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Putin’s mass mobilization exposes his weakness

The Hill logo The Hill 9/29/2022 Diane Francis, Opinion Contributor
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The mass pushback by young Russians against Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization represents a clear and present danger to the Russian Federation in the long term, but possibly sooner.

Putin announced that 300,000 men with experience would be called up for military service, but the Nobel Peace Prize-winning newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe reported that the real target is 1 million, a belief that is fueling mass protests and departures. Russia is now engaged in 19th-century press gang methods. Thousands are chased down and loaded onto buses and planes for training and deployment to the front lines.

Anti-war protesters without military experience are arrested then forced to enlist to avoid jail. Students are snatched from schools in Siberia. Ukrainians inside occupied areas are being forced to join. Central Asian migrants are targeted, and non-Russian minorities are disproportionately drafted. Two hours after Putin’s announced mobilization, many Russians googled “How to break an arm at home” to evade it.

At a conference last week in Banff, U.S. Special Ambassador to Ukraine Kurt Volker said, “Something’s going to snap on the Russia side. Putin has no way back.” Besides that, his latest drive will simply create a larger ragtag army than the one that already exists that has been outmaneuvered by the cunning Ukrainians.

If Putin believes 300,000 unwilling and hapless conscripts can turn the tide in Russia’s favor, then he has once more succumbed to both overestimating his army and underestimating his foe’s capability.

Another open secret in military circles is that the Russian army is as riddled with alcohol problems as is Russia’s society at large — notably in the poor and remote regions, where recruitment is most aggressive.

Brawling and drunkenness are widespread among Russian soldiers, and a drunken fight in occupied Kherson recently left three Russian soldiers dead, according to reports. The Russian military forbids alcohol from being available or sold within 300 meters of military bases in eastern Russia, but there are reports that before the invasion Russian troops traded fuel and food for alcohol.

After the Feb. 24 invasion, drunkenness was prevalent, as was the case during the eight-year Donbas border conflict with Ukrainians that dragged on after Russia’s first invasion in 2014.

This mobilization marks a new, sinister pivot by Putin, speculates German military expert Gustav Gressel. “They’re [Russian forces] pretty much in disarray,” he said. “This force is exhausted by now. It can’t be regenerated by volunteers. My gut feeling is that Putin doesn’t really care about the inferior quality [of new troops being assembled]. So, my guess is that the overall aim of this is to make Ukraine run out of bullets before Russia runs out of soldiers.”

In other words, Putin’s strategy is to weaponize his soldiers by using them as “cannon fodder.” This would, if true, take a page from Stalin’s hideous World War II “human-wave tactic,” which consisted of pushing forward large numbers of inadequately armed or trained Russian infantry to grind down the Germans. Casualties back then were horrific, as they are now. But no one knows how many there have been except Putin, who admits to only 6,000 deaths — and yet he is calling up 300,000 more replacements.

Even more shocking, his recruitment efforts are targeting Russians of Asian origin, such as Tatars, Asian ethnics in Siberia and the Far East, as well as Central Asian migrants who are working in Russia.

“Look at the guys taken prisoner in the east of Ukraine. There are few soldiers with Slavic appearance among them,” said Valentina Chupik, a migrant rights activist who was deported from Russia last year. “In my opinion, the chauvinist, racist and Nazi government of Russia is simply using migrant workers as ‘cannon fodder.’ This is done so that there is less noise, so that the mothers of Russian soldiers do not make a fuss when they receive the ‘Cargo 200’ [death notice].”

Europe has also kept the pressure on Russia by refusing to accept Russians seeking asylum from the war. Gabrielus Landsbergis, Lithuania’s minister of foreign affairs, tweeted that Russian draft-dodgers are attempting to evade taking responsibility and changing their system. “Lithuania will not be granting asylum to those who are simply running from responsibility. Russians should stay and fight. Against Putin,” he stated on Twitter.

The military setbacks in Ukraine, the new rush for the exits, plus Europe’s tougher stance, is filtering through to the Russian public with some impact. According to one poll, about 20 percent of Russians say they do not agree with their government’s actions in Ukraine, an increase from 14 percent in March.

Anti-war cracks appear in Russia, and Putin’s final energy card in Europe has backfired and emboldened the continent. But neither side in the conflict will cede ground or negotiate, which means the war will likely last well into 2023.

Diane Francis is a non-resident senior fellow in the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. She is editor-at-large of National Post in Canada, a columnist for Kyiv Post and author of 10 books. She writes a twice-weekly newsletter about America and the World on Substack.

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