Kremlin: war to the bitter end


On September 21, 2022, Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization in Russia. The event is certainly of historical significance, as mobilization was only carried out twice before in Russia: at the beginning of World War I and at the beginning of World War II.

Previously, the prevailing view was that mobilization in Russia was unlikely for political reasons: the event would be highly unpopular in society and would mean that the Kremlin recognizes the inconsistency with the title of «the second army of the world». And the fact that, despite being unpopular, the decision has been taken, testifies a lot.

Political background

Putin has finally entrenched in the position that the Kremlin is waging war not with Ukraine, but with part of the West. The Ukrainian Armed Forces, like the Ukrainian state itself, act only as instruments for securing Western interests.

For Putin, this war is clearly of an existential nature. Its results will decide whether Russia survives or not. This means that for the Kremlin the notion of unacceptable damage is not a deterrent. Mobilization is not a threat of escalation in order to limit Western military support to Kiev (in terms of deliveries of tanks, missiles and aircraft, first and foremost). It is an escalation in order to get ahead, to get results before Western assistance leads to another qualitative shift in Ukrainian military power.

The confrontation with the West, according to Putin, gives grounds for escalation up to the use of nuclear weapons. And this option should be taken seriously. It is too early to state the percentage of probability of a nuclear threat materialising. What is important is that the situation has moved from hypothetical to practical. Apart from the danger of the use of nuclear weapons itself, one should not forget about the threat of man-made «incidents» at Ukrainian nuclear power plants (not only in Zaporizhzhia).

Note that the decision to mobilize was made after the SCO summit, during which Russia’s biggest political partners, China, India and Turkey, made it clear that an urgent peaceful settlement of the war with Ukraine was needed. Putin did not receive the expected support. Moreover, it can be assumed that meetings with the leaders of these countries were very unpleasant for the Russian ruler.

There might have been an impression in the Kremlin that prolonging the war undermines Russia’s credibility in the eyes of the world. Abroad, Moscow is no longer perceived as an influential actor in international relations.

Thus, the Kremlin must demonstrate real military success in the foreseeable future to try to restore its status on the international stage. Putin has gone for broke, and no peace talks with him are possible in the foreseeable future. For him, victory in this war is a life project. And that victory is implied as a defeat for the West, not just Ukraine.

The West should have moved to a large-scale military deployment long ago, both of  its armed forces and military production. Let’s hope that Western political elites finally realise this.

It would be a mistake to view the Kremlin’s actions as an attempt to intimidate and coerce the West and Kiev into negotiations on terms favourable to Moscow. The situation is much deeper and more serious.

The format of mobilization

It should be recalled that Putin’s decision of September, 21 was the Kremlin’s third «mobilization» move:

— In August it was decided to increase the Russian army’s regular strength by 137,000 servicemen from January 1, 2023;

— Russia is practically mobilising its military industry.

The need for official mobilization is due, among other things, to problems with manning the army with volunteer contractors. There is no mass willingness of Russians to fight even for money. So, they will have to fight without that willingness.

Formally we are talking about partial mobilization, but its quantitative parameters are unknown. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s declaration that 300,000 people are to be mobilized may turn out to be, let’s put it this way, a military ploy. The relevant clause in Putin’s mobilization decree is classified. It is one thing if it is formulated in the format «to call up for military service on mobilization N-thousand people». It is a different story if it is to set a maximum number of servicemen on mobilization. The latter means that mobilization could become permanent in order to make up for inevitable losses during war, up to a maximum set level.

The prohibition for persons liable for military service to leave the administrative regions where they are registered for military service, the requirement for organizations of all forms of ownership to provide military vehicles and various loading and construction equipment cast doubts on the figure mentioned by Shoigu. It is probably considerably higher.

Besides, it is worth paying attention to point 4 of the decree on mobilization: contracts on military service signed by servicemen continue to be valid until the end of the period of partial mobilization. In other words, from fixed-term contracts they become indefinite. And here it is worth paying attention to the fact that a considerable part of these contracts are short-term contracts for 6 months, concluded in April-May. It turns out that it is also a kind of mobilization.

Further, Putin has made it clear that he is ready to annex new Ukrainian territories (Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions). If this happens, restrictions on the involvement of conscripts will be lifted, as they will be considered to be defending Russian territory proper. And the conscripts are up to 270,000 men.

It is logical to assume that at least in the regions bordering Ukraine martial law will be imposed.

Mobilization and the nature of war

The need for mobilization Putin explained, among other things, by the length of the front line of more than 1,000 km. Maintaining this line requires a large number of troops.

Thus, the option of deploying mobilized troops for a conventional trench warfare is likely. However, such a format conceals a number of problems. First, trench warfare is a long war. No society likes long wars. Especially the consumer society. Second, the further away, the greater will be the costs of war. The West will deploy military production. This is fraught with increasing Russian casualties. Which, in turn, will provoke social ferment. Plus, the tightening of Western economic restrictions will have an impact. Further, it would cost more than USD 20 billion per year to maintain the 300,000 mobilized. Assuming, of course, that they will be paid «combat» supplements in full. And that is without taking into account the costs of armaments, equipment and the combat operations themselves – given that the Russian budget is already in deficit. In addition, the factor of state prestige and falsely understood grandeur requires rapid results. Thus, trench warfare/position warfare is hardly acceptable to the Kremlin.

A more proactive scenario seems more likely, according to which Russian troops will try to return to offensive action on 3-4 fronts after receiving reinforcements, not taking into account losses in manpower, as time may be the main resource. This is evidenced by information that mobilized under 30 years of age with military service experience will be immediately assigned to units, as it is believed that they have not yet had time to forget what they were taught in the army. The rest will undergo a 2-week (!) training camp to regain their skills, and then will be sent to the front.

Ukrainian observers have taken a rather flippant view of the mobilization in Russia. It is claimed that 67% of weapons and armoured vehicles have already been put out of service and the shortage of them in the front-line units is as high as 40%. But who says that all the mobilized will go to the front line?

The mobilized can be distributed among units:

— The strike force, even if 20-25% of the mobilized (of the claimed 300,000) can be suitably armed, is more than double the size of the Russian strike force at the front.

— Logistics, by increasing the ability to transport military supplies by road. Hence the possibility of removing vehicles from the economy for military use.

— Engineering and fortification, the construction of defensive lines and fortifications in areas where the Russian army does not intend to conduct large-scale offensives. Hence the removal of construction and earthmoving equipment from the economy for military use.

— Analogues of the machine-gun and artillery units to protect these fortifications, freeing up the already-fired units from these tasks. And for such units modern weaponry is not a critical factor. So, T-55/62 tanks, D-44/MT-12 cannons and other developments of the 50-60s will be quite appropriate here.

— The rear guard to counter Ukrainian partisans and special units. Thanks to the actions of the latter to disrupt the Russian rear, the Balakleya-Izyum operation was largely won.

The expectation that the mobilized will not fight is purely speculative. We have been hearing for months about the low morale of Russian troops. But objectively we have not yet observed their mass flight from the battlefield, nor their surrender to captivity, nor riots.

We can expect martial law to be introduced soon in the Russian regions bordering Ukraine.

Bad news for Belarus

The Kremlin’s proactive strategy will lead to a sharp increase in the threat of Belarus being drawn directly into the war.

Given the need to ensure Russia’s quick success on the fronts, the issue of blocking Western arms delivery routes to Ukraine will return to the agenda. I.e. an attack on Volhynia from the territory of Belarus. A marker for the possibility of such an attempt would be the redeployment of Russian ground and air contingent to Belarus in a configuration and numbers that would allow counting on the success of such an operation.

It is also possible for Russian troops to mark a threat to the north of Ukraine from the territory of Belarus. The goal is to draw Ukrainian troops away from other operational areas.

Obviously, after Bucha, Irpen and Izyum, the Ukrainian leadership cannot allow its territories and population to be seized for moral and political reasons. Therefore, the build-up of the Russian military presence in Belarus is highly likely to provoke Kyiv’s proactive actions. One can assume at least operations of the Ukrainian Defence Forces to drastically reduce the capacity of the transport infrastructure in the southern regions of Belarus. Naturally, with the simultaneous deepening of the political isolation of official Minsk.

Necessary efforts should have been made now to avoid the negative development of the situation. In this regard, the proposals of the Centre for Strategic and Foreign Policy Studies «Belarus in the ‘Co-Aggressor Trap’: How to Get Out of It and Resolve the Political Crisis of 2020» are of interest. The challenge is that political time can flow faster for official Minsk than for the Kremlin. And it is running out.