Putin needs nothing short of a miracle to avoid a devastating defeat in Ukraine

<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

The Ukrainian counteroffensive is yet another major development in the Russia–Ukraine war that took Russia entirely by surprise. Images of fleeing Russian soldiers, leaving behind equipment as well as evidence of war crimes, have once again filled the media. Wiping out months of Russia’s territorial gains, quick Ukrainian advances caused a domino effect; massive and chaotic Russian retreat left a huge hole in their defences.

Unable to stabilise the frontline after devastating defeats in Izyum and Kupiansk, Russia was forced to retreat along the Oskil and Seversky Donets rivers, leaving itself exposed to further Ukrainian advances and decimating any remnants of morale. Even the most pessimistic observers must admit that the way things are going, Russia needs nothing short of a miracle to avoid a devastating defeat.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, did not disappoint. In a much-awaited TV appearance on Wednesday, Putin announced a partial military mobilisation, a high-risk, high-reward political gamble he had hoped so much to avoid. At the same time, the self-proclaimed leaders of the occupied Ukrainian territories have rushed to schedule the dates of the sham referendums on whether to join Russia.

Mobilising troops would not strike a casual observer as unusual for a country at war. To understand the full political repercussions of mobilisation for Putin, you must understand the workings of his inner circle.

No leader rules entirely alone. In order to stay in power, they must maintain the support of some proportion of their constituents. Democratic leaders stay in power by winning elections, usually through policy promises. Autocratic leaders, such as Putin, stay in power by securing the continued support of their inner circle, whether through policy or private payoffs. Putin’s inner circle consists of two rival blocs: the heads of the military/security structures and the top-ranking intelligence officers (the FSB). To remain in power, he must maintain their support while keeping the delicate balance between them. If one of the blocs gets too strong, it may become a dangerous adversary and a threat to the regime itself.

From the perspective of the Russian military elites, mobilisation is long overdue. Putin’s insistence on limiting the scope of the war by instead referring to it as a “special military operation”, as well as his reluctance to declare mobilisation, has essentially forced the Russian military to fight with its hands tied behind its back. Ukraine mobilised forces on the very first day of war, giving it the advantage of numbers against a country with a much larger population. In the eyes of the military, more troops are exactly what the Russian army needs to turn the war around. Even though it will take time to mobilise 300,000 troops, the number given by Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, the hope is that it will give the military the legal ground to put a block on the current haemorrhaging of Russian troops in the occupied territories.

Related: Protests in Russia against mobilisation – in pictures

While the generals are clamouring for more cannon fodder, the intelligence elites know that going for broke is rarely the best strategy. Their preference is to tread more lightly, to use wits rather than muscle, to win by deception, misinformation, blackmail and bribery. An example of the FSB at its finest was the 2014 takeover of Crimea, in which it denied the presence of Russian soldiers and spoke instead of “little green men”. The intelligence elites do best outside the media spotlight, not with the entire world watching, breath held. They need this war to leave the news cycle, or at least drop below the fold, to do their dirty work. The best way to achieve this is by getting Ukraine to enter peace talks, so that Russia can “freeze” the war and win some time.

If mobilising more troops is key to winning the war, then why has Putin waited this long? Why didn’t he declare mobilisation at the first sign that his “three-day war” plan had hit snags? He waited so long that a longtime member of his inner circle, Ramzan Kadyrov, went on the record calling on him to escalate.

Putin has been hesitant because he knows mobilisation is risky. If all goes to plan, mobilisation could help quickly replenish Russian troops in occupied territories and stop Ukrainian advances. In the medium-to-long term, it could significantly increase Russia’s capacity for a new successful offensive, and with that, force Ukraine to accept peace on Russia’s terms.

However, nothing about this war has gone according to Russia’s plan. The war exposed major weaknesses in Russia’s ability to effectively command or provide weapons, logistics and supplies to an army of its current size, let alone a much larger force. Morale is low in Russia and there is a general reluctance to fight, despite increasingly generous offers of remuneration. At the order of mobilisation, desperate draft-aged Russians bought up plane tickets to nearby countries with visa-free travel. The few remaining Russian independent media outlets ran stories on how to leave the country for those afraid of the draft, while anti-mobilisation protests erupted across Russia. None of these are strong indicators that things are about to go according to plan.

Apart from the military risks, mobilisation also carries serious political risks for Putin’s inner circle. It raises the stakes, threatening to throw a wrench into the delicate balance of power between the rival blocs. In some sense, Russia cannot lose a war if it only ever participated in a “special military operation”. Once announced, mobilisation is the military’s last card: either it turns the war around or Russia will face an embarrassing defeat. If Russia wins, the generals will get all the credit, further tilting the balance of power away from the FSB. If Russia loses, the military will take the blame and the FSB will gain ground. In either case, one bloc wins while the other one may panic. And panic in the inner circle creates risks for its members and the regime itself.

  • Olga Chyzh researches political violence and repressive regimes. She is an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Toronto

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