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The Week In Russia: Desperate Times, Desperate Measures?


Russian police forcibly detain a man during street protests in Moscow on September 21 against the mobilization of reservists ordered by President Vladimir Putin.

Faced with more military setbacks in Ukraine, Russia seeks to rope in four regions by staging referendums widely denounced as a sham, and President Vladimir Putin decrees a “partial” mobilization in a bid to bolster the ranks of his struggling forces. Will that move backfire at home?

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Legacy Of War

It’s only 2022, but Putin has made some big mistakes in this decade – or at least, some decisions that will darkly cloud his legacy, at the very least, and put his political future at risk.

It didn’t have to be this way. After his election to a fourth presidential term in 2018, he could have left the constitution alone and made clear that, in 2024, he would head into a secure retirement -- or something like it -- at age 71.

Instead, in January 2020, Putin sent “tandem” partner Dmitry Medvedev packing after almost eight years as prime minister, signaling that he was not planning to coast toward a pension or a lofty position on the sidelines.

Then he engineered a host of constitutional amendments that, like foam filler surrounding a small gift in a cartoonishly big box, seemed designed to cushion a single amendment: the one that lets him run for reelection in 2024 and in 2030.

Those changes were accompanied by a heightened clampdown on dissent and by the poisoning of his strongest foe, Aleksei Navalny, in August 2020, which the now-imprisoned opposition leader blames on Putin.

Navalny survived, but his return to Russia in January 2021, following treatment in Germany, was met with another sharp escalation of the state’s suppression of opponents real, perceived, and fabricated.

Then came the invasion of Ukraine, a large-scale assault from three sides that dramatically escalated what had been a simmering conflict in the Donbas and sharply worsened already heavily strained relations with the West.

The unprovoked invasion, of course, has done a lot more than that. It has killed a large number of civilians – the UN believes the actual toll is “considerably higher” than the 5,718 deaths it had recorded by early September – and more than 9,000 Ukrainian soldiers, according to their commander in chief.

The anonymity of the raw, elusive numbers frequently gives way to unutterably painful personal stories: from the woman and her daughter and son killed by shelling in Irpin near Kyiv in March to the 11-year-old girl fatally injured in a rocket attack last week on Chuhuyiv, near Kharkiv, and many, many more.

And those are deaths caused by bombs, rockets, and shells raining down from above. On the ground, Russian forces have been accused of atrocities almost everywhere they’ve been, leaving horror stories to be told by survivors after their retreat.

Describing a “pattern” of violent behavior by Russian soldiers, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the UN Security Council on September 22 that there is “mounting” proof of Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

'These Are Not Referendums'

In addition to the civilians killed and maimed, the Russian onslaught has driven far larger numbers of Ukrainians from their homes, with nearly 7.5 million refugees recorded in Europe and millions displaced within Ukraine. Many others have ended up in Russia by force of arms or circumstance, leading to accusations that Moscow is abducting Ukrainian children.

Russia is “violently uprooting” thousands of Ukrainians and busing in Russian citizens to manipulate the results of referendums on joining Russia that the Moscow-imposed administrators of four regions where Russian forces hold territory – and from which many of those millions of Ukrainians have fled -- abruptly announced are taking place on September 23-27.

Marie Dumoulin, a former career French diplomat who now heads the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told RFE/RL on September 22 that “there is basically no legitimacy whatsoever in these votes,” which are being held in wartime in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions.

“These are not referendums, so I wouldn’t even comment about them in terms of democracy or the rule of law,” Dumoulin said. “We cannot consider that there has been any form of legitimate voting in these regions under the current conditions.”

Of the four regions, Russian forces control only Luhansk in anything close to its entirety, and the decision to hold the annexation votes now – clearly made in the Kremlin –was widely seen as a result of military setbacks that have left their ability to keep the lands they hold, let alone advance further, deeply in doubt.

Endorsing the so-called referendums in an address on September 21, the day after they were announced, Putin issued a warning -- not even thinly veiled -- that he could order the use of nuclear weapons to maintain hold of these territories once the process is over and they are declared by Russia to be parts of Russia.

“Basically, what Russia is trying to achieve is to consolidate its control over these territories -- not by military means, but by political ones -- by organizing these pseudo-referendums and then saying these are parts of Russian territory,” Dumoulin said.

“[If] Russia can’t control these territories by military means, it intends to make them part of its own territory [through the so-called referendums] so that the West and Ukraine fear heavy consequences if Ukraine continues its counteroffensive,” she said.

Putin’s speech on September 21 was his first address to the nation since the morning of the invasion in February -- a time when he apparently believed that Russian forces would subjugate Ukraine within days, seizing Kyiv and setting up a pro-Moscow government.

Eight months later, that outcome seems out of the question, and Russia’s military setbacks – both from the start and in recent weeks, when Ukrainian forces have regained a large swath of territory in the east, mostly in the Kharkiv region – were clearly behind Putin’s announcement of what he called a “partial” mobilization.

Mobilize This

The mobilization, in which Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the military would aim to call up 300,000 men, is a risky move for Putin, who had avoided such efforts for months – despite a shortage of soldiers -- amid apparent concerns about the political consequences.

It undermined what for many Russians had been a condition of at least tacit support for a war that is threatening to gut the economy and has made their country a “pariah,” as pop icon Alla Pugacheva put it in a denunciation of a conflict that is “causing the deaths of our boys for illusory goals”: that for the most part, they themselves -- or their sons, husbands, and loved ones -- do not have to fight in it.

In his broadcast remarks and his mobilization decree, Putin repeated the word “partial” like a mantra.

But the fine print included few actual limits, and there may be nothing to stop Putin and the military from digging deeper into the pool of possible fighters – or from trying to, at least -- if they feel the need. With analysts saying it may be all but impossible for Russia to mobilize 300,000 people, they may feel that need fairly soon.

“This mobilization phase may just be the beginning of more mobilization,” Michael Kofman, a military analyst who heads the Russia Studies program at U.S.-based think tank CNA, said in an online discussion hours after Putin’s address. “Everybody in Russia understands they could be in the next wave, and that this is only the beginning.”

Even from afar, that concern was palpable in the wake of Putin’s announcement.

Plane tickets disappeared quickly as a draft-age men headed for the exits, scrambling for seats on flights abroad or crossing the border by car – an exodus that echoes the one that ensued after Putin launched the large-scale invasion in February, a step many clung to the hope he wouldn’t make, despite his increasingly audible signals as well as warnings from Washington that the assault could begin any day.

'Into The Muck'

Far from the airports and the frontier, others dismayed by the mobilization decree protested in the centers of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and many other cities, some chanting “Putin to the trenches.” Police plunged into crowds; nationwide, more than 1,300 people were arrested at protests against mobilization, according to the monitoring group OVD-Info.

The numbers of people protesting or heading for the borders may not be large enough to give Putin pause. But opposition to the mobilization drive goes beyond those who took to the streets in protest.

“I don’t support it at all,” a man in Yekaterinburg told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “I’d rather go to prison. I won’t fight for this government.”

Putin may not be listening, but these sentiments suggest that there are limits to levels of support for the invasion of Ukraine -- and they will be reached faster if the setbacks keep piling up.

“Putin is stuck in a quagmire, where the clearest way out is to stop, turn around, and go back out of Ukraine the way he came in,” Max Bergmann, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote on September 21. “Yet leaders stuck in an unwinnable war often just wade deeper into the muck. Putin is following that well-charted path, and his regime may not survive.”

Editor's Note: The next edition of The Week In Russia will appear on October 7.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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