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OPINION

Panic attack. The Kremlin's desperate attempts to reverse course of war only make things worse

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In the ninth month of a full-scale war against Ukraine, there is no sign that Moscow, which has been gradually weakening in every respect, intends to abandon its suicidal course. For months now, it has been trying to get a respite from the war, but not put an end to it, using escalation as its only tool.

The ongoing mobilization, the proclaimed annexation of the occupied territories, the terror tactics against Ukrainian cities, the declaration of martial law in Russia, together with rhetoric addressed urbi et orbi and designed to discredit Ukraine and its leadership across a wide range of topics – from radiological weapons (the notorious “dirty bomb”) to Satanism, ⸺ all are parts of the same scenario.

The Kremlin is doing its best to prolong its own agony on the battlefield in the hope that it will manage to “turn the tables” or that the international situation will change radically as a result of either domestic political and economic problems in the West or some radical actions of other players, or a combination of these factors. However, the current escalation has already become a way to preserve the stability of the power structure within Russia itself.

Genocide and “people's war” narrative

It is important that the Kremlin has not yet abandoned the initial strategic goal of its aggression ⸺ the destruction of Ukraine as a state and the annihilation of Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian society. Moreover, the Russian government continues to publicly question Ukraine's independence at all levels, and rhetorically equates its armed forces with irregular terrorist formations. And by using the war with NATO myth it attempts to consolidate itself internally and justify the ultimate subjugation of Russian society, on which the “people's war” or even religious war paradigm is being imposed. Among other things, this serves to justify a further decline in living standards and the inevitable economic mobilization that will mean a transition to a command economy.

The Kremlin is interested in breaking the established international order, under which it has no future, and in its own internal survival at all costs amid rapidly dwindling resources available for redistribution and the purchase of loyalties. The circle of beneficiaries of the Russian political-economic system is also shrinking, and the cognitive dissonance of what is happening in all strata of Russian society is growing stronger.

Under such conditions, violence toward Ukraine inevitably converts into a spiral of coercion and violence within Russia. There are virtually no painless prospects here: either further self-isolation from the world for an indefinite period if the Kremlin manages to keep the situation under control, or a cycle of domestic political turbulence, which can be followed by the prospect of either positive transformation and pacification or further political, economic, and cultural degradation.

Violence toward Ukraine converts into a spiral of violence inside Russia

Problems of Mobilization and False Let-Ups

The mobilization of citizens for war is in its second month and tends to become a regular process, coming in waves. At first, the Kremlin may indeed have assumed it would be able to stabilize the situation and achieve the desired respite. In order to do this, it left in the army those who had to or were going to resign this fall, and also recruited those who could be reached by military enlistment offices and tried to combine this with the tactics of terror against Ukraine and the blackmail of the international community. However, neither Ukraine nor the world succumbed to the pressure, the hostilities continued. And it is not possible to make a full-fledged army out of mobilized men ⸺ those people are already being consumed in batches. All of this again raises the question of new reinforcements the Russian authorities need to produce to fill the gaps at the front.

Generally, out of the declared plan to mobilize 300,000 people (albeit unsupported by documents), the Kremlin was officially able to recruit 222,000 by October 14 and 260,000 by October 21. At the same time, on October 25, Sergei Sobyanin, mayor of Moscow, reported that the regions were able to set up 60,000 accommodation centers for the mobilized. Such discrepancies in numbers can only be explained by the fact that the bulk of those formally mobilized are active servicemen ⸺ just those who were supposed to resign in the fall upon completion or termination of their contracts, which have now become perpetual, as well as a significant part of the 127,500 draftees called up during the last fall campaign.

Given this, I estimate that between 100,000 and 120,000 civilians were mobilized, a number comparable to the number of draftees called up every six months. And now the Russian military machine is trying to “digest” them. Moreover, earlier Russia in fact rejected the very concept of mobilization deployment of the army, because such deployment was considered pointless ⸺ hence the problems with supplying the mobilized and the lack of commanders for them (there are commanders only on the battlefield). In addition, had the mobilization been proceeding smoothly, it would not have been necessary to keep recruiting convicted prisoners for the war and hastily pass a forgotten bill to allow mobilization of citizens previously convicted on felony charges.

However, despite the need to “digest” the mobilized and focus on the fall draft, the mobilization will continue for as long as the corresponding presidential decree is in force, and as long as the war continues. This means that “additional drafts” into the army as part of the mobilization effort are practically inevitable. Probably, they will not exceed 30,000-40,000 people every few months for the sake of filling the newly appearing gaps at the front and compensating for the possible shortage of conscripts.

It should not be forgotten that this fall the number of draftees wanting to sign an open-ended contract will inevitably and significantly decrease. This will raise the question of sending conscripts to the war again, especially since there are no legal obstacles to doing this, except for the need to ensure 4 months of training. By and large, today the Russian government can already send conscripts drafted in the spring of 2022 to the front.

Difficulties of transition to a military economy

At the same time, there have been attempts to conduct economic mobilization in order to make up for Russia's heavy losses of armaments and military equipment. However, no plan for it has been made so far. The government coordination council set up for this purpose has not shown any serious activity, and looks more like the Kremlin's desire to distribute responsibility for the criminal war among the broadest possible circle of the Russian elite and bureaucracy.

As for the Russian regions, where the authorities have introduced different levels of readiness for martial law following its imposition on the territories of Ukraine occupied and annexed by Russia, and where corresponding headquarters have been established, there is no significant activity there either. However, all of this does not rule out the prospect of tougher actions by the authorities as the situation deteriorates.

Nonetheless, the Kremlin has been trying to take certain steps in this direction since the summer. Regular inspections of military-industrial enterprises by members of the government and the Security Council, as well as demands and even threats addressed to the management and workers of those enterprises, indicate that the Russian authorities are aware of the gravity of the situation in which they found themselves. However, despite the ostentatious confidence and the distribution of planned and unscheduled arms production contracts, the situation in military production is not rosy at all. Simply put, Moscow has absolutely no idea how to put the Russian economy on a military footing.

Moscow has no idea how to put the Russian economy on a military footing

For example, regardless of whether Iranian drones created for terrorist and insurgent warfare run out or Ukraine learns to shoot down 100% of them sooner than that, Russia is practically unable to replace them with its own advanced strike drones because its industry is simply not ready for that. Neither will it be able to replace lost or disabled tanks quickly, otherwise the idea of using the long-decommissioned T-62 tanks developed in the late 1950s would not have arisen. True, the capacity of the corresponding plant and the quality of human capital there, let alone the quality of the tanks themselves, would hardly make it possible to fully implement the idea. It turns out that the replacement of used up or lost armaments would take years in any case, and there can be no serious increase in production due to complexity and the lack of manpower, equipment and components.

A workshop at the 103rd Armored Vehicle Repair Plant in Transbaikalia. Photo taken in 2012
A workshop at the 103rd Armored Vehicle Repair Plant in Transbaikalia. Photo taken in 2012

The idea of forcing students to volunteer for factory work to compensate at least partially for the shortage of manpower looks like a half-measure, if not a bureaucratic imitation of frantic activity. At the same time, a mechanism for forcing business to serve military needs has been created, but its application is unlikely to prove effective. After all, any economic activity in the absence of motivation leads to a strong increase in costs and losses with an equally strong reduction in the quality of products. In the end, this inevitably leads to more interference in the economy on the part of government officials and results in bureaucratic management of production processes and redistribution of assets and resources in favor of those government officials. In turn, it will require an increase in the direct and indirect economic burden of the war, which will be shifted onto the shoulders of citizens in the form of taxes and voluntary or compulsory contributions to various funds providing assistance to the front and, possibly, in the form of war loans.

One way or another, without any intention of ending the war, the Kremlin is inevitably moving toward strengthening the military-bureaucratic “state of emergency”. And even if this “state of emergency” cannot be implemented in full due to objective factors and the latent resistance of society and the bureaucratic apparatus of the Russian state itself, it will increase the final cost of the unleashed war. The more painful will be the post-war political and economic transformation of Russia.

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