Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is currently floundering even more than before. The Kremlin seems to have been backed into a corner as the shortcomings of their military have been embarrassingly displayed to the world by a Ukrainian military which most expected to fold quickly. Attempting to stop a catastrophic military failure being cemented, Vladimir Putin recently announced a partial mobilization in Russia.
This has not occurred in Russia since Joseph Stalin ordered a mass mobilization during the Second World War. So, to have this occur today is not only a sign of Russia’s increasing desperation but also an indication of dangerous tension between the NATO led west and Russia. During his announcement of partial mobilization, Putin reaffirmed his willingness to use nuclear weapons, saying quote, “”In its aggressive anti-Russian policy, the West has crossed every line. This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.”
Now, it’s debatable if we are actually headed for a global nuclear exchange over Ukraine. Perhaps Putin is actually ready to press that big read button and have anyone that survives use Nuka Cola Caps for currency. Or Maybe Putin is mentioning his nuclear arsenal to halt western support of Ukraine.
Now, what can we learn from the last Russian mobilization during WW2 that can allow us to analyze Putin’s mobilization and understand more of its significance?
If we rewind back to early June of 1941, the Second World War was about to enter a new phase. At that time, the war, to a certain extent, had calmed down in Europe. The Soviet Union had recently signed a neutrality pact with the Empire of Japan on April 13th of that year. Plus, the Soviets and Germans had been in a non-aggression pact since 1939.
But the peace between the Germans and Soviets was a distrustful one as each side was expecting the other to break the pact and invade at some point. Stalin had been building up and modernizing his military since the early 1930’s. But, the buildup really got going between 1939 and 1941 which saw approximately 3,289,000 new troops added along with a major increase in aircraft, tanks, and artillery pieces.
On June 22nd Operation Barbarossa began and the Germans invaded. Having 150 divisions already in the west but needing more men, Stalin mobilized his population for war. By mid-August, an astounding 200 fresh divisions had been produced by the mobilization. This caught the Germans off guard as they originally estimated the Soviets only being able to scrape together maybe 50 new divisions. Now, the Germans did succeed in crushing those original 150 divisions. But they found themselves struggling heavily against the 200 divisions newly formed by the mobilization. By the end of the war, the Red Army had been able draft 29,574,900 people. That is truly an incredible amount of people that really illustrates the scale of not only that conflict but also how successful Stalin’s mobilization was.
Putin’s current mobilization is dwarfed by that of Stalin as the current number of reservists being called up to aid Russian forces in Ukraine is 300,000. Now, the numbers may be very different, but interestingly their method of convincing the population to adhere and boost morale is not. They both changed their propaganda in the same way.
Today, Putin is justifying his mobilization by claiming that Russia, the motherland itself, is being threatened by the West. For example, the new narrative put out by Putin is that western countries are using “Nuclear blackmail” by considering the nuking of Moscow. He also claims that NATO aligned countries are actively encouraging Ukraine to start operating their military into Russia itself. This is a significant change from the original justification of de-Nazifying Ukraine and protecting the Slavs there.
Before the German invasion in 1941, Soviet propaganda focused on political ideas such as class struggles. But after things with Germany kicked off, the morale of the then retreating Red Army wasn’t doing too hot. So, Stalin’s government decided to rebrand their propaganda to center around patriotism, the history of Russia, and the need to protect the motherland. Interestingly, this was when propagandists began calling the war against Germany “the Great Patriotic War”.
Now, Stalin was able to raise enough soldiers to push back the invading Germans all the way to Berlin. But Putin’s mobilization is currently not going over well as there have currently been protests in 15 different Russian cities in response to the mobilization. Thousands of men eyed for conscription have fled or are attempting to flee Russia to avoid military service in Ukraine. There has also been an instance of a man shooting a military commissioner at a conscription office as retribution for his friend who had been conscripted. It seems this backlash was expected as a day before the mobilization was announced, the Russian parliament approved a bill which increased punishments for desertion, damage to military property and insubordination.
One of the obvious reasons why Putin’s mobilization is not being met warmly is because Russia made the first physical move. They are on the offensive without enough justification to sway their entire population. The ideas of NATO expansion, neo-Nazi militias, and biolabs don’t seem to be a strong enough motivation. It appears to be difficult to get someone to attack a country that they have not been attacked by.
This was an issue Stalin did not have to deal with. He didn’t have to exaggerate or lie to make his enemy look dangerous. The Germans were already bombing and killing when mass mobilization started. The hatred and willingness to fight the Germans was already there. It is actually really interesting that Stalin’s mobilization was so effective, and the population was willing to do what was asked of them. This is because Stalin had brutalized his population with horrors such as famine, state sponsored murder, and the Gulag system. Now, Putin has had his moments, but he never reached the levels of Stalin in terms of terrorizing his population. So, since Stalin was able to effectively mobilize his population after doing what he did, then Putin’s difficulty to even partially mobilize shows that his reasons for invading Ukraine aren’t solid.
Currently, the Kremlin is attempting to dampen the unpopularity of the mobilization by targeting poor and rural areas of Russia. The idea is that if you do not conscript in city centers such as Moscow or St Petersburg then massive and more disruptive protests are less likely.
But let’s say the ranks are filled and the desired number of 300,000 new troops is reached. Would it be sufficient to cure Russia’s failure in Ukraine thus far? Well, as many western analysts have pointed out, simply adding low trained reserve troops will not rid the Russian military of the current fundamental issues which plague it. Since the February invasion, both poor logistics and the inability to sustain troops have been exposed as two of the major reasons why the Russian military has failed at accomplishing its goals. There are also the reported cultural issues such as serious hazing, deep rooted corruption, and all-around unprofessionalism in the Russian military.
It is for these reasons that the war is not expected to drastically change with a fresh batch of 300,000 reservists with little training. Keep in mind, winter is approaching, and the war will likely stagnate once it arrives. So, it seems the reservists are to be thrown in as a last minute attempt by Russia to grab some lost ground and defend what it still has in Ukraine.
If Putin’s military is just treading water until drowning and their incompetency is undeniable, will the embarrassment and desperation be enough for the Kremlin to lash out and escalate global tensions even more? That is my question.