Until the mobilization was announced, most of society here did not think about the war; many did not even know about it. Of course, propagandists raged on TV literally every day, and on the Internet there were fierce battles between supporters and opponents of the military operation in Ukraine. But Russia’s apolitical society did not show much interest in this—most people do not watch political television shows and do not read political websites, neither oppositional nor pro-government ones.
On September 21, the situation changed radically and irreversibly. Awareness and resistance have come. Of course, one can be outraged that the Russians reacted to the tragedy of Ukraine only when it directly affected them. But after all, it took American society several years for public opinion to react to the Vietnam War.
One way or another, the war actually became not only a fact of public consciousness but also a defining fact of both public and private life. And the first response to what happened was a mass evasion of mobilization. In the days after Putin’s speech, more young men left the country than the army planned to mobilize (if one believes the clearly low-estimate official figure).
The number of people who crossed the border approached 600,000. There are now more than three times the refuseniks as there are soldiers in Ukraine. And that is counting only those who ended up in neighboring states. Massive crowds of people gathered at the borders of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Georgia. They left in cars, on bicycles and scooters, even on foot. On the other side of the border, in Kazakhstan, many volunteers met the arrivals and assisted them. At the same time, thousands of young people who remained in Russia evaded appearing at the recruiting stations. Some went into the woods; in some places, they set fire to military enlistment offices and administrative buildings.
Although those on social media networks write about a secret plan to recruit a million or even 1.2 million men, there is no way to do this in the coming months. It is expected that instead of the officially announced 300,000, the government will be able to call up about 140,000–150,000. But even this is unlikely, given the current state of infrastructure, state organization, and industry. Having already received more than 100,000 new conscripts, the military and officials can neither properly provide them with everything necessary, nor organize them into combat-ready units, nor equip them with modern weapons, nor even transport them to the place of combat operations. There is an attempt to distribute approximately 50,000 troops among the active units. How much the front will be strengthened from such replenishment is a big question. The effect can be reversed, especially if the newcomers bring information about the mood in the rear to the soldiers. Having neither training nor combat experience, those mobilized for the combat army become more of a burden.
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The mobilized will have to be kept somewhere in the rear, scattered across training camps and barracks throughout the vast country. They sit idle or go through meaningless and poorly organized training, because there is not enough equipment, competent instructors, or commanders. The drafted officers are incompetent, and even more pessimistic than the rank and file.
Although the regional authorities are desperately trying to maintain order, they do not seem to be doing very well. It is already clear that failures are occurring along the entire chain of command. Left to their own devices, poorly provided and unmotivated units (more precisely, crowds of people) become a source of headaches for both the military and civilian authorities. Maintaining control and discipline requires enormous effort. From all over the country, there are reports of drunkenness, fights, and disobedience. Often there is simply nowhere to physically place the conscripted. The authorities use stadiums, rest homes, and sports bases. Sometimes they simply put people in an open field.
Approximately 16 thousand conscripts were already at the front lines in early October without proper training and often without the necessary weapons. Many people bought uniforms at their own expense. New arrivals were added to the combat units, but this did not strengthen them. Instead, losses increased sharply and funerals began to be held en masse in Russian cities. Social media networks reported many cases of surrender, escape, desertion, refusal to obey orders, and even defection to the enemy. The latter is not surprising: As a punishment for opposition activities and anti-war protests, disloyal citizens were sent to the front lines.
In autonomous national regions, resistance takes more active forms. Protest actions were held in Dagestan, Yakutia, Tyva, and gradually cover more and more regions. It is significant that it was Dagestan, from where many contract soldiers left for the special operation, that turned out to be the epicenter of the protest. But the fact of the matter is that the popularity of military service in this region is explained not by loyalty but by the poverty of the population. And now social and national protest has united.
It is often written that mobilization turns into a genocide of minority populations. Of course, this is an exaggeration. In fact, officials are not interested in the fate of the Yakuts, Buryats, Tuvans, or Avars. According to information circulating on the Internet, the authorities, fearing discontent in big cities, are directing their main efforts toward mobilization in rural areas and in small urban settlements. But it is precisely there that are concentrated a significant part of the representatives of minorities, who have to bear the hardships of mobilization on a scale disproportionate to their numbers.
The unrest in Dagestan showed the consequence of such actions. True, the number of protesters in Makhachkala was not particularly large (in absolute numbers, the protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg drew much greater masses). But it is important that the Dagestan women, who made up the majority in the crowd (which, by the way, included Russians), turned out to be extremely determined and even aggressive. Local police, on the other hand, were not very enthusiastic about confronting fellow citizens. Soon after the protests in Dagestan, regional authorities in Moscow and St. Petersburg, worried that similar events may follow in the capital cities, stopped mobilization campaigns there.
The mobilization finally buried the “Putin social contract,” which assumed the political passivity of the people in exchange for the authorities’ willingness to leave us to live our life in peace. But now another question arises—how will a society survive in which social ties have been undermined for decades, where there is no culture and experience of solidarity? How will people act, suddenly awakened to politics and civic activity?
Dagestan shows us one of the options for how this can happen. It is likely that there will be other options. In any case, society will no longer be the same as it was before September 21. The ruling circles, with their irresponsible decisions, nevertheless achieved a turning point. The country has finally woken up.
Whether the authorities will be able to cope with the situation, the near future will show. Until now, the Russian authorities have shown an amazing ability to climb out of even the deepest holes they dug themselves. True, each time, having emerged from the next crisis provoked by their own decisions, they were convinced of their invulnerability and immediately began to dig a new hole. Sooner or later they may dig to a fatal depth.
The fact that—strategically—the war is lost, is already perfectly clear to the military; from the General Staff to a significant part of officials, and now a fair part of citizens. Another part of the population experiences a kind of emotional swing, oscillating between patriotic enthusiasm and bouts of depression. The blowing up of the Crimean bridge on October 8 was the culmination of bad news that hit the Russian government and the public. The Kremlin could not leave this unanswered. For several days, massive bombardments of infrastructure facilities on Ukrainian territory were carried out. Of course, that cheered up the patriotic part of the public, but not for long. The effect of the bombing was minimal from a military point of view. In two days, about a hundred rockets were fired—about half of them were shot down. Meanwhile, the number of structures that need to be disabled to really paralyze Ukraine’s ability to wage war is in the tens of thousands. A few days later, speaking at a summit in Astana, Putin recognized the continuation of such raids as inexpedient: if they had not stopped, Russia would have used up its entire stock of high-tech missiles in one to two weeks.
Most of the infrastructure facilities that became the targets of the bombings were built back in Soviet times. And in the USSR, such structures were built, taking into account in advance the possibility that they would be bombed, maybe even with nuclear charges. Their design included multiple margins of safety. The survival rate of such structures is simply fantastic, which is also shown by the situation with the Antonovsky Bridge across the Dnieper, which the Ukrainian forces could only damage, but not destroy, even though they fired about two hundred missiles at it. Within 2–3 days, all damaged power plants resumed operation, and the damage was repaired. And the news from the front lines again, was disappointing.
In such a situation, more and more people (not only opponents and anti-war activists, but also Kremlin-linked officials) begin to think not about the course of the war, but about what will happen after the war. Russian history reminds us that every major military defeat led to the beginning of serious reforms or revolution. It is clear that the Ukrainian war, nicknamed the “special military operation,” will not be an exception.
Putin, of course, can neither stop the war nor admit defeat; both might well mean the collapse of his regime. That helps explain why Russian diplomats and politicians close to the Kremlin began to call for negotiations. Neither foreign minister Sergei Lavrov nor the chair of the Federation Council Valentina Matveenko made clear conditions for a possible settlement, but it is more than clear that retreat of Russian troops from the occupied territories is unacceptable for Putin’s regime and leaving these regions under occupation is unacceptable for the Ukrainian side. Seeing no way to negotiate with Kyiv on any terms acceptable to Putin, Kremlin’s diplomats hope to negotiate with the West over the Ukrainians’ heads. But no matter how cynical American and Western European politicians are, one should not hope for the success of such initiatives. Putin has become too toxic. The condition of the negotiations from the Ukrainian side is his removal from power. Many of Russia’s elite would be quite happy with such a solution but is doesn’t look very likely given the fact that Putin himself will never agree to such a condition.
How the “Putin problem” will be solved is not yet clear, but there are signs that the succession struggle is already under way in and around Kremlin. As revealed by an investigation (launched by the prosecutor’s office on October 14 at the initiative of the General Staff), war correspondents and others who were loyal to Putin and supported his war tended to blame army generals for the defeats and called for an open and systemic genocide of the Ukrainian people as a solution to the problem. The military was never happy with these criticisms and proposals but until recently remained silent. Now the situation is changing and they are beginning to fight back.
The ruling circles of the West and Russia would most likely be able to find a compromise to ensure the preservation of the old system, but without Putin (the names of possible candidates for the presidency are already being discussed openly by Russian political scientists and officials). But it is unlikely that the ruling circles will be able to keep the situation under control, avoiding deeper changes. Paradoxically, disillusioned patriots and opponents (both liberal and leftist) are almost unanimous in stating that the system is completely rotten. Kremlin propaganda continues to frighten people with the fact that in case of defeat in the war and a change of power ensues. Russia is threatened with disintegration and confusion. But even if these stories sound convincing to the mass consciousness, the highest bureaucracy itself is well aware that the real threat is not this. An economy built on the extraction and transportation of raw materials abroad presupposes the preservation of a single political and economic space. No one is going to cut the pipe into pieces.
The real problem that the leaders of post-Putin Russia will have to face is that they, regardless of their own sympathies and sentiments, will have to launch reforms that could undermine their own power. On the one hand, to appease the West, at least some measures of political democratization, even if only cosmetic, will be needed. On the other hand, the working classes will demand social change, greater equality, the reversal of the unpopular pension reform, and the redistribution of resources.
The crisis of war and pre-existing conditions make clear that the model of oligarchic capitalism that has developed in Russia over the past 30 years is coming to an end. As one friend of mine stated, we, Russians, have an old tradition: every time we lose a war, we start a revolution.