreversible decline, succumbing to escalating sanctions. Export revenues are bound to dive this autumn with the ban on imports into the EU of Russian crude oil, starting November 5th and, later, of Russian refined products, February 5th onwards. Moreover, all modern weapon systems rely on imported components without indigenous analogues, which precludes a surge in production and, thus, in supplies to the front lines.

Thus, Russian weapon losses in Ukraine become irrecoverable, adding to the damage inflicted on the military by mass corruption. Indicative of the dire state of the Russian MIC is the fact that ammunition for Soviet-era weaponry is being imported from North Korea, while military drones are coming from that other high-tech power-house, Iran. Traditional and routine production lines are collapsing, showing the depth and scale of the erosion of the economic foundations of Russia’s military machine. Mass mobilisation, disguised as “partial”, would only expose the mismatch between the army’s objectives and the resources at the army’s disposal, expediting the demise of fresh, untrained, poorly armed, and ill-clothed reservists in the middle of a harsh winter.

The new pariah

Meanwhile, Russia’s international standing is plumbing record depths. Take the recent vote at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on allowing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to address the Assembly by video rather than in person. The pro-Russian position (not to allow this) received only seven votes, including Russia’s own, with 19 abstentions. That was almost twice less than the number of votes received by the pro-Russian position on a UNGA resolution on Ukraine debated immediately after the war began – when 11 countries aligned with Moscow, with 54 abstentions. The trend seems clear-cut and irreversible.

Russia has no ally among the world’s great powers, none it can count on if it decides to escalate the war – let alone if it opts to use nuclear weapons or attack a nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The leaders of China and India have told Mr Putin (during the mid-September Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit held in Samarkand) that their military and political support for Moscow’s annexation games in Ukraine is off the table. Both countries see the Kremlin’s military adventure as unjustifiable from the standpoint of costs and-benefits to themselves: they think it will cause increasing damage to their most important markets, the US and the EU, with no offsetting gains.

Sanctions against Russia inevitably present China and India with a choice –whether to support Mr Putin’s endgame in Ukraine or to play safe and thus avoid the risk of the economic losses that would result from Western sanctions”. Mr Putin’s current “rebalancing” of war objectives suits China and India well only in the limited sense that they are now receiving energy resources from Russia at heavily discounted rates, which adds to the competitiveness of their exports. But neither of them is likely to side with the Russian dictator much less if said dictator decides to up the stakes and provoke a global war.

Asymmetrical warfare

The West, meanwhile, has expressed determination to intensify support for Ukraine in response to Mr Putin’s mobilisation. In fact, there’s some asymmetry here that works against Russia. Beefing up the combat potential of the Ukrainian army is a fairly predictable process and a measurable objective achievable within a short period of time. Translating Mr Putin’s partial mobilization decree into enhanced fighting capacity for the Russian military is a different story. The message from Brussels and Washington is unequivocal: we will raise the supply of arms and financial assistance to Ukraine, and keep it at that level for as long as it takes. Financial as well as military aid is vital, by the way: Ukraine would be bankrupt if it were not for monthly financial injections from the West in excess of $ 5 billion.

Moscow has nothing up its sleeve to counter such a limitless and intense game, especially since sanctions are already creating budget difficulties, as officials struggle to find a balance between funding critical social programs and financing Mr Putin’s military adventures. As to the Russian president’s hope that energy prices and inflation will cause upheavals and political turmoil in the West, bringing governments to their knees, that is pure wishful thinking.

We can plausibly guess when Russia’s most critical moment will come sooner rather than later. It will be at the end of winter, when the Russian oil and fuels ban will come into full force and crude oil exports will fall by at least three million barrels per day. The other energy anchor of the Russian budget – natural gas – has also passed its peak price level, for that level was excessive and so high in the end they destroyed their own market. Mr Putin cannot divert gas flows from Europe to Asia, nor is he able to downsize natural gas production to halt exports. Or rather, he could downsize, but – for simple technological reasons – the consequences for Russia’s gas sector might be devastating, long-term and irreparable.

Looking forward

In conclusion, Vladimir Putin’s power is waning, and he will not be able to survive the more intense phases of the war in Ukraine. Mobilisation might offer a short reprieve, might even allow a temporary freeze or deadlock in hostilities. But neither bogus separatist referendums nor nuclear blackmail will stop Ukrainians from regaining their territories. So the only real issue is how long Vladimir Putin will succeed in retaining control over Russia. The next six months will provide an answer, as the situation can’t remain ‘pregnant’ for too long. And the outcome will not be cheery for Russia’s president: there will be a change of guard in the Kremlin.

Whether failure in Ukraine will be tantamount to Putin’s ouster from power is a separate question. After all, in 22 years, he has created a multi-layered system for safeguarding his authoritarian rule. Hundreds of thousands of secret-service, army and police-force personnel are available to crush any protest. But the trouble for Mr Putin is that the war in Ukraine has exhausted his ability to buy their loyalty.

Russian history and, more recently, the end of the Soviet state – which had seemed unshakeable and eternal but collapsed in a matter of months – is our best guide. After all, totalitarian rule is never as robust as it looks.

The real challenge for the West and the world is what will happen with Russia after Mr Putin leaves the political scene (whether feet first or otherwise). The war’s ultimate outcome undoubtedly needs to be a weakened Russia incapable of threatening its neighbors. Yet undermining its repressive machine could deprive the country of the glue that holds it together, inviting uncontrolled disintegration. Violence within begets violence abroad. And here lies the most significant strategic challenge for the West and the Russian political elite. If Russians seek to preserve the integrity of their country, they will have to get rid of Mr Putin before disintegration becomes a self-propelled and irreversible process.

Ilian Vassilev

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