The Russian Mobilization Guarantees Little Except Mass Russian Casualties and Fewer Heroes

On September 21, 2022, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin declared partial mobilization, with Sergei Shoigu, his defense minister, announcing that three hundred thousand individuals will be drafted. 

At first glance, the move seems highly formidable given the sheer size of the number. For context, Russia has so far deployed somewhere between two hundred and two hundred and fifty thousand personnel to Ukraine since its full-scale invasion began, according to defense analyst Yago Rodríguez Rodríguez. 

However, this news is by far not as grave as it may seem. According to an explainer by Reuters, 

Western military analysts are divided on whether partial mobilisation is too little too late to alter the course of the war in Moscow’s favour. Most say they think it is too late, but a few say it could help Russia in some ways, though not immediately and not conclusively. 

That should be enough to set most anyone’s heart at rest. After the world’s military analysts presaged a quick Russian victory in the event of an invasion of Ukraine and completely failed to foresee the rapid counter-offensive which recaptured an “area half the size of Wales” from Russia, it should be clear that this is an expert community which tends to overestimate Russia and underestimate Ukraine. Therefore, this new consensus is highly unlikely to reflect wishful thinking. 

One specific bit of commentary came from Sean Bell, a former Air Vice-Marshal and frequent contributor to Sky News. In his words, three hundred thousand “sounds a big number but these people are not trained, they’re not experienced, they’re not ready, and this is an incredibly hostile environment.” 

This comment reveals an assumption which likely informs assessments by many other military analysts, namely the notion that the Kremlin will indeed be able to conscript three hundred thousand people. Russian opposition figures, with their intimate understanding of governance in their country, are less than certain that this will be the case. In an interview shortly after the mobilisation was declared, lawyer and long-time political activist Mark Feygin was decidedly skeptical. Since implementing the partial mobilization was to be the responsibility of Russia’s governors, he opined, the task of meeting the stated quotas would be delegated further and further down the chain of command, creating shortfalls for which the governors would then make excuses to the federal government (14:40–15:45). “After all,” remarked Feygin, “we know how this works in Russia.” Ivan Zhdanov, a major associate of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, chimed in, adding that “the whole country has learned to dodge the draft” (16:14–16:22). 

In this context, it is interesting that according to the Russian government, the portion of the presidential decree ordering partial mobilization which specifies that three hundred thousand people are to be drafted is being kept secret. Perhaps this is a way of avoiding an ironclad commitment to that number, in case it is not achieved. 

If the experts who are overwhelmingly convinced that Moscow’s mobilization will be ineffectual have based their conclusions on the Russian government’s aspirational figure, Russia’s success rate is likely even lower. 

Ukrainians, for their part, seem not at all intimidated by the Kremlin’s decision. Soon after Putin’s announcement, President Zelensky commented that the Kremlin had already been covertly conducting mobilization. Mykhailo Podolyak, one of his advisors, called the step “predictable,” stating that it resembled “an attempt to justify their own failure.” 

Meanwhile, Operator Starsky, a popular commentator on the war and press officer for Ukraine’s National Guard, posted a humorous tweet implying malicious glee at the prospect of fighting untrained Russian draftees. 

Another side to Putin’s new project is that it may be intended to intimidate Western nations. Just as Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive may have been motivated in part by a desire to show the West that the war is winnable, maybe the timing of the Russian announcement of mobilization was intended to rain on that parade and spread defeatist attitudes among the countries that support Ukraine. Yet this effect is likely to be mitigated by the lack of any immediate results from the announcement, as Rodríguez estimates that any effects which the Russian mobilization will have on the course of fighting will start to appear in October at the absolute earliest, but more likely in December and fully only in February or March of next year. Therefore, it seems improbable for this ploy by the Kremlin to have anything resembling a “shock and awe” effect. In fact, if the flooding of the frontlines by unprepared new recruits results in exorbitant Russian casualties, as Air Vice-Marshal Bell’s assessment suggests, the true effect may be to make Russia’s armed forces look weaker than ever. 

Against the backdrop of the impending mobilization, some of Reinhold Niebuhr’s writings take on renewed relevance. In a 1916 article, the great theologian wrote of the First World War that it showed “that the forces of history have not favored individual life as much as we thought.” There is a lot of truth to this conclusion today, as a fairly developed nation seems poised to deploy tens or hundreds of thousands of people as cannon fodder. On other statements of Niebuhr’s, the war in Ukraine provides a different perspective. About “modern warfare,” that article avers: 

The courage that is needed to-day is the submissive courage that executes strategical plans without understanding them and obeys commands without fathoming their purpose. Thus grimness is overshadowing the romance of war, and machinelike precision has become more necessary than spectacular heroism. 

This need not be so, as we have seen in recent months. The invading troops’ lack of purpose for fighting has been a substantial problem for the Russian military. On the defending side, heroic feats have played a prominent and significant role. That brutal, unthinkingly collectivist ways of war can be a matter of choice even in our modern age, reflects Niebuhr’s conception of humans as possessing some degree of freedom and agency by the spiritual element in their nature. 

One can hope that a Ukrainian victory will demonstrate the value of the individual and the dangers of a culture of blind submission to the world. Still, Niebuhr was once again right in remarking that “the assurance that the nations of Europe would arise purified” afforded “little comfort” in the face of “thousands of graves.”