How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
At least since Soviet times, Russians have used dark humor to cope with dictatorship. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization has already been colloquially dubbed the mogilizatsia, a wordplay on mobilizatsia, the Russian word for “mobilization,” and mogila, the word for “grave.” What is more, in practice, this move-to-the-graveyard is proving to be far from partial. Despite assurances by Putin and his defense minister that the draft would be limited to 300,000 people, primarily military reservists who had already served in the army and in conflict zones, Russians have already witnessed the forced conscription of men of all ages across the country. The mobilization has turned out to be almost general.
Even the most committed supporters of Putin and the regime can see that the Kremlin is aiming at a much higher figure: likely more than a million men, although Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has denied that. Such a figure would effectively double the size of the existing army, meaning that a total of two million people would be in uniform. (Although uniforms, like medicines, have become difficult to acquire: those who are mobilized are forced to buy their own uniforms and outfit themselves with first-aid kits.) Much depends, of course, on the administrative zeal of the authorities running regional recruitment offices, which, in many regions, are targeting all male citizens regardless of age or military rank or experience.
Russians may be mostly helpless to avoid this vast roundup, particularly now that Europe has shut its doors to them and they have few options other than to try to flee to countries that have no visa restrictions for Russians. But this is also a bad situation for Putin, who has staked everything on this war. He can’t win, but he can’t afford to lose either, so he relies on cannon fodder. Putin appears to have forgotten that the real source of danger to his regime may not be the political opposition, which has mostly been jailed or otherwise silenced, or representatives of civil society, whose organizations have been systematically shut down and their voices suppressed, but rather the ordinary Russians who have long provided the foundations of his rule. As long as they were provided with economic stability and not too closely involved in the government’s “special operation,” they could be counted on to approve of it, or at least to do nothing to oppose it. But now that has changed, and already there are signs that Putin’s core support is weakening. A poll conducted by the independent Levada Center in late September, after the mobilization, shows that Putin’s approval has fallen six points, from 83 percent to 77 percent, and his level of trust has fallen four points, from 44 percent to 40 percent. These may seem like small shifts, but his numbers had been almost unmovable since April. That stability is now beginning to erode.
The mobilization is a sign of desperation on the part of Putin. So humiliating is the prospect of a defeat that he is determined to continue the war at any cost, because he hasn’t achieved the vague goals that he set for himself in February. And since Putin has long since turned his regime into a sultanate, nothing and nobody can stop him: not his advisers and not the leaders of the states that he regards as his allies, such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who publicly distanced himself from Russia’s war during a meeting with Putin by saying the present moment is “not the time for war,” and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an opportunistic partner of Putin who has taken on the role of peacemaker and seems to be trying to appeal to what remains of Putin’s rational mind. So alarmed is Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev that he has carefully distanced himself from the Kremlin and sought closer ties to Europe. The leaders of the countries of the former Soviet Union now treat Putin as a dangerous figure who imagines himself to be master of a nonexistent empire. Along with those Russians who are paying attention and are able to understand what is happening, they can see that one man has led Russia to the brink of a demographic catastrophe and the world to the brink of a nuclear war.
Putin’s frustration and fury about this losing war and his determination to escalate hostilities became apparent in the initial days of the successful Ukrainian counterattack. At first, his answer was missile strikes against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, such as electric power stations and waterworks. These tactics, however, were a clear admission of weakness rather than a display of strength. By destroying critical infrastructure on territories that he regards as his own, he was revealing that he knows Russia has no hope of actually subjugating and assimilating them.
Now, Putin has found a terrifying way out of the corner that he has backed himself into: partial mobilization. The autocrat has decided that anyone who can at least hold a gun must shift from silent approval to active participation in his “special operation.” People have to share responsibility for the war with him, not only with their words but also with their bodies. But this, too, is evidence of weakness rather than strength: an admission that the human resources he has dedicated to the war are insufficient.
Putin may be seeking as many as a million additional troops.
Turning on his own people is dangerous for Putin. Crucially, Putin’s regime is supported by those sections of the population that are highly dependent on the state: the same people who are driven to attend the Kremlin’s rallies—so-called putings, a mixture of “Putin” and “meeting”—in support of the leader, the war, and the annexation of the occupied territories. Those whom Putin cannot conscript but who are equally dependent on the state will be forced to be even stronger and more public in endorsing and defending his actions. The Kremlin has already seen what happens when it takes actions that are unpopular with the masses: when it raised the retirement age in 2018, Putin’s approval ratings slid by 15 percent or more; his ratings took another hit when the regime imposed COVID-19 restrictions in 2020. In those cases, the dips were temporary, and his numbers were able to recover. With the mobilization, it is unclear where Russian’s darkening mood will lead. Perhaps it is the beginning of a larger fall in regime support—the world has witnessed how many Russians are voting with their feet, running from Putin and literally saving their lives. But Putin still has many ardent supporters, and it is possible that a sharp decline in the regime’s popular support may not happen. Whatever the case, discontent and depression seem certain to accumulate on a massive scale.
Rather than the democrats or liberals in Russia’s large cities, it is ordinary Russians who see the ruthless hunt for military recruits as a violation of their rights. More important, it is a violation of the unwritten agreement they have long had with Putin’s regime, the agreement that says that average Russian citizens won’t interfere with the Kremlin’s thieving and military adventurism as long as the Kremlin stays out of their private lives and out of their apartments, allowing them to earn a living for themselves. Military service in the name of unclear goals—and the forced exit from cozy indifference that has come with it—was definitely not in the contract. A new joke in the genre of very black humor has emerged on this subject: in the battle between the refrigerator (consumer needs) and the television (government propaganda), the television has won. But now the TV will have to fight a new battle with a different kind of refrigerator—the kind in which dead bodies are stored.
Average Russians have many reasons to view what Putin is doing now as unfair. That is how many people felt during the controversies over the retirement age and the COVID-19 restrictions. Now that sense of injustice will be heightened by the social and economic consequences of unprecedented militarization. Russia is isolated, and the chances that the economy can withstand these pressures are low. Equally significant is the fact that the majority of those being drafted come from poor families, from distinct ethnic groups within the Russian republics, and from the peripheries of Russian society. The political elites who launched and supported the war won’t be found in the trenches. Dictatorial self-interest is also apparent in the mechanics of who can be exempted from the draft: the authorities are calling up people with professions needed by the economy and society—people such as pilots, the owners of small and medium-sized businesses that provide vital parallel imports of consumer goods, and school teachers. But they are not calling up the professional purveyors of propaganda, for instance, whom the Communications Ministry has exempted. It is irrational and unjust. In the race to evade the draft and avoid fighting in the regime’s war, those who are closest to the regime are winning.
Even more significant than Putin’s betrayal of the masses, however, may be his betrayal of Russia’s youth. Young people who have the means to do so and have some sort of education are simply fleeing. They see a country that has no future and know that if they stay, they will have no future either. Remaining in Russia and being called up for service in an army that is waging a war “for illusory goals”— to quote Alla Pugacheva, the country’s most famous pop star—means sacrificing hopes and plans and, perhaps, one’s life. Rhetoric glorifying death for one’s homeland has become commonplace among Putin die-hards, with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church asserting that if someone dies in the line of military duty, “this sacrifice washes away all the sins that the person has committed.” But such talk is entirely alien to modern society. By now, it is becoming clear, and not only to the younger generation, that Putin’s state can impose its rule only through violence.
For those unable to flee or who have family members up for the draft, one of the responses is to protest, even though it is extremely dangerous. This has been true most notably in Dagestan, a republic in which 99 percent of adults supposedly voted for Putin and his party. Now, protesters, mostly women, have taken to the streets with banners stating “Our children are not fertilizer!” These protests cannot be compared to the opposition rallies in Moscow: it is not the opposition that is protesting but rather members of the depoliticized strata of society, and they are doing so only in certain national republics, where people perhaps have special notions of human dignity. But other indications clearly show how frustrated Russians are. Within hours of Putin’s announcement, there were long columns of cars trying to reach the Georgian or Kazakh border. Flights to various foreign destinations, especially central Asian cities, Istanbul, and Tel Aviv, were sold out instantly, with prices soaring through the roof. Just three days after the announcement, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, recorded that more than 260,000 people had fled across various borders. All over the country recruitment offices were set on fire; in one instance, a recruiter was shot by a conscript, and in another, a draftee tried to commit an act of self-immolation rather than be sent to kill others.
Young Russians know that if they stay, they will have no future.
In Putin’s Russia, time has sped up, but in reverse, traveling at breakneck speed from this century to the darkest parts of the last one, with its stench of sweat and mud and its atmosphere of hopeless despair, the despair of the gulag camps and war. Several generations of Russians, including the very young, are now being driven back toward all that. If Russia’s path to greatness lies through the trenches and is to be paid for with their lives, then more and more young people are happy to give up the greatness.
Putin is dealing a powerful blow to another area in which Russia was already suffering: demographics. As it loses more of its youth, Russia’s aging and stagnating population will grow even older and smaller, providing Putin with support at elections but not giving his regime any legitimacy. He has already stopped being the president of all Russians. Those who don’t support him are deemed “national traitors,” a “fifth column,” and “foreign agents.” Russia’s population, what is left of it, will become even more dependent on the state, which will lead to record turnouts at pro-Putin rallies but won’t help the Kremlin gain a real understanding of what is happening in the country—and what it needs to do to save it.
Putin’s mobilization and the upheaval it has caused is taking place just months before campaigning begins for the 2024 presidential election. In one respect, voting has already begun: men across the age groups are voting with their feet and fleeing the country. Nevertheless, a majority continues to approve of the government’s actions, with many blaming the escalation on U.S. President Joe Biden, Europe, NATO, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and suggesting that Putin had little choice.
Conditioned over decades to remain inert, public opinion in Russia tends to change very slowly, as the small slides in Putin’s ratings show. Undoubtedly, the majority of the population—the 50 percent who remain firmly in favor of the war—will support everything the regime does, perhaps up to and including nuclear strikes. This is the hyper-obedient section of the population. But for another 30 percent, those who—until now—have simply found it easier to support rather than oppose the regime, Putin’s actions could have much more far-reaching consequences. These Russians are filled with doubt and dissatisfaction; for them, it is already clear that the mobilization isn’t partial, and if this impression begins to spread more widely, then the general attitude of Russian society at large could begin to shift. In another finding by the new Levada poll, the percentage of Russians who believe that the country is going in the right direction decreased from 67 percent in August to just 60 percent a month later.
For now, Putin has decided to swiftly set his losses in stone, declaring them acquisitions and achievements. That appears to be the logic behind the inordinate haste to hold referendums in eastern Ukraine: a victory of some sort has to be declared. The referendums are another hurried, bitter response from Putin behind which, as with all his decisions in recent years, there is ever less rationale and ever more palpably powerful emotions. The intention was immediately apparent, however, because no one among the Russian authorities feels any shame any more: following the referendums, which have no legal basis and whose results cannot be verified, the occupied territories will be regarded as Russian. At that point, any Ukrainian counterattack on those territories can be regarded as an attack on Russia itself.
This could lead to a range of consequences, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons. Talk of the use of Russia’s nuclear capability has become so casual and so frequent that it has almost become the new normal in the Kremlin’s discourse and in the narrative being put forward on its propaganda shows. Putin’s dark threats of using “all the means at our disposal,” apparently aimed at stirring up the population and girding them for battle, may at some point have the opposite effect: Is it wise to trust a leader who is dragging the nation into a nuclear winter? Russians may start fearing a nuclear war more than they fear Putin himself. Few people want to live inside an open-ended Cuban Missile crisis.
Putin is taking a huge risk. The economy is doing badly, and sending huge numbers of additional people to slaughter will certainly not improve it. Problems with the federal budget are also now obvious: revenues will fall—who will be left to tax?—and the Kremlin will be forced to spend ever more of its treasure on war. That will leave it with shrinking resources with which to buy the population’s loyalty. In such circumstances, what will the dictator’s message be as he seeks to prolong his rule yet further?
Having chosen to expand the war, Putin is broadening the arena of defeat: with the draft, Russia’s mental and moral defeat in Ukraine may now increasingly be complemented by the defeat of the illusions by which the “special operation” had until now been sustained at home. In a sense, Ukraine has already won, having gained a national identity and unity. But in the coming weeks, even minor victories for Ukraine will increase Putin’s irritation, and he will likely respond to them asymmetrically, with no shame or decorum. By now, there is little sign that peace talks are possible (especially after Russia’s staged referendums in the east) or that there is any way for the war to end with one side claiming victory. This horrifying conflict in Europe could continue even when Putin’s resources—both human and psychological—have run out.
A better outcome is possible, but by implicating the entire country in his war, Putin has now made it that much harder to obtain: a result in which Russia begins to move from authoritarianism to democracy. If it could somehow be accomplished, however, such a victory would be a joint one: for Ukraine, Europe, the West, and the entire world—including Russia. For it would mean a Russia free from Putin and Putinism.
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