A New Russian Mobilisation: Costs and Defeats

The Kremlin’s decision to annex the currently occupied Ukrainian regions to Russia, as well as the “partial” mobilisation now in full force, are measures that came at a particularly difficult time for the Russian army. Indeed, the latest events on the battlefield seem to confirm the military dynamic established in September, with the sudden retreat from Kharkiv and the northern front. On October 1, both Kyiv and Moscow confirmed the Russian loss of Lyman, an important logistical hub north of the Donbass recently encircled by Ukrainian forces, as Ukrainian forces proceed along the Dniepr toward Kherson. The brief siege of Lyman is a perfect example of the military, social, and economic problems that are undermining Russian operations. As at Kharkiv a few weeks earlier, the Ukrainians confirmed their ability to launch rapid outflanking manoeuvres and to be able to overwhelm Russian forces before they could set up new defences. The battle also demonstrated the degree of attrition achieved by the invaders. The failed relief of the Lyman garrison was entrusted to the 503rd Motorised Guards Regiment, a unit in the past considered elite. According to Russian sources, at least part of the regiment is said to be composed of recently mobilised recruits, that is, with less than two weeks of training before being sent to the front. In addition, the 503rd is a unit from the Ingushetia region, one of the North Caucasus republics that is contributing the most to the Russian war effort and for that very reason has recently been going through riots and protests.

The failure to hold the Ukrainian city has had serious political repercussions in Russia. The defeat has ignited internal controversies deemed unthinkable just a few months ago. An unprecedented political axis seems to have emerged between Razman Kadyrov, the strongman of Chechnya, and Evgeny Prigozhin, the billionaire financier of the Wagner Group mercenaries. The two are united by a personal loyalty to Vladimir Putin, by not being framed in the official institutions of the Russian state (the president of Chechnya’s power extends far beyond his region), and by being the ones who have essentially managed the regime’s “dirty work” in recent decades, from unofficial operations in Africa to the repression of domestic opponents. Both Kadyrov and Wagner played a key role in providing – more or less – competent troops in the early stages of the conflict, openly siding with those within the Kremlin who support an uncompromising line against Ukraine. Following Lyman’s defeat, both launched into heavy accusations of incompetence and nepotism against Valery Gerasimov, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, and Aleksandr Lapin, whom he appointed commander of the Western Military District under whose aegis the units in the northern Donbas fall. The somewhat open political clash between Putin’s supporters collateral to the Russian state and the Russian armed forces reveals how much in the Kremlin the influence of the military leadership is now on the wane, a trend that could strengthen if speculation about the collapse of the Kherson front also materialises.

There are other indications that suggest the downsizing of official institutions. For example, when Putin announced the annexation of the occupied territories, which had great political and symbolic significance, was attended copiously by ultranationalist military bloggers, a varied group of war influencers who since February 24 have repeatedly criticised Defense Minister Shoigou’s handling of the “special military operation” as a series of unsatisfactory half-measures. Their invitation to the event and their participation in state television requires attention considering the ferocious criticism they made against official authorities (presidency excluded, of course). It seems quite clear that Putin is in some ways coming to terms with these radical voices. It is evident that the conflict has altered the balance between the different souls of Putin’s regime, unbalancing it in favour of intransigent nationalists and powerful people like Kadyrov’s and Prigozhin’s, who have only gained from Russia’s Army “adventures” in recent decades. But wars are always fought by Systems-States, not by a narrow political elite. Given the ways in which the conflict is changing the Kremlin, it is likely that the socioeconomic framework on which the regime is based could reconfigure itself into a model aimed at nurturing the kind of war currently being fought by Russia. Partial mobilisation has already introduced a major novelty in the relationship between Moscow and the Russian peoples, from whom the authorities had hitherto demanded (and obtained) a general disinterest in politics in exchange for a precarious but nevertheless acceptable status quo for the majority: now these populations see tens of thousands of adult men leaving for the front with a high probability of not returning, and just as many have left or are leaving the country’s borders – far beyond the narrow circle of dissidents.

The attrition caused by a high-intensity conflict with Europe’s fourth-largest army, armed with sophisticated Western-made systems, are also requiring an industrial mobilisation of Russia. Laws passed by the Duma in the summer, allowing direct control of companies relevant to the war effort, are likely to be employed according to the logic suggested by deputy Evgeni Fedorov: the total conversion of dual-use companies (i.e., producing both civilian and military goods) to the production of military equipment, and the rationalisation of the industry by limiting the models of tanks and other vehicles, with the goal of powering an economy of scale. It remains to be seen how the transition will be managed. The corporate organisation of Russia’s defence conglomerates is highly inefficient and wasteful, especially in the development and mass production of digital and electronic systems. However, it is hard to imagine that an economic mobilisation will not take place over the next few weeks: the postponement from October to November of the fall draft ordered by Putin has been openly justified by the overloading of the military administration, but numerous examples of new recruits equipped with rusty rifles and outdated equipment also emerge from social media.

In conclusion, the current military situation seems to preclude the Kremlin from changing its attitude toward the war. The weakening of formal military leadership and the spectre of economic mobilisation have turned the “special military operation” into a generalised war, placing support for the war effort at the centre of the regime’s economic and social policy.

Published on The Univeristy Observer on 20th October 2022.

Photo credits: Wikipedia.com, 2022 Russian mobilization.