On 21 September, Vladimir Putin simultaneously announced the call-up and pseudo-referenda on the annexation of four Ukrainian regions to Russia. We explore with Grigory Yudin how the call-up and the “referenda” in the occupied territories are related, why Putin decided to take these steps and what consequences we can expect.
The question of the call-up was raised more than once after February 24, but the authorities calmed everyone down and assured everyone that there would be no call-up. Why did Putin take this step in the end?
The previous strategy that Russia had chosen during this war had reached a dead end. Moreover, it became clear that the Ukrainian army was reclaiming territory and would continue to do so unless Putin changed strategy. The militarised part of Russian society - a minority, but a very aggressive and loud minority - realised this the quickest. In the current climate, these people have platforms to speak out, and they have begun to demand more forcefully what they have been demanding all along: to turn the whole thing from a TV special operation into an all-out war. The authorities have had to make some serious moves towards this group.
Who are these people - a militarised minority - and why is it important for Putin’s elite to maintain contact with and rely on this audience?
The core of this group are the people who, in one way or another, are involved in the military-imperialist agenda. But they have a fairly large periphery that partially embraces Putin’s standard audience - these are older groups. Not all of them support Putin, but many do. In the older groups, the majority are apolitical people who generally give Putin a mandate to do whatever he wants because “he understands better”. Now an aggressive section of radicals are crawling into these groups like a cancer. It is the pro-war group of Russians who feign nationwide support for the war. It is generating voices that, on the one hand, are turned inwards to Russia and make Russians feel that everyone around them has come down with war fever. On the other hand, these voices are projected outside the country and create the same feeling outside Russia: that Russians are completely beleaguered and in some kind of war hysteria. This is not true, of course, but the loudness of this pro-war group makes it extremely important to Vladimir Putin, and so it is encouraged in every way possible.
How does the reliance on a militarised active minority during this war fit in with the fact that Putin’s main support has always been an apolitical majority?
Putin has followed, and is still trying to follow, a dual line. On the one hand, he is working to depoliticise and demobilise the bulk of the population so that these people stay out of his affairs. On the other hand, he needs a mobilised section that will give the necessary support and invest a lot of resources in this war. Before the call-up, for example, there was talk of some number of volunteers going off to die for Donbass and so on. I believe that the authorities are still, even within the call-up, trying to work for these two loyal audiences and not to touch the groups that are the most dangerous.
However, we have already seen in the first week of the call-up that the authorities have failed to push through the idea of a partial mobilisation that will affect almost no one. Everything happened rather chaotically and even propagandists like Solovyov and Simonyan had to comment on it somehow and speak supposedly on the side of people who had been illegally drafted. Why didn’t the authorities manage to organise things so as not to affect those very “dangerous groups” and cause a backlash?
When you carry out a mobilisation you have no way of doing it painlessly, especially if you have not seriously prepared for it for a long time. In such a situation, there is immediate overkill in certain areas, and they have tried to quell the reaction with propagandists who send reassuring signals: “Don’t worry, the state knows what it is doing: it will take who it wants, it will leave who it doesn’t want, you won’t be affected.” How long it will be possible to reassure people is a good question. If the next waves of call-ups begin with a strong increase in the rate, the backlash could become fiercer.
Because of the call-up, the pseudo-referenda in the occupied territories went almost unnoticed for many in Russia. Why did Putin decide on mobilisation and “referenda” at the same time and are they somehow connected?
Of course, these decisions are linked: they suggest that Putin is switching to a different tactic in the war. The “special operation” story didn’t work, it’s done with. Now Putin is introducing two resources. The first is human: the call-up itself. The second is the stretching of the nuclear shield over the occupied territory. The big question now is whether or not this escalation will at some point be redefined as an all-out war against NATO. Propaganda has long promoted the idea that Russia is at war with the West, but in reality these are just rhetorical passes to up the ante a bit. If what is happening is really redefined as war with NATO, it would completely change the situation and life in the country, including martial law and so on. It would allow the authorities to at least try to convey to the Russian population that this is an existential challenge. It hasn’t been done until now: when you have a war on TV, you don’t have an existential challenge. When it really turns into a war against NATO, everyone will be required to be prepared to die. If Putin goes down this road at some point, it will become obvious that he has run out of other strategies.
Now they are trying to create some kind of federal entity in the occupied territories and convince Russians that everything is under control and this is now Russia too. How convincing is this picture to people?
If the annexation of Crimea was quite successfully justified by the myth of the return of ancestral territories, the situation here is quite different. For the apolitical majority in Russia, the standard attitude to politics, especially to foreign policy, is non-interference. It’s something which is not worth getting involved in. So, for them any story will be convincing. You could announce tomorrow that we held a referendum in Alaska yesterday and 99% want to join Russia - and there would be no problem at all. The problems with the credibility of any of Putin’s political decisions will start when they come in the form of consequences in Russians’ homes. Until now, the consequences have still not been that drastic. Even the call-up has not affected everyone, it has been disproportionate across the country. So a significant number of people still have the chance to do what they’ve been doing all along: bury their heads in the sand and think they’ll get away with it.
In addition to the groups we have already talked about, there is an active anti-war minority in Russia. With the beginning of the call-up these people started to show themselves again, despite the repression. For example, we see a huge number of cases of arson in military enlistment offices. How serious a threat do their actions pose to the myth of universal support for the war?
My guess is that the anti-war group is very significant and larger than the radical pro-war group. It’s clear that this community is now in a deep depression, because the opportunity for action has been shut off and the opportunity to speak out has also been significantly reduced after all media have been blocked. But it is clear that this group is strongly dissatisfied with the existing situation and it is waiting for an opportunity for action. So far, this window has not really opened but the situation is changing. Russia has seized territories it does not even control. These are territories that are at war. Russia itself has erased that border and the war is now coming in. This could significantly affect the lives of Russians, and against this backdrop there are some opportunities for an anti-war group.
One of the main possibilities is that in the near future a certain number of depoliticized people will start to have questions. The process is already quietly set in motion, they have the possibility to talk to groups that weren’t accessible before. And now they have to explain things to themselves: How did it happen that Russia found itself in this situation? What exactly can they influence now? What prospects does Russia have and what can they do to achieve them? This is the kind of agenda that will attract more and more people. An anti-war group should offer them some kind of vision for the future of the country and it should not just be “stop the war”. When an anti-war group formulates some kind of political proposal, it will have a better chance.
In a depoliticised and atomized society, people are deprived of the feeling that there is some community with which they can act. That said, at the beginning of the call-up, suddenly the main vivid and strong mass protests took place in the national republics. Why? Is it possible that the inhabitants of the republics have more horizontal bonds and a greater sense of themselves as a community? Could it be that atomisation is also unevenly distributed across Russia?
Certainly, atomisation is unevenly distributed, and this unevenness has many dimensions. It is absolutely no coincidence that it was people in the national republics who were the first to act. There is an inner solidarity within these groups and it incorporates self-defence mechanisms when the state tries to put pressure on these groups. Another dimension is the urban communities that have recently taken shape in major cities. It hasn’t reached them yet, but they too may be able to fight back collectively. Points where there is such solidarity are always points of risk for the authorities.
To what extent can they turn into something serious?
It’s a difficult question. The state is now gradually overstepping its boundaries in its pressure on the regions, especially the republics. When it loses the ability to force human resources out of the national regions, they will radicalise the second part of their identity - their own idea of autonomy. And this is already a medium-term prospect, if not short-term. What we are seeing now are the contours of a very likely break-up of Russia. Not necessarily into some specific territorial units, but at least into some points of concentration of forces. What Vladimir Putin is up to now is, in fact, dismantling the state that to a large extent he himself built. It was not a very sturdy construction from the beginning, but now he is literally taking the screws out one by one. In front of our eyes this construction is beginning to fall apart.