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Home » What do we know about Putin’s controversial call-up of reservists?

What do we know about Putin’s controversial call-up of reservists?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared a “partial military mobilisation” that could see an initial 300,000 reservists join Moscow’s war in Ukraine. 

But, how will the call-up of fresh troops work? What has been the reaction in Russia? And what happens next if the mobilisation fails?

What do we know about the troops call-up?

Putin referred to a partial mobilisation of reservists in his speech, but there is little detail on numbers in the government’s decree.

Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu did later say that up to 300,000 people could be mobilised from a pool of 25 million. 

Critics point out the decree has been left deliberately vague to give the authorities a wide degree of latitude when implementing it.

The immediate call-up of 300,000 reservists will concern those who have previously served in the Russian army and have combat experience or specialised military skills. Students or conscripts — young men serving mandatory 12-month terms in the armed forces — will not be included.

The reservists cannot physically be deployed to Ukraine immediately as they will need to first undergo refresher or new training and be made familiar with the way Russia executes what it calls its “special military operation”. 

Western military analysts forecast it will therefore be several months before they see action.

Reservists will be financially incentivised and be paid like full-time serving professional soldiers who make much more money than the average Russian wage. That may make the proposition more attractive for some men in the provinces where wages are traditionally lower than in big cities.

Professional soldiers known as ‘kontraktniki’ who are currently serving in the armed forces will have their contracts automatically extended until the authorities decide to end the period of temporary mobilisation. In other words, it just became much harder for serving professional soldiers to quit.

A day earlier, the Russian parliament approved a bill to toughen punishments for crimes such as desertion, damage to military property and insubordination if they are committed during military mobilisation or combat situations. According to a copy of the legislation, seen by Reuters, voluntary surrender would become a crime for Russian military personnel punishable by 10 years in prison.

What does Putin’s move tell us about the conflict in Ukraine?

Putin’s announcement came only a day after it was announced that “referendums” on joining Russia will begin on Friday in the Russian-occupied areas of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya. 

“The idea here is that if these territories join the Russian Federation, any attacks upon them would then be considered as attacks on Russia,” Dr Marina Miron, from the Defence Studies Department of the King’s College London, told Euronews.

“So, it is logical to start this partial mobilisation now, especially in light of what happened in Kharkiv Oblast and which served as a catalyst for this rapid turn in events,” Dr Miron added, referring to Kyiv’s counteroffensive in the north-east of the country, where it has reclaimed 8,000 square kilometres of territory. 

“It is suggested that the number was carefully calculated and only the amount needed to protect those territories is being mobilised,” said Dr Miron.

The partial mobilisation is also aimed at putting the campaign in Ukraine at the centre of the Russian public’s attention and making people care about the Russian cause, she claimed.

“The Kremlin has been trying to cultivate the national spirit for many years now and following this logic, this mobilisation is perceived as a way to recruit more people to defend the homeland,”  Dr Miron said. 

“It is not about the war in Ukraine; it is about defending Russia and territories belonging to Russia, however far-fetched that might seem. 

“The war in Ukraine is not a war between Russia and Ukraine, but a war between Russia and ‘the collective West’, in the Kremlin’s eyes. 

“So, this narrative is used to justify such mobilisation in the first place.”

Nikolay Petrov, a senior research fellow within the Russia and Eurasia programme at London’s Chatham House, agrees. 

“Putin’s speech was an attempt to turn the imperialist war into a patriotic war” after nearly seven months of fighting, he said.

He thinks the upcoming “referendums” have the same objective, to compensate for a faltering campaign in Ukraine. 

“The unexpected hasty referendums in the occupied territories of Ukraine are an attempt by the Kremlin to capture these territories politically, since it was unable to do so militarily,” Petrov said.

On the other hand, Petrov also believes the partial mobilisation might have been called to appease the concerns of political allies.

“Putin’s recent meetings with the leaders of China, India and other non-Western countries, who have publicly voiced their dissatisfaction with the protracted war and called for its ending, may have also played a role,” Petrov said.

How prepared are Russia’s reservists?

In a televised speech to the nation on Wednesday, Putin said the “partial mobilisation” involves “only citizens who are currently in the reserve will be subject to conscription, and above all, those who served in the armed forces have a certain military speciality and relevant experience”.

According to Shoigu, only those with relevant combat and service experience will be mobilised. The reservists answering to this description are about 25 million people, but only around 1% will be mobilised, claimed Shoigu.

“The question is: do all these criteria have to be fulfilled or is it enough to fulfil just one?” Dr Miron asked. “Again, despite the seemingly clear criteria, this has caused a lot of concern amongst potential candidates. It should be noted that Russia has its own ‘Vietnam syndrome’ after the Soviet venture in Afghanistan, so whatever is to happen, the Kremlin will have to skillfully design its informational campaign to avoid potential backlash on a larger scale.”

There may also be issues with the preparedness of reservists.

According to the Washington-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), “the Russian reserve has over two million former conscripts and contract servicemen on paper, but few are actively trained or prepared for war”.

ISW writes that, historically, “only 10 per cent of reservists receive refresher training after completing their initial term of service”, adding that Russia lacks the administrative and financial capacity to train reservists on an ongoing basis.

What has been the reaction in Russia?

The announcement has triggered protests in Russia, where some are increasingly fatigued by what in the country is still known as the “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Russian media reported a spike in demand for plane tickets shortly after Putin’s televised speech on Wednesday. 

On the same day, jailed dissident and opposition leader Alexei Navalny accused Putin of sending more Russians to their deaths.

“It is clear that the criminal war is getting worse, deepening, and Putin is trying to involve as many people as possible in this,” Navalny said in a video message from jail recorded and published by his lawyers. “He wants to smear hundreds of thousands of people in this blood,” Navalny said.

On Wednesday, the Youth Democratic opposition movement “Vesna” called for nationwide protests. 

“Thousands of Russian men — our fathers, brothers and husbands — will be thrown into the meat grinder of the war. What will they be dying for? What will mothers and children be crying for?” the group said.

Avtozak, a Russian group that monitors protests, reported demonstrations by dozens of people in cities, including Ulan-Ude and Tomsk in Siberia, and Khabarovsk in the Far East, with some protesters being arrested by authorities.

“The feelings towards this decision have been mixed and there have been quite a few instances of opposition from several media outlets, such as the St. Petersburg-based news site Bumaga, which claimed in its Telegram channel that the frequency of the search term ‘how to break your arm’ had spiked amongst Google users from Russia,” Dr Miron said.

“Given the protests that took place across Russia, it is to assume that the population is not in favour of this new measure. However, the official media is trying to downplay this new decision, hence, there will be an attempt to pacify the population segment that is against this partial mobilisation,” she added. “There will be a need to act on the information front to prevent a complete polarisation of the Russian population. The situation is quite complicated as supporting Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine is one thing, but it is quite another thing when there is a possibility of being drafted to actively contribute.”

It’s unclear if the size of the protests will grow in the coming days, especially considering that the Kremlin still harshly punishes those who criticise the military and Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

“The Kremlin has sharply tightened legislation in the spirit of Stalin’s time, which will mean severe penalties for anyone evading mobilisation, refusing to participate in the war and desertion,” Petrov said.

“The repressive nature of the regime inevitably increases. Altogether, radically changing the game and raising the stakes looks like a manifestation of Putin’s weakness rather than strength.”

Dr Miron also said that there will be increased pressure on reservists to respond to the call to arms.

“There will be a lot of pressure exercised upon those who refuse to mobilise or cannot accredit their inability to serve for whatever reason,” she said.

“It is to assume that those who are not ‘patriotic’ enough will try to make their case rather than avoiding response or flat-out refusing service. In many cases, people will have to choose the smaller evil, whatever it might be in their particular situation. Given the current economic situation, there is a chance that those from poorer regions of the Russian Federation will take up this opportunity to earn some money,” she said.

If this doesn’t work, what next?

Orysia Lutsevych, head and research fellow at the Chatham House’s Ukraine Forum, believes the partial mobilisation won’t be enough to turn the tide of the war and give Russian troops the upper hand.

“Partial mobilisation will not have a decisive impact on the battlefield because new recruits are untrained and not combat-ready,” she said, adding that she doesn’t see any of the initiatives pushed by the Kremlin as likely to succeed.

“Russian internal military infrastructure can hardly support general mobilisation as it was downgraded by recent ‘reforms’. The illegal ‘referendums’ will not be recognised by Ukraine nor the West. It will not change the military campaign where Ukraine reserves the right to attack and eventually liberate the territory. We are likely to see more sanctions in response to this move,” Lutsevych said.

“​​It is quite improbable that this mobilisation does not work,” said Dr Miron, pointing out that 300,000 reservists are “roughly the number that the Russian ground forces have on active duty”. She added that while not everyone might support the campaign in Ukraine, many might be interested in the financial gains involved in the mobilisation.

But what’s next for Russia will depend on the result of this partial mobilisation, Dr Miron added.

“While this document [Wednesday’s decree] does not leave out the possibility to escalate mobilisation, it remains to be seen how many will be mobilised and if these numbers are enough to reach the ‘goals of the military operation’,” she said.

“A full mobilisation would entail a declaration of war. While not quite impossible, right now it would seem that this is the most appropriate option in order not to cause too much public unrest while bolstering the military capabilities on the front.

“In addition, if Luhansk and Donetsk and potentially others join the Russian Federation, there will be a need for permanent presence to ensure that these territories can be defended. And the experience in Izium has shown that Russia did not have enough manpower. So, in essence, it is a way to avoid further territorial losses as well.”

Dr Luke March, Professor in Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Director of Undergraduate Teaching for Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, agrees that Putin will stir away from calling the conflict in Ukraine a war.

“Ultimately Putin doesn’t have to do anything and can try to pretend [the conflict] is something other than it is – this will be preferable to admitting openly that it is a war requiring full mobilisation, which runs the strong risk of people feeling deceived and inciting opposition,” Dr March said. 

“If Western support doesn’t falter over a hard winter, and arms supplies continue, the balance of forces will increasingly favour Ukraine, and the domestic problems for Putin will start to grow much larger,” Dr March added.

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