Putin’s partial mobilization should prevent loss of face, experts say. But in the meantime he is losing his support among the population and on the international stage. “This is coming back like a boomerang in his face.”
Like the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian president’s speech did not go according to plan. The speech he was originally supposed to give Tuesday night was postponed to Wednesday morning. The expected general mobilization he was to proclaim became only a partial mobilization.
“The priority is on people who have already served in the military and who have military specializations and experience,” Putin explained his decision to the Russian people. In concrete terms, this partial mobilization means that 300,000 Russian men will be called up for service.
“It’s about men who have completed their military service in recent years,” said former Colonel Roger Housen. “Those batches are now being called up again. Since they have already received training, they only need a refresher course. But we are soon talking about a month and a half before they will appear at the front.”
The new recruits are certainly welcome there. The Russian army has suffered heavy casualties in recent months. According to Housen, 200,000 Russian soldiers are directly involved in the war. But the heavy Ukrainian resistance has already claimed the lives of 55,000 soldiers.
The mobilization is also Putin’s response to the successful Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region. In a matter of weeks, the Ukrainians recaptured thousands of square kilometers of land. Ukrainian units are now moving to the Donbas, the area that Putin wants to annex into Russia at all costs.
In view of this rapid advance, pro-Russian separatists hastily organize referendums on joining Russia. Four occupied regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson – are already heading to the polls this weekend. If the annexation is a fact, then according to that logic there will be a fight for Russian territory. Even if other countries do not recognize this annexation, for the Russians it is a turning point in the war.
Housen thinks the new recruits could turn the odds in Moscow’s favor on paper. “It will allow the Russian military to achieve its current goals,” Housen said. “They can then completely conquer the Donbas and consolidate a land corridor to the Crimea in the south.”
According to Housen, Russia is not lacking in weapons. There are still enough tanks and ammunition in the warehouses to let the new soldiers move along. Putin is already letting the arms factories produce in overdrive.
Due to the escalation, the Ukrainian government will increase pressure on the West to come up with more war material. The Ukrainians have long been begging for modern American M1A1 Abrams tanks or F-16 fighters.
But even though the mobilization is an important escalation of the conflict, Putin has remained cautious in his speech, notes Russia expert and doctoral researcher Laura Vansina (VUB). Going for a general mobilization is like saying that Russia is losing heavily. Putin cannot do that to his own people.
He only recruits men who already have military experience and he mainly takes them from the areas where he has a lot of support among the population. “Quotas have been announced per province,” says Vansina. “There will be more soldiers from the Russian countryside than from Moscow. If he was going to summon men in the cities, the people would probably murmur.”
In his own country, he must maintain a balance between hawks who think he should have mobilized a long time ago and a population that is not keen on it. “He has also emphasized that he is only calling up 1 percent of the total capacity that Russia has to mobilize,” said Vansina. “But through that mobilization, the hawks, such as former President Dimitry Medvedev, have been heard.”
Medvedev said via Telegram that Russia may use “all means of self-defense” to defend its territory. Versta: Once the occupied territories officially belong to Russia, Putin can theoretically push the button to launch nuclear weapons if it fails to stop the Ukrainian army.
But the threat of nuclear weapons, as Putin did in his speech, is making Russia’s old allies nervous. China and Turkey immediately reacted very negatively to the news about the referenda and the annexation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was clear: Putin must return the occupied territories to Ukraine.
Putin is therefore balancing on a tightrope both at home and abroad and, according to experts, is increasingly losing balance. According to Laurien Crump, international relations expert at Utrecht University, he has completely got stuck.
According to her, virtually no country will accept the annexation. If more soldiers fight at the front, more body bags will also return to Russia, which will lead to more protests among the population. “Putin has overplayed his hand,” Crump said. “This could come back in his face like a boomerang.”