Travails in Mobilization

October 14, 2022

Putin announced that he expects mobilization to be completed in two weeks, having already produced 223,000 men. No next wave is planned.

Sources claiming to know what’s going on are divided on the actual numbers. One says only 91,000 have been mobilized, the other says that 570,000 have. Neither appears credible.

The first number is too low — while I expected mobilization to run into problems, these were in terms of the quality of the mobilized rather than in their quantity. It would be very odd if the commissars failed to meet their quotas given the intrusive methods they have been allowed to use. The low number (which, we are told, Putin knows about) would make no difference to the war whatsoever, and there would be no point in stopping or even slowing down the mobilization if it were true.

The second number is too high. The problem here is that this source claims that 80,000 are already in LDNR, 20,000 in Zaporizhzhia, 20,000 in Crimea, and 15,000 in Kherson. I have seen not a single Ukrainian source reporting sightings of such masses of people being moved within range of artillery on the front lines. This is nearly the size of the original invasion force that anyone could see (and count) from space.

Whatever the real number is, one can be sure of two things: (1) Putin is really worried about the domestic tensions that have arisen after he ordered mobilization, and (2) he’s lying, perhaps about the numbers but certainly about ending the mobilization.

I have discussed the first even before mobilization had been ordered — indeed, the expectation of domestic troubles was among the main reasons for its delayed introduction. The only thing I will add now is the sudden silencing of some very prominent uber-hawks. War criminal Strelkov has not posted an update on his channels since October 10th, which is very unusual since he tends to post multiple daily updates. I am hearing from other sources that similarly hawkish voices have gone silent as well, especially those of people hurling abuse at the military, demanding that Kadyrov and Prigozhin be given command posts in the Ministry of Defense, and even blaming Putin for not fighting hard enough, with the (sometimes explicit demand) to use nuclear weapons. These people — and their friends — are also among the ones being mobilized, and they really, really dislike that. In other words, “why am I going go war if Putin could just nuke Kyiv and be done with it?” sort of thing.

This might indicate a new development in the internal configuration where the military is gaining the upper hand and wants to remove the push to restructure the High Command. It might also mean that Putin’s strategy could be even more restrained in terms of escalation, opting instead for a mostly defensive strategy to outlast Ukraine. Too early to tell, and signs too uncertain, but I am watching this with great interest.

As to the second, Putin merely wants to calm the nerves of the population. And it will work even though the mobilization will continue. What is most likely to happen is that in two weeks Putin will declare all targets met, and the central mobilization drive over. The regions and locales will still be free to process any volunteers or even mobilize additional men should they feel the need to help the army. In many places, these activities will continue but the impression will be of local initiative that does not reflect general Kremlin policy. Resistance in any one particular place would not expect to obtain support anywhere else because everyone thinks that one place is the exception and mobilization has stopped everywhere else. Hidden news about continuing efforts will trickle, but most information will be suppressed. And when someone asks Putin about it, he would just shrug and say that this is how federalism works — he’s not going to interfere with the patriotic efforts of governors. (That’s how they implemented COVID vaccinations, by the way.) This has the added benefit that recalcitrant regions (like Dagestan or Chechnya) could be allowed to have their exemptions without really seeming to violate the Kremlin policy.

In other words, declaring mobilization publicly served as a coordinating device for citizen expectations that made the unpopular policy common knowledge (everyone knew that everyone else knew and so on). Common knowledge of bad policies is a dangerous thing for any regime, but authoritarian ones which depend, to a large extent, on passive acquiescence and lack of information about widespread problems, are especially sensitive to it. That’s why Putin only did this as a last resort. But now he could try to have his cake and eat it too: the mobilization drive is in place, but it will look like it’s not attributable to him anymore.

I don’t know if it will work, but I am sure that it will continue, and I do not think that he wants to come on TV again to renege on a pledge to the public. It has to continue because 300,000 just will not be enough even for defense. Experts estimate at least 1 million are needed given how long the front line is, and if Putin wants to go on a general offensive to recover some of his lost conquests, then many, many more would be needed.

TL;DR: it’s a good sign that Putin is talking about end of mobilization (good for the Ukrainians), and it’s also good that uberhawks are being silenced (could pave the road to concessions or at least to limiting escalation).

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