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29 September 2022

Will Vladimir Putin’s mobilisation backfire?

Russia’s already demoralised force will be joined by fearful men, just pressed into service, with little to offer and much to lose.

By Lawrence Freedman

Prince Henry: But tell me, Jack, whose fellows are these that come after?
Falstaff: Mine, Hal, mine.
Prince Henry: I did never see such pitiful rascals.
Falstaff: Tut, tut; good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better: tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.

William Shakespeare: “Henry IV, Part 1”, Act IV, Scene II

In the above quotation, John Falstaff is explaining to Prince Henry the role that the unprepossessing men he has gathered will play in the coming battle against a rebellion led by Henry Percy and his son Harry Hotspur. Falstaff, while entertaining company, is a drunkard and a rogue. Although commanded by Henry, his commitment to the cause is less than wholehearted. Instead he sees the war as a money-making opportunity. Having been given funds to raise men, his first move was to press into service those with sufficient means to pay for their release. Then after pocketing the proceeds he acquired a collection of beggars and prisoners. There was “but a shirt and a half in all my/company; and the half shirt is two napkins tacked/together and thrown over the shoulders like/an herald’s coat without sleeves”. As Henry could see, Falstaff’s men were in no fit state for battle. No matter, explains the latter, they could serve as “food for [gun] powder” able to “fill a pit as well as better” men. There is no need to point to the contemporary parallels.

Nor do we need to do so when Falstaff’s cynicism is thrown into even sharper relief as battle is joined. He had intended to remain a spectator but is found by a rebel leader who takes him on. Falstaff falls, pretends to be dead and survives. Later, when he can get up, he congratulates himself on his pretence. A dead man is a fake man, but faking dying to live is “no counterfeit, but the true and/perfect image of life indeed”. He adds: “The better part of/valour is discretion, in the which better part I/have saved my life.” Many among Russia’s new recruits will be wondering whether they can also find a way to make the same point.

“Cannon fodder” is an updated version of “food for powder” for the 19th century, when it was first used. It gained currency during the First World War to convey the likely fate of recruits with expendable lives, destined to die in futile offensives or in defence of exposed positions. It is the term now most applied to the hapless Russians pushed forward into the hazardous fight in Ukraine. As soon as Vladimir Putin announced a “partial” mobilisation on 21 September, the hashtag #CannonFodder began trending on Twitter, with images of tearful goodbyes, new draftees who were senselessly drunk, others examining rusty Kalashnikovs riddled with woodworm, and yet more having shouting matches with officers trying to boss them about. Graffiti in St Petersburg chided those in Moscow who failed to protest a war in which they must now fight: “To start with you were indifferent to politics and now you’re cannon fodder.” The BBC journalist Francis Scarr notes that the term translates into Russian as “cannon meat”. Ukrainians speak of the “meat grinder”. The terms seem appropriate because these men have been called up to stop the rot in Ukraine, yet are so poorly prepared and equipped that they will simply add to the casualty numbers. But can they still make a difference to the course of the war? Or is it more likely that they will add to Russia’s front-line troubles?

A Russian route to victory?

The role of mobilisation is to address the military’s chronic manpower shortages. Because of it, numbers will not be the problem. A redacted seventh paragraph in the published decree has been reported to suggest a target of one million, even more than the 300,000 mentioned by the defence minister Sergei Shoigu. Anything from 60,000 to 120,000 men are being moved quickly to the front as a matter of urgency. The problem for the military command is not one of finding the bodies, especially if the authorities are not too choosy, but in clothing, training and equipping them. Even those most ready for the front (the more knowing will take what they can of their own kit) will still be unprepared because Russia is already digging deep into reserves of weapons and equipment, and there are few spare officers available to instruct them. Nonetheless despite those protesting and escaping many have turned up as required, however fatalistic their mood. Some of these will be better prepared than others, especially those who have recently completed their period of conscription. We should not assume therefore that those turning up will all be unwilling or incapable of fighting.

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There are circumstances when sheer numbers can overwhelm an otherwise superior opponent. A comment frequently attributed to Stalin in connection with the Soviet war against the Nazis goes, “quantity has a quality all its own”. We can think of the Chinese in Korea in 1950 or Iranian “human wave” tactics against Iraq in the 1980s, although in both these cases the tactic became less effective. Against prepared defensive positions backed by artillery, such attacks invite carnage and “cannon fodder” becomes an appropriate term. But used defensively they might complicate Ukrainian plans and make it harder to take places in which Russians are already well dug in. At the same time, the new troops will also need supplying. As the Argentines discovered in 1982 and the Iraqis in 1991, pushing extra men into an area of operations to demonstrate numerical superiority can also create severe logistical headaches.

The Russian command wants to use the extra manpower to buy time. The reason for this has been set out by Jack Watling here, not so much as a prediction but to warn against Ukrainian and Western complacency, and against any letting up of support to Kyiv. He notes that: “This immediate topping-up of units will not produce significant offensive capabilities. It will, however, likely help to stabilise defensive lines, increasing the level of resources Kyiv must commit to achieve breakthroughs. Nevertheless, throwing unwilling and under-trained replacements into already-demoralised units at the onset of winter is unlikely to change the direction of fighting on the ground.”

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Watling’s main concern is that Russia will use the new recruits for new formations. If they want something suitable for offensive manoeuvres then months of effort will be required, and will be hampered by the lack of instructors. These formations could, nonetheless, be ready by February. There will still be issues with equipment and training. Instead, he suspects that the main aim is to stabilise the front to help erode Western support.

“The Kremlin’s theory of victory is likely that mobilisation will sufficiently prolong the war,” he continues, “to enable its unconventional campaign of economic warfare, political destabilisation, escalation threats, and influence campaigns in Europe and the US to cause Ukraine’s allies to force Kyiv to negotiate.”

I have argued for some time (for example here) that although European countries have shown impressive resilience in the face of Russian economic coercion, if the situation appeared stalemated six months from now, the Western commitment to Ukraine might slacken – leading to an interest in any Moscow-proposed peace feelers (assuming that Putin had the nous to offer them). Putin is currently throwing everything into the conflict to panic Europeans into concessions.

If Russia is responsible for the mystery explosions of the two gas pipelines close to Swedish and Danish waters, and it is hard to think who else it could be, we can speculate on the intended message: demonstrating that Russian gas might be lost forever; some sort of signal to the Nordic countries to remind them of their vulnerability despite being part of Nato; a specific threat to the new pipeline from Norway to the Baltic or a more general, darker warning about the vulnerability of all underwater pipes and cables should Russia want to inflict more disruption. Signals that leave the intended recipients guessing about their meaning are rarely that effective. All we can note is that Russia has denied responsibility and that no gas has been going through these pipelines at the moment, so the damage makes little material difference to the current energy and economic calculations.

The rushed referendums, with their unavoidably absurd majority support for joining Russia, also adds to the sense of desperation in the Kremlin. This effort to legitimise conquest is going to get no international endorsement, undermines further the Russian case for holding on to Crimea, and creates even more problems for the Russian narrative as more territory gets liberated by Ukraine. 

While the Russians might want to play a longer game, hoping to use the new troops to create moderately effective formations as they seek to integrate the occupied territories into Russia, they are struggling to cope with adverse short-term military developments.

[See also: The unravelling of Vladimir Putin]

At the moment Russia is engaged in three significant battles, one offensive and two defensive. The offensive involves trying to take more of Donetsk. This is a continuation of the summer campaign when Russia managed, after a great effort, to push Ukrainian forces out of Luhansk. Getting complete control of Donetsk appeared the logical next step. For months it has been following its standard approach of shelling a target city, in this case Bakhmut. The original aim was probably to take this and follow up against Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. As elsewhere Ukrainian forces have defended doggedly although they have had to cede some ground.

The Russian forces involved largely come from the mercenary Wagner Group, under the direction of one of Putin’s fixers, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who seems at times to be waging his own independent campaign. According to one account in the New York Times, Wagner is using “prison inmates from the separatist regions who were drafted into service” to push forward “with little support” to “face Ukrainian guns like ‘cannon fodder’”. Unsurprisingly many surrender. The Russians show no interest in trading captured Ukrainian forces to get them back: “The one-time Russian prisoners, now Ukrainian prisoners, are seen as deserters.”

This raises questions about the likely treatment of new troops with little fighting capacity elsewhere, but also about Russian strategy. Given what has been happening elsewhere this offensive appears to be a pointless exercise, using up scarce resources to take a position from which, even if gained, it will be hard to advance further and may be difficult to hold. Yet to abandon this remaining offensive would be to admit that, at least for now, Russia cannot meet its core objectives.

Kherson, where the Ukrainians began their offensive a couple of months ago, is a strategically important region – economically and because of its connection to Crimea and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The Ukrainians have made progress but it has been a hard grind. As they have discovered to their cost, the terrain is too flat and open for armoured offensives. Their approach now concentrates on slowly pushing Russian forces back while blowing up crossings over the Dnieper River to cut their supply lines and make it difficult to evacuate. It would make sense for the Russians to pull back across the river as best they can to form a more defensible line, but, according to reports, Putin, perhaps as the quid pro quo for agreeing to the civilian mobilisation, has insisted that they stay put and hold their positions.

Meanwhile a comparable situation is developing around Lyman in the Donetsk oblast, where Russian forces have been fighting off the Ukrainians but now risk getting caught by an envelopment operation. A number of significant advances have been made in recent days, and this may be where Russia is most vulnerable to a further conspicuous defeat that would throw a shadow on all its current efforts to demonstrate that it has a route to victory. Newly drafted men pushed into this fight have already been killed or captured. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, a village was taken because the defending Russian soldiers were drunk. “The ones who were sober ran away, and the ones who were drunk didn’t even realise that the village was being attacked, and got caught.”

A Russian route to failure?

For the same reason the Russians want to prolong the conflict, the Ukrainians want to bring it to a speedy conclusion. They have every incentive to press on. Ukraine could heap embarrassment on Putin if his troops were forced to retreat from areas about to be annexed. (It raises an interesting question about using battlefield nuclear weapons to affect the most important battles if this meant detonating them on supposedly Russian territory.) Another reason to move quickly is winter. Wet weather is already making for boggy conditions so that it is harder for vehicles to move other than on roads, where they are more exposed. And Kyiv is well aware that, though Washington has not let up in its financial and military support, with much-needed air defence systems now arriving, after the US midterm elections in November Joe Biden might be under more pressure to qualify American support.

As has often been said in this war, the next few weeks will be crucial. But with winter approaching, the Russians need to sort out their defensive positions and hold them, while the Ukrainians will want to follow the Kharkiv victory with more in the Donbas region as well as the city of Kherson. Further Ukrainian victories would make an impact on the politically febrile environment in Russia, but the most significant effects may be felt at the front. One of the most important aspects of Putin’s decree last week was to extend indefinitely the temporary contracts of those at the front, including many soldiers who had been expecting to leave as their short-term contract expired, and were looking forward to their back pay. Having already been through a gruelling time, seeing many of their comrades die and be wounded, they can no longer expect early release or the pay-offs they were promised. They can only look forward to more of the same, except in colder weather. They are being joined by fearful men – just pressed into service, with little to offer and much to lose – who will be thrown into battle against determined Ukrainian forces. If this continues to go badly it will add to the demoralisation and ill-discipline at the front, leading to desertion, surrender or even mutiny.

Julia Davis reported for the Daily Beast on the dismay felt by two of Putin’s biggest state TV cheerleaders, Vladimir Solovyov and Margarita Simonyan, at how chaotically the mobilisation was being enacted. Particularly telling was Simonyan’s reference to the mutiny on the Potemkin battleship. “Let me remind you that in 1905,” she warned, “small things like these led to the first mutiny of an entire military unit in the history of our country. Is that what you want?”

The mutiny, largely known today because of Sergei Eisenstein’s remarkable 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin, took place in the aftermath of Russia’s war in Japan, which ended with a humiliating defeat. It demonstrated the potential for revolutionary feeling among the armed forces when they were poorly treated. The “small” incident to which Simonyan alluded takes place early in the film with the ship at sea. The men protest that the meat for their borscht is riddled with maggots, only for the doctor to dismiss their concerns and pronounce it perfectly fit to eat. When a delegation of sailors complain to the captain about the foul nature of their soup their spokesman is shot by the ship’s captain in a rage, leading his comrades to seize the captain, throw him overboard and take over the whole ship. This all began with a cry of “enough with rotten meat”. There are times when notionally small grievances can unleash a torrent of pent-up anger and despair.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: What would happen if Russia used nuclear weapons?]

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