Events and trends in the Russian Federation over the week of September 17th – 23rd
1.The Russian Federation is entering into increasing contradictions with the countries of the non-Western world regarding the concept of confrontation with the USA and its allies. For the first time during the war in Ukraine, China and India, on behalf of non-Western powers, publicly declared to Russia their disagreement with their policy on Ukraine and called on Moscow to make concessions.
2. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on partial mobilization. Although the figure of 300,000 people was announced, the mobilization measures’ accurate scale is likely much more significant. Such a decision (like referendums in the occupied territories) is dictated by the need to return the initiative on the fronts in Ukraine and internal political considerations. This move is explained by the strengthening of Putin and his entourage’s positions in the hope of diplomatic and military success in the next 4-6 months.
With the latest decisions, Putin has stabilized his own position within the Russian Federation for the next 4-5 months. However, the lack of apparent successes in the war and foreign policy after the end of this term threatens him with a wave-like growth of problems. In particular, Russia’s foreign policy sphere of influence will begin to disintegrate at an accelerated pace; Russia will cease to be perceived as a global player, and even the regional leaders will build their spheres of influence without considering the opinion of the Kremlin. Failures on the front in Ukraine and the above challenges in foreign policy will create the prerequisites for an internal political crisis in the Russian Federation, which can follow one of two scenarios: a palace coup with the removal of Putin or a wave-like growth of protests, supported by a part of the elites and people from today’s environment (which will lead to a reconfiguration of the Russian government).
3. The exchange of prisoners occurred on the same day when a large-scale mobilization of reservists began in Russia. President Putin made a speech about the transition to total war. However, the prisoners’ exchange with Ukraine increased public dissatisfaction. The political exchange of V. Medvedchuk, who is not a Russian citizen, and after the start of the war, was publicly accused of providing false information about the desire of Ukrainians to “greet” the aggressor, caused particularly sharp criticism. The February 24th invasion was based on similar misinformation and led to the complete failure of the first phase of the war.
The transfer of the “Azov” regiment’s commanders to Ukraine destroyed the Russian information myth about “denazification” as one of the publicly shared goals of the war. In the Russian mass consciousness, the Azov regiment was demonstrated as those nationalists against whom a full-scale war was launched. The voluntary surrender of the commanders of this unit completely contradicts official propaganda. It can be predicted that talks about “denazification” will gradually disappear from the agenda inside Russia and in international negotiations.
Mobilization and “referendums”: raising the stakes in the foreign field and an attempt of Putin’s stabilization inside the Russian Federation
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on partial mobilization. Although the figure of 300,000 people was announced, the mobilization measures’ accurate scale is likely much more extensive. Such a decision (like referendums in the occupied territories) is dictated by the need to return the initiative on the fronts in Ukraine and internal political considerations. This move is explained by the strengthening of Putin and his entourage’s positions in the hope of diplomatic and military success in the next 4-6 months.
Apart from Putin’s order to hold partial mobilization and Shoigu’s speech with information about “losses” and the scale of mobilization, a few more facts should be mentioned:
- Sharp criticism by several radical leaders (supporters of the war in Ukraine) of the military and political decisions of the country’s leadership, accusations of Putin’s entourage for the defeat in the Kharkiv region, and demands for mobilization;
- Kadyrov’s calls for “self-mobilization” of the regions;
- Previous attempts to carry out covert mobilization, including the recruitment of prisoners to the PMC (private military company);
- Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation regarding liability for evasion of military service during martial law or mobilization;
- Conduct referendums in the occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions.
The key reason for the mobilization in the Russian Federation is the loss of initiative by the Russian forces at the front and the inability to achieve even the minimum of the announced goals of the “special military operation” – the capture of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions within their administrative borders. The defeat in the Kharkiv region was only part of this process, but it triggered the mobilization decision. Moreover, if the Russian leadership could talk about “deliberately slowing down the pace of the offensive” before the counterattack in Slobozhanshchyna, then already in mid-September, they were talking about expecting new strikes by Ukrainian Armed Forces without confidence in their ability to repel.
Russia tried to enter into a dialogue with the EU states to pressure Ukraine in negotiations on freezing the conflict. For this purpose, it used the usual tactics of blackmail and “increasing the rates”. In particular, on the following issues:
- supply of energy carriers to the EU;
- nuclear and radiation threat;
- food market (supply of grains and fertilizers);
- escalation of the conflict and bringing it to a new level (including holding referendums).
However, such steps did not give the expected result. Moreover, Russia, demonstrating its inability to achieve its military goals in Ukraine, faced the dissolution of its influence on the world stage, as shown by the SCO summit, where China established its leadership in the organization. The states that claim the role of regional leaders (India, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan), demonstrated a readiness to act without taking into account the “default” Russian interests, even in regions that the Kremlin classified as a zone of “its influence”. This led to a change in the position of the post-Soviet states, in particular regarding rapprochement with the “new centers of power”.
The main internal political reason for the decision to hold mobilization and announce referendums was the inability of propaganda to find a “formula for success” and a convenient “formula for defeat” in light of the arrival of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the Kharkiv region. The week-long silence and the thesis about “redeployment” (which has already collapsed in part of the statements about the future stabilization along the Oskol River) was a strong blow to the propaganda structure.
Because of the war, the Kremlin faced criticism from its radicals, who favored full-scale war. This group is heterogeneous and does not pose an immediate threat. However, criticism of the leadership of the Russian Federation based on imperial narratives (which the Kremlin itself uses) creates risks in the future.
An additional aspect of risk growth is the unevenness of losses (recognized and actual) in the regions of Russia. Thus, according to the BBC data and the partial analysis of obituaries in the local press and social networks, it is possible to derive the TOP-10 with the most significant number of deaths per 100,000 population and the TOP-10 regions with the minimum share of losses. The top ten subjects of the Russian Federation, which are the largest war donors, include primarily “depressed” regions, in which the unemployment rate is 2-5 times higher than the Russian average, and the average salary level (in ten regions) is 73% of the Russian average. On the contrary, the regions with the minimum “share” of deaths include the wealthiest regions, where the unemployment rate is lower than the national average, and the average wage level (in ten regions) is 138% of the Russian average. At the same time, for example, only 0.18 deaths per 100,000 population were recorded in Moscow and 29 in Tyva. The difference is 160 times.
Decision logic and conclusions
The logic behind the decision to mobilize and hold referendums can be broken down into three components: domestic policy considerations, military necessity, and foreign policy.
1. Domestic policy considerations
Announcing mobilization and holding “referendums” in the occupied territories, the Kremlin is trying to prevent the internal political situation in Russia from shaking.
In matters of mobilization, the Kremlin (and the Russian mass media) over the last month have finally shifted the emphasis on coverage of the war in Ukraine. The thesis of “protecting Donbas” and “denazification” of Ukraine took a backseat: the main carcass became the confrontation with the “collective West”, which allegedly intends to destroy Russia. This made it possible to start developing the thesis structure regarding the need no longer for “operations in Ukraine but “defense of the homeland”.
Scaling up the image of the “enemy” makes it possible to give an “explanation” to the defeats – the EU and the USA oppose the forces involved in the “special military operation”. It made it possible to explain the mobilization measures logically – more resources are needed to confront a stronger enemy.
In a regional context, mobilization allows postponing the growth of tension in the subjects of the Federation caused by the uneven distribution of losses in the war in Ukraine. After all, they are mobilizing “throughout the country”.
In this logic, the detention of participants of anti-war rallies in the cities of the Russian Federation plays the same role. On the one hand, they demonstrate a readiness to “force the residents of fairly rich regions to love the homeland” (which were involved in the war to a lesser extent). On the other hand, it sends potential activists to the front who could try to organize protests at later (and more dangerous) stages. The departure of some war opponents from the territory of Russia also reduces the future protest potential.
But the most important thing is the partial neutralization of protest sentiments in radical circles and an attempt to strengthen Putin’s image as a “leader”. The announcement of referendums (with the prospect of applications for annexing the occupied territories) gives society a picture of victory. Shortly, Russians will be able to forget about Kharkiv when Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are annexed to Russia. Mobilization measures fully meet the demands of radical groups. The assurance of equality of rights for PMC mercenaries and service members of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation is an attempt to level the conflicts that arose in the previous phase of the war.
2. Military aspects
The first and critical aspect of the preparation of normative acts on mobilization (amendments to the Criminal Code and Putin’s decree) is an attempt to find reserves to stabilize the situation at the front:
- Criminal responsibility for refusing to fight and breaking the contract (the so-called “five hundred”) will allow sending those who returned to places of permanent deployment or wrote reports for release to the front.
- Mobilization will also make it possible to recruit citizens of the Russian Federation who have resigned from the service in the last 5-7 years and did not wish to return to service for the war in Ukraine.
These two aspects provide up to 20,000-30,000 trained soldiers and officers, which Russia will be able to transfer to the front during the next month.
The next most massive wave will likely be sent to Ukraine at the end of November – December 2022.
Thus, the Kremlin expects to stabilize the situation shortly and, in 2-3 months, try to seize the initiative and organize large-scale offensive actions in the logic of using human power advantage.
Mobilization in the occupied territories of Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv regions (after referendums) will allow imagining the war in Ukraine as partially a “civil conflict”, a “citizen’s protest against the government in Kyiv”.
3. Foreign policy considerations
Putin’s entourage is once again increasing the stakes. Russia desperately needs a demonstration of the “success” of its “operation” in both military and political components. Without successes at the front and attempts to demonstrate political results (referendums), the processes of Russia’s zones of influence destruction, even in the post-Soviet space, will become irreversible already in 2023.
Returning the initiative in the war with Ukraine (or depriving Ukraine’s initiative on the front) together with raising the stakes and demonstrating Russia’s readiness to escalate the conflict, in the logic of Putin’s entourage, should create an additional line of blackmail by the EU and the USA after entering into a political dialogue (including the freezing of war in Ukraine).
Russia abandoned the idea of a “quick victory”. Therefore, it will proceed with preventing the defeat and destabilization of the situation in (and around) Ukraine. In particular:
- striking civilian (energy, transport, etc.) infrastructure;
- trying to destabilize the economic and political situation in several EU countries;
- continuing to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of partners;
- threatening the EU and the US with the escalation of the conflict up to the nuclear war.
Putin, faced with the threat of his discrediting and the destruction of the image of the “leader”, significantly raised the stakes. Thus, he stabilized his own position within the Russian Federation for the next 4-5 months. However, the lack of apparent war and foreign policy successes after the end of this term threatens him with a wave-like growth of issues.
- Russia’s foreign policy circle of influence will begin to disintegrate at an accelerated pace. Including successful (!) attempts to withdraw from Russian influence in post-Soviet states where the positions of the Russian Federation were traditionally strong (Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan).
- Russia will cease to be perceived as a global player, and even regional leaders will build their spheres of influence without considering the Kremlin’s opinion.
- Failures on the front in Ukraine and the challenges listed above in foreign policy will create the prerequisites for an internal political crisis in the Russian Federation, which can follow one of two scenarios: a palace coup with the removal of Putin or a wave-like growth of protests, supported by elites and persons from today’s environment (which will lead to a reconfiguration of the Russian government).
Therefore, taking the war to a new level, Putin will try by all means to create the illusion of “victory” or “Ukraine’s large-scale defeats.”
Unfortunately, we should be prepared for attempts by the Russian Federation to launch massive missile strikes on critical infrastructure facilities. The first tests in the Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia regions have passed. However, the most dangerous period is winter, when possible interruptions in energy supply, heating, and water supply become the most critical.
We can also expect possible strikes in the governmental quarter in Kyiv.
Finally, as Putin’s last trump card, we should not exclude the risk of a tactical nuclear strike.
In foreign policy, the Russian Federation may try to use the mechanisms of the CSTO or make the states of the former USSR choose between the “or” and “or” in any other way, . However, today, in light of its defeats, this is unlikely. This scenario is possible after the Kremlin demonstrates “success in the war.”