Ülo Mattheus: Russia's mogilizatsiya

Ülo Mattheus.
Ülo Mattheus. Source: Ave Maria Mõistlik/Wikimedia Commons

Some Europeans seem to be hoping that the weight of the war will pass them by, just as they did before World War Two, Üle Mattheus writes in a comment originally published in Sirp magazine.

Pseudo-referendums in occupied Ukrainian territories, the mobilization in Russia and nuclear sabre rattling all suggest that Vladimir Putin will not abandon his war until every last resort has been tried.

The so-called collective West that Putin claims to be fighting has in turn realized that no concessions to the Russian dictator can be made as it would only stoke his appetite, justify his imperial ambitions and endanger the whole of Europe. Even the leaders of France and Germany seem to be grasping the big picture now, and while they still keep in touch with Putin, it is to urge him to capitulate.

That said, so-called Old Europe's weapons aid for Ukraine remains modest despite a realistic nuclear threat from Russia. Germany has sent Ukraine six Gepard mobile AA systems. Poland has given modernized Russian armor and Slovenia has also promised to hand its old Soviet tanks over to Ukraine in return for modern war machines from Germany. Aid provided to Ukraine still does not include Western tanks. The volume of European arms aid is too modest to allow Ukraine to quickly recapture occupied territory.

Once again, it falls to USA, whose constant and substantial support has helped Ukraine withstand the occupying forces and who has decided to defend Europe, unlike the continent itself some people in which seem to be hoping that the weight of the war will pass them by, just as they did on the eve of World War Two.

Old Europe is wrestling with domestic problems and threatened prosperity that seems to be melting away like spring snows, shaking the ground under governments' feet. Italy is about to see a coalition with the involvement of Putin's friend Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia whose Ukraine stance is confusing to say the least.

How will the war really reach Europe?

A single nuclear strike by Russia, even using just a tactical warhead with a limited range, would very likely force a response form the so-called collective West. Should Putin's blackmail carry and Ukraine be forced to surrender, Russia's demands would only grow and it would continue on the path of restoring its empire, attacking or threatening anyone who got in the way. Such an attack could hit the UK as one of Ukraine's key allies next to the U.S.

Fear that the conflict could culminate in the use of nuclear weapons was voiced by Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi and Mykhailo Zabrodskyi, deputy head of the Verkhovna Rada's National Defense Committee, in their September 7 address (link in Ukrainian). They point to a possible nuclear strike by Russia and the realistic chance of the conflict escalating into the third world war. The address first and foremost highlights preconditions necessary for a Ukrainian victory.

These are thoroughly rearming the Armed Forces of Ukraine based on NATO standards and in sufficient volume, with the range of missile systems at the heart of the matter. The range is currently 2,000 kilometers for Russia and just 100 kilometers for Ukraine, meaning that the latter is currently unable to hit military targets far behind the Russian lines, even those in Ukraine.

The authors also write that a greater missile range is needed for the reality of the war to hit home for Russian people, like what happened after Ukraine hit military targets in Crimea. The people of Russia must realize that a full-scale war full of atrocities is taking place.

Both USA and UK have vowed to take decisive steps following a nuclear strike by Russia. Going after Putin by raiding his bunkers, destroying Russia's WMDs in their silos or completely destroying its Black Sea Fleet have been discussed, as suggested by retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges.

If for a long time, the rhetoric was that Putin is simply using the nuclear button as a deterrent and is unlikely to ever press it, Ukraine's successful Kharkiv counteroffensive, Russia's sham referendums in occupied territories and the mobilization in Russia have turned it back into a real perceived threat as Putin is fast running out of other options.

It has been suggested that Russia could use the sham referendums to claim occupied territories and then use a nuclear strike to defend them.

Playing both sides

Putin has used the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant to blackmail the West, attacking the area with missiles and threatening Europe with a repeat of Chernobyl, while restricting IAEA access to the facility.

It is said that mediation by President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan has led to the stabilization of the situation surrounding the nuclear plant. A study by the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Institute revealed that fallout from Zaporizhzhia could reach Turkey, which prospect is probably not to Erdogan's liking.

The Turkish leader's position in the Ukraine crisis and the world has become so important as to be hard to overlook. He is the only leader of note to still meet with Putin and have some effect on him. Erdogan's mediation restored Ukraine's grain exports and saw the release of Mariupol's defenders who surrendered following a promise by Erdogan that they would be exchanged for Russian prisoners.

Erdogan could not afford to make empty promises and made Putin do something that Russian propagandists saw almost as treason as the Azov Battalion is held to be the embodiment of so-called Ukrainian fascism. In return, Putin likely wants Erdogan to bring Ukraine to the negotiating table, or better yet, heads of NATO members as it would help him save face.

Turkey has allowed the use of the Russian MIR card payments system, until it came under U.S. sanctions, remained open to Russian tourists visa-free and is not ashamed to buy Russian gas and pay in rubles. That said, Erdogan seems to like to humiliate Putin and put him in his place.

He captured the world's attention on a photograph from a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand that appeared in Turkish media. On it, Putin is sitting on a couch between President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, while towering on a chair to the left is Erdogan, sitting next to President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev.

It has been suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping refused to have lunch with Putin at the summit, giving coronavirus precautions as his excuse, while the PM of India Narendra Modi admonished Putin for looking to solve things through war.

Ankara's support of Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia is another item that's incompatible with Putin's agenda. The latter is supposed to include, among other things, peacekeeping services for Armenia and ensuring its security based on Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty Organization agreement.

Unfortunately, realpolitik and Erdogan have won the day, with Putin left no choice but to grasp at straws Erdogan is dangling in front of him. Putin seems similarly unfazed by Turkey's growing influence in the Caucasus, Central Asia and regions home to Turkic peoples in Russian Far East. The so-called Great Turan idea could become a serious challenge for the Russkiy Mir.

There are other reasons why Putin should impale the Turkish half-moon with the Russian Orthodox cross and nail it to a church's roof. Turkey recognizes Ukraine's territorial integrity, including Crimea. It is keeping Russian military vessels out of the Black Sea. Turkish company Baykar Defense is selling drones to Azerbaijan and Ukraine (its manufacturing partner) but not to Russia, and what is perhaps most important or peculiar considering the circumstances – Turkey is a NATO member, a part of that so-called collective West Russia believes it is fighting.

Dire straits lead to Iran if Turkey refuses to sell its drones to Russia.

Russia's cooperation with Iran is significant in that the country has been deemed a sponsor of terrorism by USA, next to Syria, North Korea and Cuba. Even though Russia is clearly demonstrating its affiliation therein, the Americans have until now refrained from bestowing the title on it. But further escalation of the situation could change that.

The after-effects of the Samarkand humiliation

It has been speculated that the humiliation he was handed in Samarkand caused Putin to take decisive action to demonstrate he is still to be reckoned with. He declared referendums in occupied territories and a mobilization in Russia, threatening the West with resorting to nuclear weapons and escalating the global security situation.

All of these topics have sparked countless conversations and opinions since then. The key issue in terms of Russia's future seems to be Putin's mobilization that has been dubbed mogilizatsiya, or mass burial of the mobilized.

Russia officially declared a partial mobilization with a target of 300,000 but because that particular part of Putin's ukase has not been made public, it has been suggested the actual target could be a million men in several waves between now and spring.

Mobilization will become mogilizatsiya because of the poor training and lack of skills of the newly mobilized. Because Ukraine has dispatched most professional Russian soldiers in this war, the Russian army is short on officers to run frontline operations and specialists who know how to operate machinery.

Units in Ukraine have been rotated many times, with their quality on a permanently downward trajectory, composition down to a third in some cases, whereas using the newly mobilized to bolster the ranks will do little to change the situation on the ground.

It takes months to offer a soldier even minimal training, which time Russia does not have, with the first wave of the mobilized sent to the front virtually without preparation. Estimates suggest 80 percent will be killed or maimed. They can be used in auxiliary activities (transport, digging trenches, loading shells etc.) or put in the enemy's line of fire to tempt them into revealing their positions.

The Russian side makes widespread use of such tactics, meaning that the so-called mobilized, or at least the first wave to follow Putin's ukase, will simply be used as cannon fodder. Russian propagandists have said that if just a single Ukrainian soldier is killed per every 10 Russian soldiers, they will have served their purpose.

It is also possible that the fall demobilization will be cancelled and 137,000 conscripts fresh out of training and with insufficient skills will be sent to the front instead. That number – 137,000 – is incidentally just by how much Putin has decided to grow the personnel of the Russian armed forces.

It is clear that dispatching such masses to the front will impede the activities of the Ukrainian armed forces and cause it to spend much more resources for which Ukraine relies on the West and does not produce itself. It is also possible the front lines will be frozen, because even though the [Ukrainian] war machine can cut through untrained mobilized like butter, their number could prove too great. Above all, it serves as a way to force Ukraine to negotiate and relinquish territory gained by constantly raising the stakes and piling on casualties.

Looking at Russia's domestic situation, the mogilizatsiya will result in even more political uncertainty and confusion. It marks the start of processes the course and results of which are difficult to predict. While people were willing to watch the so-called Ukraine blitzkrieg on TV, they do not seem as keen on being taken to the slaughter.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Putin's ukase saw all outgoing plane tickets booked, queues of people clogging the border crossing points of states that offer visa freedom, protests against the mobilization unto conscription centers set ablaze. There have been shootings and at least one incident of self-immolation.

Nevertheless, analysts who know Russia believe none of it will keep the Kremlin from hitting its target and rounding up the necessary number of male citizens, picking them straight from the street and by force if necessary. It is possible that society's tolerance will be put to the ultimate test once dead bodies in plastic bags start arriving from Ukraine in large numbers. Alternatively, it could just be notices of death as Russia is not really in the habit of collecting remains and sending them home.

It has been speculated that this will cause the Putin regime to collapse, while it has also been suggested that protest moods have been quashed and are firmly under the control of security agencies. Just as it was in Soviet times the mechanisms of which Putin has successfully copied by completely destroying free speech and ordering tough punishments for crimes against the regime.

Tensions over what are shaping up to be unprecedented losses probably cannot be avoided. Their extent should become clear after the first wave the newly mobilized are killed. It cannot be ruled out that processes now unleashed will end with the mogilizatsiya of Putin and Russia itself. The latter would mean Russia leaving the grand arena of global politics and landing among so-called third countries for good.

Considering recent attempts at nuclear blackmail, it is also not impossible that one of the preconditions for Russia's reintegration with the Western economic system will be its nuclear disarmament. This would render Russia an insignificant state that no one is afraid of. I sincerely hope this is more than just wishful thinking.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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