Main Image Credit Vladimir Putin: speaking between the lines? His address to the nation on Russia's partial mobilisation. Image: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo
President Vladimir Putin on 21 September addressed the nation for the first time since the war began in February. In it he announced a partial mobilisation of Russian forces. This coincided with a decree that the State Duma (parliament) pushed through the day before, in which it amended the Criminal Code to increase punishments for desertion.
Bowing to Pressure
There are several important takeaways from Vladimir Putin’s speech.
First, this is not a full mobilisation, which has been officially ruled out, at least for now. Although Putin has been careful to keep specifics of the announcement vague, this mobilisation does not seem to apply to private citizens with no military experience – it is apparently targeted at military personnel who are already doing military service as contract soldiers, as conscripts or citizens who are currently undergoing military training. The announcement also extends soldiers’ contracts who are already enlisted. The mobilisation is broad and purposefully unclear– it does offer some exemptions to military service such as health and age, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has had to clarify that Russia will soon issue more specific criteria for exemption.
Second, the drive for mobilisation and crackdowns on desertion go hand-in-hand with another sweeping law passed in March 2022, to more tightly control information about the armed forces – any information that the state deems to be ‘discrediting’ its army carries severe punishment. More than 200 cases have already been brought under this law, making it extremely challenging to air grievances or publicly share information on Russia’s military shortcomings.
Third, developments on the battlefield notwithstanding, the fact that Putin has ordered the partial mobilisation is a signal that he has bowed somewhat to pressure from hardliners within the Kremlin, who have been pushing for a form of this for some time, and believe he is not going far enough in Ukraine. On a practical note, Russia’s regional governors, as with the Kremlin’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic, will be responsible for taking charge of organising the mobilisation, and likely bear the brunt of Putin’s dissatisfaction should sign-up numbers be low. Many of these governors were recently elected or resumed their posts in September’s regional elections, which saw the incumbent United Russia party secure seats across almost all regions. This is going to be an important baptism of fire for their ability to fulfil Kremlin orders.
The fact that Putin has ordered the partial mobilisation is a signal that he has bowed somewhat to pressure from hardliners within the Kremlin, who have been pushing for a form of this for some time
Fourth, Kremlin officials have been careful to distinguish between wartime (voennoe vremya) and martial law (voennoe polozhenie). This wartime footing is distinct from the imposition of martial law, which sets in motion a chain of events that includes sweeping powers for the military to take over government administration, curfews, closing Russia’s borders and controlling food supplies. Putin has stopped short of this, although martial law could be imposed in some of Russia’s border regions close to Ukraine where there have been skirmishes, to allow the armed forces to react quickly unencumbered by state bureaucracy.
What Does Putin Mean?
There were two key themes from the speech. The first was Putin’s preoccupation with the potential destruction of Russia. The second was what he seems to view as the unfortunate case of Ukraine, caught in between the clash of two civilisations.
One of the clearest messages was his emphasis on the risk of Russia’s ‘enslavement’ and ‘dismemberment’ (razchleneniye), as well as his fears that Russia could ‘disintegrate’ entirely. These are sentiments that Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko pre-emptively mentioned the day before, maintaining that (as yet unclear) forces were seeking to turn Belarus into another Ukraine and tear (otorvats) Belarus away from Russia to join NATO. This seems to be reflecting a true – or at least stated-to-be-true – fear that Russia is at an imminent crisis point, where it threatens to be taken apart. Senior Kremlin officials have, in the runup to the Ukraine invasion and beyond, been issuing increasingly apocalyptic and messianic messages about what they view as the battle for Russia’s very survival.
Putin’s discussion of Ukraine is also important. He saves most of his ire for NATO and the so-called ‘collective West’, but Kyiv is described as caught in between the West and Russia’s much broader civilisational clash, with the Ukraine conflict an unfortunate by-product of that dysfunction. The narrative that Putin paints is that Kyiv had initially responded positively to Moscow amid negotiations at the start of the war, and while Volodymyr Zelensky’s government comes under some criticism, Putin has been careful to describe the Kyiv government as one that he believes has little agency, with the rather nebulous ‘West’ acting as the true decision-makers there. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has chimed in with this too, noting that Russia is at war with the West, not Ukraine. But this careful – if patronising – framing may be leaving the door open for Russia to engage in some form of negotiation with Ukraine’s government in the future.
Much attention has rightly focused on Putin’s apparent readiness to use nuclear weapons. There are concerns that the so-called referendums, scheduled to be held in the coming days in the four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, will allow Russia to consider these areas to be Russian territory. This could mean that any encroachment by Ukrainian forces to defend it or recapture the region would amount to an attack on what Russia calls its ‘territorial integrity’.
These concerns are valid, but some of the sentiments behind the statements may be revealing. First, although he seems to have gone further than before, Putin has previously talked about nuclear weapons in a similar manner. There are some parallels with this speech and Putin’s March 2018 national address, in which he showcased Russia’s nuclear arsenal and, in statements directed to the West, ordered its leaders to ‘listen to us now’. Irrespective of whether Putin would consider using these weapons, an important alternative reading of that speech was not just a show of strength, but also a demand for the West to heed and ultimately acknowledge what Putin believes to be Russia’s national security interests – even if they are in contravention of established international law.
So too, in this speech, there are potential alternative messages behind the threat of nuclear weapons. Given that this speech comes alongside the referendums, which aim to absorb the four Ukrainian territories into Russia’s, Putin appears to be delineating Russia’s territorial interests more narrowly, warding the West away from them. Referendums in these regions have been discussed for several months but the debate had died down of late, only to suddenly be resurrected again amid Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive. As Putin restated in his speech, the aims of the war are now to capture the Donbas region – significantly downgraded from the previously ambitious goal of regime change in Kyiv.
Changes on the battlefield and the difference that the latest conscripts will make will be factored into the Kremlin’s ultimate decision-making in the coming months. But from his speech today, there are suggestions that Putin may consider the four territories to be part of an acceptable win for Russia in Ukraine.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Security