In an About-Face, Russia Announces Mobilization and ‘Referendums’ in Occupied Ukrainian Territories

In a televised address on Wednesday morning, President Vladimir Putin promised to ensure the security of upcoming “referendums” in occupied Ukrainian territories and declared Russia would conduct a “partial mobilization.” These announcements represent an about-face from the Kremlin’s position on these issues mere days ago, likely reflecting Putin’s realization that drastic measures are necessary to avoid defeat in Ukraine. While mobilization likely will not buy victory for the Kremlin, it could enable Moscow to sustain the war and hold already occupied territory, although mobilized Russian troops will take time to arrive on the battlefield in large numbers.

After railing against alleged Western efforts “to weaken, divide and ultimately destroy” Russia, Putin defended his war in Ukraine as “necessary and the only option,” saying it continues to seek to “liberate” the entirety of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Putin noted that Russian-installed authorities in the occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions had announced plans for so-called referendums on joining Russia, set to be held this weekend. He said Russia “will do everything necessary to create safe conditions for these referendums.”

Putin then announced he had ordered a “partial mobilization,” beginning immediately. Apparently seeking to justify the move, he stressed that Russia’s military is fighting on an over 1,000 km-long front line, battling “not only against [Ukrainian] units but actually the entire military machine of the collective West.”

The Russian leader promised that “only military reservists, primarily those who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialties and corresponding experience,” would be called up. (In Russia, discharged veterans, military academy graduates, military-eligible men older than 27 who have not served or who completed alternative civilian service, and women with military expertise qualify for the reserve. Moscow had begun forming a Western-style professional ready-reserve prior to launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but the force is still inchoate, and many of its members have already deployed to the battlefield.)

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu later claimed Russia would mobilize 300,000 people, calling up only reservists with prior military service, specialist skills, and combat experience. However, the Kremlin redacted the section of Putin’s decree specifying the number of draftees, and the independent Novaya Gazeta Europe cited an unnamed Kremlin source as saying the true number is 1 million. Both those figures should be treated with caution.

The Kremlin’s decisions regarding the referendums and mobilization reflect a sudden break from its previous position on these issues.

Moscow had repeatedly postponed the referendums due to battlefield failures, most recently targeting the date of November 4, Russia’s National Unity Day. On September 11, however, the independent Russian outlet Meduza, citing two sources close to the Kremlin, reported Moscow had postponed the referendums indefinitely after Ukrainian forces retook large swathes of territory in Kharkiv Oblast.

But the Kremlin quickly reversed course, reportedly swayed by a coalition of high-ranking hawks within Russia. According to sources cited by Meduza, the Kremlin moved up the referendums in part to reassure Russian-installed occupation officials who worry Ukraine will retake the occupied territories — fears exacerbated by Ukraine’s success in Kharkiv.

The Kremlin reportedly also hopes that formally absorbing the occupied territories will deter further Ukrainian advances, according to three Kremlin-connected sources cited by Meduza. In his Wednesday address, Putin rattled the nuclear saber, warning Kyiv’s Western backers that Moscow would employ “all weapon systems” in its arsenal to defend Russia’s “territorial integrity” and the Russian people. Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and prime minister and current deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, explicitly threatened that Moscow could use its strategic deterrence forces to protect the soon-to-be annexed territories.

Mobilization aims to redress Russia’s mounting manpower problem. Russian forces in Ukraine have suffered heavy attrition and grow increasingly exhausted. Moscow has deployed virtually all its professional troops to Ukraine, leaving it unable to rotate forces. Thousands of Russian soldiers reportedly have refused to continue fighting. Conversely, Ukraine’s Western aid and large pool of motivated manpower (thanks to mobilization when the war began) has enabled Kyiv to replace losses and fill out reserve brigades.

Russian forces currently in Ukraine may be insufficient to defend all the occupied territory, let alone to gain further ground. Moscow discovered this the hard way during Ukraine’s counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast, where Russia’s front lines were thinly manned after Russia had redeployed forces from the area to head off a separate Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south.

Mobilization carries significant domestic political risks for Putin, as it is deeply unpopular among most of the Russian people. Likely for that reason, he for months assiduously avoided formal mobilization, which the Kremlin just last week assured was not on the table. Instead, Moscow turned to piecemeal measures, such as offering lucrative short-term contracts to volunteers and forcibly mobilizing men from the Donbas proxy republics. But those pools of manpower are likely running dry, and many of the short-term contracts signed throughout the war will soon expire if they have not already.

That Putin finally resorted to mobilization suggests that he sees it as necessary to avoid losing in Ukraine, and that he views the costs of losing as greater than the risk of popular unrest. Mobilization can help Russia sustain the war, although predicting exactly how Moscow will use the mobilized troops and what impact they will have on the battlefield is difficult. Russia is in uncharted waters, and key questions remain unanswered.

The mobilized personnel will likely face issues with morale, training, and unit cohesion, and it is unclear whether Moscow can even properly equip all of them. These problems will likely limit their combat effectiveness, especially in offensive missions. But they should be sufficient at least to defend fixed positions, and many of the troops may not serve in front-line roles.

Another unknown is whether Russia has sufficient officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) to train and lead the mobilized personnel. Moscow’s piecemeal force-generation efforts earlier in the war cannibalized Russia’s military at the expense of its mobilization potential. Many of the officers and NCOs who would serve those roles likely already deployed to Ukraine as part of volunteer battalions or to replace losses.

Regardless of what impact mobilized troops achieve on the battlefield, it will not be immediate.

Russian authorities have already begun delivering summons and collecting mobilized personnel, but it will take time to gather, organize, and equip these troops and provide them with refresher training, which Putin promised they would receive prior to “being sent to their units.” One former serviceman said he had received a notification on Tuesday and will leave for two weeks of training this Monday. At least initially, Moscow may use mobilized troops to replenish losses in units already fighting in Ukraine rather than to form new ones. Generating new units could take months.

Moscow does have mobilization infrastructure in place, and Russia’s military and civilian authorities conduct regular mobilization exercises. (According to Shoigu, Putin’s order actually coincided with a planned exercise, which he says has now been canceled in favor of the real thing.) Last spring, Russian military commissariats began contacting reservists to update their rolls (while also attempting to persuade them to sign short-term contracts).

But unlike the Soviet army, the Russian military is not designed to quickly intake and deploy vast numbers of mobilized personnel. Moscow, focused on more pressing matters and viewing mass mobilization as a relic of the past, largely neglected its mobilization base following its post-2008 military reforms. Russia will have to conduct mobilization gradually, as Shoigu and the Kremlin spokesman acknowledged.

Partly for that reason, some observers expected Moscow might deploy already serving conscripts before resorting to mobilization. Shoigu, however, promised on Wednesday that these conscripts would not be sent to the war (although it remains to be seen whether Russian authorities will keep that promise). Moscow may be hoping to minimize draft dodging during Russia’s fall conscription cycle. But Russia could tap conscripts set to be released this fall, who presumably would not need refresher training.

In the immediate term, mobilization’s chief impact may simply be to stem the bleeding. A new bill rushed through Russia’s parliament will impose yearslong prison sentences for soldiers who refuse to continue fighting, whereas these so-called “refusniks” have heretofore faced no criminal penalties for doing so. And Putin’s mobilization decree indefinitely extends the contracts of Russian troops — presumably including volunteers on short-term contracts — already serving in Ukraine.

In sum, while it appears unlikely to win the war for Putin, mobilization could help Russia sustain it and fend off further Ukrainian gains. But mobilized troops will take time to arrive on the battlefield in large quantities, so Ukraine still has a good opportunity to continue its counteroffensive in the coming weeks and months.

John Hardie is the deputy director of FDD’s Russia Program and a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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