Vladimir Putin’s botched mobilisation triggers blame game in Russia

Failures by officials have become apparent as war in Ukraine drags on

In Dagestan, a poor Russian region in the north Caucasus that has seen some of the biggest protests against Vladimir Putin’s mobilisation drive, governor Sergei Melikhov knew who to lay the blame on: overzealous local draft officers.

“Are you f**king morons?” Melikhov asked in a televised government meeting, reacting to a video showing a police van driving around towns blasting a message ordering all men to report to the draft office.

In Khabarovsk, in Russia’s far east, the governor this week sacked the local draft officer after half of those who had been called up were sent back home when it emerged they had been selected by mistake.

Putin’s decision to bolster Russia’s struggling forces in Ukraine has proved so unpopular that as many people have fled to neighbouring Kazakhstan as have joined the army since the move was announced two weeks ago, with some 200,000 reported to have already gone into exile.

READ MORE

The backlash has left the Kremlin looking for scapegoats to deflect the blame away from Putin and his war. In doing so, officials and state television pundits have been forced to shine a light on a system whose failings have grown apparent as Russia’s seven-month invasion stutters.

“The Russian defeat in Kharkiv and Lyman, combined with the Kremlin’s failure to conduct partial mobilisation effectively and fairly are fundamentally changing the Russian information space,” the Institute for the Study of War in Washington wrote in a report.

“It’s a disgrace when everyone has to pass the hat around for mobilised people. Why can’t the greatest country in the world supply them with what they need?

Less than a week after Putin proclaimed four territories in southeast Ukraine as part of Russia, Russia’s army has lost ground on two fronts — ceding territory the president claimed was now Russia and had vowed to defend at all costs.

Amid the reports that many people had been called up to fight in error, Putin was forced to acknowledge the discrepancy and vow that those wrongly mobilised would be sent home.

Kremlin supporters have been forced to admit the war effort’s shortcomings amid reports of the grim conditions awaiting the draftees — some of whom have been told to pay for their equipment, according to reports in independent Russian media.

“Our citizens are crying out for help and don’t understand why there is such irresponsibility and negligence around,” Sergei Mironov, the leader of a Kremlin-controlled opposition party, said at a hearing on Monday in the Duma.

“It’s a disgrace when everyone has to pass the hat around for mobilised people. Why can’t the greatest country in the world supply them with what they need? I’m not even talking about flak jackets and helmets — but we should be able to get them decent winter duffel coats,” he said.

The rising public disdain — for now largely aimed at low and mid-ranking officials in charge of implementing Putin’s plans rather than the president himself — is the most significant since Russia effectively banned criticism of the war by making it illegal to “discredit the armed forces” in March.

Now, as more bad news for Russia pours in from Ukraine and the home front, “the spiders in the closed jar have started working to find the culprit,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, wrote on Twitter. “Someone won’t make it out alive.”

With the annexation, formalised at a ceremony in the Kremlin last week, Putin sought to rekindle the euphoria that met his 2014 seizure of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine.

At a concert in Red Square on Friday before an audience of students and state employees bussed in for the occasion, entertainers urged Russians to back a “holy war” in Ukraine before Putin declared the four regions had been reunited “with their historical motherland.”

Ukraine’s victories on the battlefield, however, have sapped the celebratory atmosphere. Alexander Kots, a war correspondent for pro-Kremlin tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, posted a video on Tuesday in which a Russian soldier who goes by the call sign Cannibal complained his unit was down to just seven men from 23 a few weeks earlier.

“We’re retreating now and we’re upset about it, we need to go on the attack. We’re waiting for you, come on down,” Cannibal said.

The situation at the front is reportedly so dire that Alexander Zhilin, a retired army colonel, wrote an essay for one of the most popular channels on social media app Telegram lamenting that “the masters of strategic construction” had lured Russia into a trap — somehow tricking it into annexing Crimea and starting the war, all to a disastrous end.

“There’s no way out of this rattrap. The Kremlin seems to have realised that already. That’s why they insist on inviting Kyiv to negotiate,” Zhilin wrote.

Evgeny Poddubny, star war correspondent for a state television channel, said Russia would be unable to resist Ukraine’s advances until the mobilised reserves joined the front. “It’s only going to get worse for now,” Poddubny wrote on Telegram. “We’ll have to get our territories back.”

The mobilisation effort, however, has only highlighted the Russian state’s shortcomings — and forced the Kremlin to calm the broader public. As many as 69 per cent of Russians are “worried” — nearly double the total just two weeks earlier, according to a survey by the Kremlin-linked pollster FOM in late September.

“If a mistake is made, I repeat, it must be corrected,” Putin told his security council. “Those who were called up without proper reason should be returned home.”

Margarita Simonyan, the editor of Kremlin-funded news network RT, has regularly posted stories of Russians who she says have been called up despite not meeting the draft criteria.

That helped create the impression the state was responding to popular opinion: Simonyan hailed Putin’s admission of mistakes as the creation of “real civil society” in Russia.

But Ukraine’s continuing advances have put those small victories in jeopardy. “All I’m asking, comrade generals, is for you not to shame our anthem, our faith, our desperation to keep these people and territories with us — and return to normal as an even bigger Russia,” she said on state television. — Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022