Panic swept across Russia after President Vladimir Putin announced a mass mobilization on September 21 with tens of thousands heading to the border to escape conscription into the Russian army. Evening protests had appeared in 32 cities across the country’s 11 time zones, but their scale was small. Russian society has yet to reach the tipping point where the population can topple Putin’s regime.
“It’s panic now,” said Katya, an upscale residential property manager. bne IntelliNews, asking that his last name be withheld because criticizing the Kremlin campaign in Ukraine is illegal. “Nobody is sure what is going on. There are still flights out of the country and some of our customers are talking about going away on the weekend. But it is not clear if they can leave. Everything will become a little clearer in the next few days.
While the mobilization was widely described as “partial”, the wording of Putin’s decree places no limits on the mobilization order. However, at this point it is clear that the Kremlin is limiting the call as it tries to strike a balance between finding more men to throw into the battle in Ukraine, but not calling as many to spark mass protests. .
“Essential fact: the majority of Russians only care about their daily lives. Therefore, the reaction will depend on whether [the mobilisation] will affect everyday life,” Greg Yudin, head of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, said in a tweet. “It’s not clear yet. Putin can very well continue with [a] piecemeal strategy. He created a legal framework to expand it and stop/compensate leaks in his army. In this case, few people will be affected.
Yudin goes on to say that due to the limited nature of the appeal, the fact that it is applied most aggressively in the poorest regions of Russia and that reactionary groups like students have been excluded until ‘Now, Putin’s famous social contact – “you don’t interfere in politics and we won’t interfere in your lives” – has yet to be broken.
Restrictions on any man between the ages of 18 and 35 leaving the country have been announced, but according to reports, authorities are not strictly enforcing the rule. Some airlines have been ordered not to sell tickets to men between the ages of 18 and 35, but footage on social media showed long lines of cars forming at land borders with Finland and Georgia. So far, it looks like those who want to flee the country can.
“The borders are not closed. People may be allowed to leave and then return freely when they realize there is no imminent danger – as happened in February [when the war in Ukraine started]says Yudin. “Putin always tries to please both the passive majority and the crazed militarist minority.”
Apparently Putin is allowing those willing to flee the country to do so, according to Denis Cenusa, Russia Watcher and bne IntelliNews donor.
“This conclusion is drawn from the way flows at border crossings with Georgia and Mongolia (so far). Moscow prioritizes two things: 1) preserving some internal stability by arresting those who protest and leaving the door open for those who can leave; 2) limit the extent to which forced recruitment can lead to the creation of deserters within the forces sent to Ukraine, which may in fact help the liberation of Ukraine more than the Russian occupation,” Cenusa said.
While news reports over the past 24 hours have focused on protests and border gridlocks, there are also reports that many Russians have enthusiastically pledged to fight. Putin’s personal popularity remains high and although there is widespread passive acceptance of the war, there is a minority who have bought into Putin’s ‘Russia under NATO attack’ narrative.
“Many Russian men voluntarily join the army to fight in Ukraine. As can be seen in the video about the departures of men from Yakutia. They look over 35 years old. This leads to the assumption that those protesting or fleeing are between 18 and 35 years old,” says Cenusa.
The Kremlin’s strategy appears to be to let those who want to leave flee the country, as they are also the people most likely to attend mass protests if these were to grow. The Kremlin can then better control those who end up with repressive threats of prison. And so far, the strategy is working.
After Putin’s televised address in the morning, the NGO Vesna called for protests across the country. Several thousand took to the streets across the capital, and more than 1,300 were arrested, according to the NGO OVD Info. Authorities had already tried to stop the protest on the same day, warning that anyone who took part would be arrested and taken directly to army recruiting offices. The day before, the Duma had significantly toughened the penalties for protests and evasion with prison terms of up to 15 years in prison.
More than 1,300 people were arrested during the biggest protests and around 500 were stopped in each of Russia’s twin capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg respectively (mainly women). Protesters in the central regions of Ulan-Ude were seen carrying handwritten signs saying “No War! No mobilization! and “Our husbands, fathers and brothers don’t want to kill other husbands and fathers.” A large proportion of Russian army recruits hail from Buryatia, of which Ulan-Ude is the capital, and have also suffered a disproportionate number of Ukrainian battlefield deaths. But in absolute terms, the number of participants was low.
“It was disappointing,” a protester in St. Petersburg told a bne IntelliNews correspondent there. “I felt like I was almost alone. You would have thought more people would have come out considering how big the day was.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the same day that only 300,000 reservists would be called up out of a total pool of 25 million eligible candidates and it was reported that most come from impoverished regions such as Chechnya and Siberian cities. The authorities seem for the moment deliberately avoiding Moscow and Saint Petersburg, the two most reactionary cities in Russia.
But many questions about Putin’s Ukrainian “surge” remain unanswered. The Russian military has proven unable to properly supply or coordinate the 190,000 troops it already has under its control. How will he deal with double the number?
It will also be expensive. The August budget was on the verge of going into deficit and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said last week that the government expected to end this year with a deficit of 2% of GDP as export revenues from oil and gas were collapsing. So far, the war in Ukraine has absorbed all of the budget surpluses from the first half of this year, but those costs are likely to double.
“According to this estimate, 300,000 conscripts will cost the Russian federal budget 1.3 trillion rubles ($21.7 billion) per year. This is slightly less than the budget surplus for the first half of this year. But that surplus has since evaporated and they are unlikely to recruit 300,000 people,” said Andras Toth-Czifra, political analyst and bne IntelliNews contributor, citing Russian publication finanz.ru. And that cost is only for salaries and before these men are fed, clothed and equipped.