Vladimir Putin’s latest steps in the war—his mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Russians and his sham referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine, which he plans to annex—reflect a new level of not just risk but outright monstrousness.
His behavior is monstrous not only to Ukrainians (nothing new there) but also to his own citizens. He is drafting them into the army, and sending them to the frontlines, completely unprepared. Contrary to his pledge, the call-up is not excluded to reservists. Men who have never been in the army are getting called up too. Even most of those with time in the army have no experience in combat. (Russia hasn’t fought a ground war since Afghanistan; fighting in Chechnya and Syria was confined mainly to bombing and shelling.) Most armies give new recruits several months of training before sending them off to fight; the new Russian draftees are getting two weeks, at most.
Their purpose is to plug up holes in the Russian army’s defenses, to keep Ukrainian soldiers from breaking through and enveloping them. In other words, they are serving strictly as cannon fodder—to make sure that Russia has enough troops to hold the line even if a lot of them get killed. And because they will be forming in tighter concentrations, a lot of them will get killed. If they’re ordered to go on the offensive, they are sure to get killed—or perhaps scatter in desertion—more quickly.
Take two minutes and watch this appalling phone video of a Russian commander cynically telling his new men that he has no idea what they’ll be doing, where they’ll be going, what arms they’ll be carrying. “I came here three days ago, just like you,” he tells them. “I’ve never seen this regiment before.”
No leadership, no unit cohesion, no sense of mission, no skills: This is an army holding on for dear life. Or, rather, this is the sign of a leader—Putin—holding on for dear life, not caring how many of his own people he has to sacrifice to avoid ignominious defeat.
It gets worse. The referendums in four Russia-occupied districts (Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaprozhzhia, and Kherson), held to determine whether the residents would like to join Russia, didn’t so much as pretend to be free or fair. Women with ballots knocked on doors; masked men with guns showed the residents which box to check. And so, between 87 and 99 percent of them are said to have voted for annexation. This means that men in these districts will now be eligible for the draft as well—and ordered, as good, loyal Russians, to shoot their once-fellow Ukrainians. Another recipe for demoralization, desertion, and easy marks for Ukrainian bullets, bombs, and missiles.
It’s not just the poor grunts who will suffer—and many, perhaps most, of these grunts don’t want to be in the war. (The latest reports tell of soldiers and intelligence agents stopping young men trying to flee the country and slapping them with draft notices.) The officers will suffer too. Most officers want to take care of their soldiers, if for no other reason than to make sure they stay alert, develop some loyalty, and fight well. An officer’s standing—his chance of promotion, decorations, and so forth—depends on how well his units do. In other words, officers are going to hate this draft. (It’s one reason why many American officers prefer an all-volunteer military; they prefer to lead troops who want to be there.)
It’s not entirely clear how Putin will pull this off. Who’s going to train these units, to the extent they’re trained at all? (Non-commissioned officers, who usually do this, are already fighting in the war.) Who will lead them once they come onto the battlefield? (There’s already a shortage of Russian officers.) Where will they get enough food, water, places to sleep, much less ammunition, flak jackets, helmets, and the like? (Supply shortages are already a problem, too.)
If his commanders do manage to rouse and deploy all these draftees to the front and if they hold the lines through the winter, Putin will have at least pulled off the feat—albeit at enormous cost—of stretching out the war until next year, by which time, he hopes, Kyiv’s Western allies will begin to lose patience.
However, if the lines falter even with all the extra troops, the military chiefs—some of whom are said to be losing patience with Putin already—may decide enough is enough. And as more soldiers come home in body bags, ordinary Russians may decide that as well. Some thought this might happen at the start of the war, but it turned out many mothers were proud—or were convinced by state media propaganda to be proud—of their sons’ sacrifice. However, if the dead young men were sent to Ukraine against their will, or if they were contract soldiers whose well-paid six-month terms were indefinitely extended (another aspect of Putin’s mobilization), then attitudes could shift very quickly.
This leads to the other risk in Putin’s calculation—the risk to his own rule. In the seven months since the war began, he has steadily stepped up the stakes. First, he claimed that he merely wanted to halt Ukraine’s “genocide” in Donetsk and Luhansk. Then he invaded all of Ukraine, with an aim to toppling President Volodymyr Zelensky’s “neo-Nazi” government. Then he talked about eliminating Ukraine as a nation (which he claimed didn’t exist anyway). Then he viewed the battle as a holy war against the West (and Western-influenced “scum” at home, many of whom swiftly emigrated) and as a holy mission to restore the Great Russian Empire (which he is now trying to get underway with the pretend-annexation of bigger chunks of Ukraine).
He is all in, well past the point where the offer of any “exit ramps” might tempt him to back off. He sees the outcome of this war as his legacy. If he wins, Russian schoolchildren will recite his name in the same breath as Peter the Great. If he wreaks much more damage, with nothing to show for it, then he faces the possible fate of infamy and ouster—another bearer of “crimes” and “harebrained schemes.”