Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed the unexpected in just under a week: upending the social contract that has kept him in power for over two decades.
Putin’s deal with the Russian electorate has long been that they would stay out of politics and he would guarantee a modicum of stability – which seemed to be the bargain on offer when Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
At the time, Putin was careful to emphasize that the military assault – euphemistically referred to as a “special military operation” – would only be fought by military professionals. That was a fiction, and one that allowed many Russians to be lulled into a sense of normalcy, going about their lives in Moscow or St. Petersburg indifferent to the horrific carnage in Ukraine.
The “partial mobilization” declared last week by the Kremlin leader has abruptly ended that and fear is now convulsing Russia’s body politic. The long lineups of cars queuing at Russia’s borders with Finland, Georgia and Mongolia show that thousands of Russian men eligible for military service are voting with their feet. Protests are erupting in ethnic minority regions. And military enlistment offices are being set on fire – and a recruitment officer has been shot.
Rumors are now swirling that the Russian government may be preparing to close its borders, prevent military-age men from leaving the country altogether, or announce some form of martial law.
The Kremlin’s denials have not been reassuring.
“I don’t know anything about it,” Kremlin press spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters when asked about possible border closures. “There are no decisions regarding this yet.”
Putin built his power in Russia by positioning himself as the opposite of former leader Boris Yeltsin, who presided over Russia’s chaotic post-Soviet transition in the 1990s. But today, scenes of angry crowds confronting officials and brawling with local police over the conscription of husbands and sons look very much like a flashback to that decade.
The same goes for the scenes emerging on Russian Telegram channels and other social media. Some appear to show Russian draftees receiving news that they will be sent to the front with scant training. One widely shared video shows a woman in military uniform telling new inductees that they need to provide their own essential kit, from sleeping bags to tourniquets.
“Ask girlfriends, wives, mothers for sanitary pads, the cheapest sanitary pads plus the cheapest tampons,” she says in the unverified video. “Do you know what the tampons are for? Gunshot wound, you plug it in, it starts to swell and it supports the walls. Men, I know this from Chechnya.”
The first war in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996 ended with a humiliating defeat for the Russian Federation. It laid bare both corruption in the ranks and the collapse of Russia’s military might.
Putin rode to power on the second Chechen war that began in 1999. In that war, the Kremlin was much more careful about controlling the media, helping Putin create an aura of competence and toughness.
But the images of dead and captured Russian soldiers and destroyed hardware in Ukraine today offer strong visual parallels with the disastrous first Chechen War, when photographers captured images of frightened and poorly-equipped conscripts in Chechen captivity.
Putin presided over a professionalization of the Russian military that was supposed to reduce the use of conscripts in favor of contract service. There’s a reason for this: Treatment of draftees in the Russian military is traditionally brutal, and activist groups such as the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers mobilized during the Chechen wars to help provide legal advice to conscripts. Russian mothers famously organized to retrieve their sons who had been taken prisoner by the Chechens and often challenged the authorities over their treatment of soldiers.
Recent protests against Putin’s partial mobilization are a reminder that the draft remains a third rail in Russian political life. In heated protests against the mobilization Sunday in Makhachkala, the regional capital of the north Caucasus region of Dagestan, women were captured in social media videos confronting police, saying, “Why are you taking our children? Who attacked who? It’s Russia that attacked Ukraine!”
That explains why Putin’s most ardent propagandists are also channeling some of the public rage over what appears to be a dragnet by local officials, with officials issuing call-up papers to medically disqualified men and banging on doors to meet apparent quotas.
Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of state TV channel RT (formerly Russia Today) posted a series of complaints about heavy-handedness by officials on social media, including one case involving an employee going on vacation with return ticket in hand who was turned back at the border.
Still, such criticism of officials overzealously or incompetently carrying out orders is not directed at Putin. It’s reminiscent of an old trope from Russian history of the “good tsar” and “bad boyars.” The tsar – in this case, Putin – is seen popularly as a wise, munificent (albeit distant) ruler, while his conniving local subordinates and lower-level functionaries are to blame for undermining his good intentions. They, not the ruler, are the targets of popular anger.
There’s also an implied threat here. It’s not just the bad local officials who can be punished for failing to meet their quotas properly. The call-up is also a tool meant to instil fear and passivity. In another social-media post, Simonyan with satisfaction noted that draft summons had been issued to men who took part in an anti-mobilization protest on the Arbat, a central thoroughfare in Moscow.
“All the men who were attended the rally against mobilization on the Arbat were issued over 200 draft notices. Another shipment prepared,” she wrote. “Better them than the Teacher of the Year from Pskov, in my view.”
Competently carried out or not, the partial mobilization may be on of Putin’s riskiest moves to date. And while his grip on power remains strong, he is pulling on a foundation block of Russia’s Jenga puzzle.