Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Weakness of the Strongman

A clearly rattled Putin talks big and resorts to increasingly desperate measures.
September 23, 2022
The Weakness of the Strongman
Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during an event to mark the 1160th anniversary of Russia's statehood in Veliky Novgorod on September 21, 2022. (Photo by Ilya PITALEV / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo by ILYA PITALEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Ever since the brilliant Ukrainian counteroffensive that liberated much of the Kharkiv region in mid-September and forced Russian troops into a panicked retreat, Russia watchers have been waiting for Vladimir Putin’s response. It came on Wednesday morning when the Russian autocrat made a televised address announcing a “partial military mobilization”—a call-up of military reservists—and endorsed rapid moves to annex four regions of Ukraine, including the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, via referendums on unification with Russia.

Obviously, this is an escalation. But toward what, and how could it play out? Drawing especially on Russian sources, let’s review the record of the last few days and see where the smart analysis now stands.

A show of strength—or of weakness?

As Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, pointed out on Twitter, the “partial mobilization” Putin announced is a pretty clear admission that Russia’s “special operation” is not going according to plan:

What’s more, the mobilization order follows not only a humiliating rout near Kharkiv—and an outburst of unusually harsh criticism of the war effort, much it from hawks, on Russian television—but several other public relations disasters. A viral video showed convicts in a penal colony being recruited to fight in Ukraine for the shadowy Wagner Group, a private military contractor and de facto mercenary unit (which is not only embarrassing but almost certainly very illegal under Russia’s own laws). And Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin-installed Chechen leader, called on Russia’s governors to take the initiative and conduct their own mobilization in their regions instead of waiting for the national government to act. Three of Russia’s 85 governors responded; one of them was the governor of Crimea, illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, while another was the governor of the Magadan region, home to many of Russia’s penal colonies. Both these developments—as Oleksiy Arestovych, Zelensky’s spokesman, pointed out in a YouTube interview with Russian journalist Yulia Latynina—publicly and severely undercut the legitimacy of the Russian state as the entity with a monopoly on use of military force. At least in part, mobilization was a way for Putin to save face.

Can it turn things around in Russia’s favor? Unlikely. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has said that about 300,000 reservists—people who have completed a term of military service with an age cutoff of 35 for soldiers and noncommissioned officers, and of 50 for officers—will be called up, mostly ones with relevant experience or specialties. If this target is met, it would certainly shore up Russian manpower in Ukraine—eventually. (The current size of the invasion force has been estimated at 170,000 to 200,000; presumably, many of those soldiers will be rotated out when the draftees arrive.) But that’s a big if, judging by the fact Russians are already fleeing by the planeload across the border ahead of an anticipated ban on travel abroad.

Expatriate Russian lawyer Mark Feygin suggested in an interview this week that many Russian governors, who have been tasked with organizing mobilization in their regions, are likely to quietly sabotage the process—that is, to drag their feet on enforcing the unpopular order and then blame their failure on draft evaders. Meanwhile, the soldiers who do get drafted are likely to arrive in Ukraine poorly trained and no less poorly equipped. As for morale, the fact that they’re being drafted to fight in a foreign war none of them cared about enough to volunteer for says a great deal.

Another telling fact: The day before Putin’s announcement, the State Duma rapidly passed a bill which not only toughened the penalties for various offenses related to military service—such as insubordination and absence without leave—if they are committed during a mobilization or in wartime, but created two brand-new offenses: “refusal to participate in combat operations” and “voluntary surrender.”

The first is clear enough; the second, military lawyer Maxim Grebenyuk told Novaya Gazeta, makes it a crime to be captured unless you’re physically incapacitated or taken by surprise in an ambush. If a Russian soldier lays down his arms when surrounded and facing certain death, Russian law now treats him as a criminal, and he faces up to ten years of imprisonment if he eventually goes home. (Duma Defense Committee chairman Andrei Kartapolov confirmed this in an interview with the website, opining that “a heroic death is better than life with the mark of the traitor.”) This law has distinct and sinister Stalinist overtones, evoking the days of World War II when the Soviet Union regarded its captured soldiers as traitors and prisoners repatriated after the end of the war were often sent to the gulag.

Stalinist echoes aside, these draconian laws strongly suggest that the Duma and its master know that Russian soldiers mobilized and sent to Ukraine won’t be particularly eager to fight and die.

Meanwhile, the strange circumstances surrounding Putin’s televised speech—originally announced as a live primetime address on Tuesday, then delayed and finally postponed until Wednesday morning when it was shown pre-recorded—have heightened suspicions that all is not well behind Kremlin walls. Was the Russian president panicking? Were there tensions between the “war party” and more moderate elements? Were things in disarray? “People who can’t organize a speech on TV want to organize an offensive in the field,” quipped Arestovych.

Putin’s Humiliations

Feygin, the exiled Russian attorney and activist, also hypothesized in his interview that Putin’s latest move was directly related to something that happened at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on September 15 and 16. Specifically, Feygin believes that Indian premier Narendra Modi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping aggressively pushed Putin to wrap up the war in Ukraine as quickly as possible, and Putin decided that the only face-saving way to do that was to terrorize Ukraine into negotiating a settlement.

This is, of course, pure speculation. Nonetheless, the Samarkand SCO summit was a stark demonstration of Putin’s loss of status and prestige in the international arena—a fact that may indeed have given him extra incentive to escalate.

The SCO summit should have been a Putin-friendly venue: The organization is nothing if not congenial to the Russian leader’s megalomaniacal dream of dislodging the Western-led international liberal order. And yet Putin often found himself the Rodney “No Respect” Dangerfield of the gathering. The leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan, India, and Kyrgyzstan made him wait at photo ops, turning the tables on the notoriously tardy Russian strongman. It made for an impressive montage.

India’s Modi lectured Putin on how “today’s era is not an era of war,” and Putin fidgeted like a nervous schoolboy in the principal’s office when he explained himself. China’s Xi did not go quite so far, but here too Putin was reduced to an obsequious quasi-apology.

The revival of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have a decades-long dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian separatist enclave on Azerbaijani territory, further illustrates Russia’s—or at least Putin’s—weakened position in the international arena right now. In 2020, Russia, which has ties to both countries (it is allied with Armenia under a regional security pact but is also a major supplier of arms to Azerbaijan), brokered a peace agreement and sent in two thousand peacekeepers. On September 12, there were new clashes on the border, apparently initiated by Azerbaijan; two days of fighting left 105 dead on the Armenian side and 71 on the Azerbaijani side. While a ceasefire has been established and Putin has taken credit for it, it is unclear that Russia had any role in resolving the situation; it is, as Paul Stronski of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace succinctly put it in a National Public Radio interview, “preoccupied.” By remarkable coincidence, a previously planned trip to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, by a U.S. congressional delegation led by Nancy Pelosi seemed to underscore Putin’s plummeting desirability as an ally and protector: During the visit, Putin billboards around the city were removed, and thousands of demonstrators demanded an end to the security alliance with Russia.

The “referendums” Russia is planning to hold in four regions of Ukraine—the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics,” plus the occupied Kherson region and the occupied parts of and Zaporizhzhia—are unlikely to help Russia’s situation much. The votes, hastily announced on Tuesday and scheduled to be held September 23 through 27, are a blatant sham, presumably without even the pretense of legality that the Kremlin tried to stage during the annexation of Crimea in 2014 when a smattering of far-left and far-right “foreign observers” attended. How the “voting” will work is unclear; Donetsk leader Denis Pushilin has said that ballots will be collected door to door and polling stations will be available as well. All this, of course, has no more democratic validity than kidnapping a neighbor’s children and pets and announcing that they voted to be transferred to your custody. The panicked scramble to hold these so-called votes ahead of the Ukrainian army’s advance—and amidst Ukrainian guerilla resistance in occupied areas—makes the referendums even more blatantly bogus, a grotesque pretext to justify Russia’s war as a supposed defense of its territory.

The referendums will inevitably lead to new rounds of sanctions and, most likely, stepped-up military support for Ukraine—especially in the wake of new revelations about Russian atrocities in occupied areas. But they do have one particularly ominous aspect. If annexed Ukrainian territories become Russian as far as Russia is concerned, it means Russia reserves the right to defend them with nuclear weapons. In his interview with Latynina, Arestovych, the Zelensky advisor, did not rule out the possibility that Russia could use tactical nuclear strikes to take out some Ukrainian troops and presumably intimidate the rest (though Arestovych insisted that Ukrainians would not be intimidated).

Indeed, Putin’s speech alluded to this possibility, declaring that “in the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us.” Several hours later, former pseudo-President Dmitri Medvedev, currently deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, took to Telegram to spell it out. “The referendums will be held,” wrote Medvedev, who was once touted as a liberal alternative to Putin but now postures as an uber-hawk. “The Donbas republics and the other territories will be admitted into Russia. . . . Russia has announced that [their] defense may involve not only our mobilization capabilities but any Russian weapons, including strategic nuclear weapons and weapons based on new principles.”

The cherry on top: Putin, in his speech, also castigated “Washington, London, and Brussels” for resorting to “nuclear blackmail.” It’s a longstanding rule that if you want to know what the Russians are doing, just look at what they accuse its opponents of doing.

The Autumn of Discontent

So far, the main thing mobilization seems to have accomplished is to revive the dormant antiwar protests in Russia. The Russians have good reasons to protest: As a number of Russian commentators have pointed out, it’s far from clear that mobilization will stop at 300,000. The European website of Novaya Gazeta, the dissident media outlet now banned in Russia, reports that a secret clause in Putin’s mobilization order sets the number at a million. The secret clause does exist—the text of the order posted on a Russian government site omits Item No. 7 as “for official use only”—and press secretary Dmitry Peskov has confirmed that it concerns the number of reservists to be called up, but says that it’s the same 300,000 figure publicly stated by the defense minister.

Russian dissenters and expatriates have already started referring to the mobilization (mobilizatsiya in Russian) as universal mogilizatsiya, a dark but clever pun based on the word mogila, grave. Something like “universal tombilization,” in other words: the political gallows humor that has been a Russian mainstay since Soviet times.

Some are fighting back. “Putin to the trenches,” chanted protesters at a rally on Moscow’s Old Arbat, a pedestrian area. It’s unclear how many people have turned out for protests altogether, but on September 21, nearly 1,400 protesters were arrested in 39 cities, according to the Russian human rights group OVD-Info (including at least 538 in Moscow and 479 in St. Petersburg). The arrests were accompanied by the usual brutality from riot police, and male detainees, including ones who were not reservists, were reportedly handed draft notices at the police station—a practice essentially confirmed by Peskov, who told the Interfax news agency that it’s not illegal. In some cases, resistance is taking more violent forms: The day after Putin’s announcement, there were at least five reported arson and firebombing attacks targeting draft centers (and, in one case, a government office building) in cities and small towns around the country.

Whether the protests will gather enough momentum to force meaningful change remains to be seen. But they may not fizzle as quickly as antiwar protests did last spring if mobilization and repressions against evaders continue to affect more Russians. There are already reports of men with no prior military experience receiving draft notices and of doctors in Moscow getting such notices en masse (for what it’s worth, official sources dispute the latter). In five regions—the republics of Dagestan, Tatarstan and Yakutia, as well as the Kursk and Samara provinces—all male reservists have been officially forbidden to leave the jurisdiction where they are registered to be drafted. In Buryatia, there are reports of mass roundups of men in small towns and villages, and school buildings have been hastily converted to draft centers while their students are reassigned to remote learning.

Not all the horror stories may check out; amid chaos and panic, unverified claims can spread very rapidly. It is unclear, for instance, whether a video that supposedly shows university students in Buryatia being marched away (contrary to Putin’s promise that no students will be mobilized) is reliable: The men in the video may be non-student draftees leaving a draft center set up on the university campus. And videos that supposedly show men being stopped and handed draft notices by police inside or just outside subway stations in Moscow may actually be showing migrant laborers having their papers checked.

Even so, there is no question that the “partial mobilization” will have a major disruptive effect on Russian society. Writing in Novaya Gazeta, political scientist Mikhail Komin points out that it drastically changes the tacit “social contract” between Putin and the Russian populace under which people stayed out of politics and allowed the elites to enrich themselves while, in return, the state allowed them a reasonably decent standard of living and mostly left them alone. Now, says Komin, “the machinery of the state has invaded your home and intends to take your son, brother or husband for its own purposes—and this can happen to anyone who is not a part of the elite.” Or, as political satirist Viktor Shenderovich put it, “War has come from the TV screen to the couch of the man watching TV—and the man wasn’t ready for it.”

Whatever effect mobilization ultimately has on the situation in Ukraine, it has greater potential than anything thus far to motivate the Russian people to express their displeasure with Putin’s ugly, botched war of choice. Is this, as dissident Russian punditry almost unanimously claims, the beginning of the end for Putin, a harbinger of imminent doom? Such predictions inevitably have an element of wishful thinking. But today, the possibility that we are watching Putin’s reenactment of Downfall looks more credible than ever.

[Note, Sep. 23, 2022 8:50 a.m. EDT: Due to a production error, this article was published in an incompletely edited state. Some passages from the final version were missing, and one section was present that was intended to be removed. Those changes have now been made.]

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.