Draft evasion, escalation of military operations and other highly topical subjects in today’s Russia
My good friend and “comrade in arms” in the anti-war community, Ray McGovern, yesterday published an article on how The New York Times is stoking the war in Ukraine and goading the Biden administration to be ever more aggressive and irresponsible. Ray went on to remind us of the ignominious role played by NYT news reporters and their editorial board in promoting the Vietnam War, from the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that heralded the start of the real US engagement to the bitter end, all without a word of apology or regret in later years.
As a member of the Vietnam War generation in the USA, mention of that war brings up for me two words of great importance in the Russia that I see around me on this three week visit to St Petersburg: draft evasion and escalation.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the “partial mobilization” that was announced by the Kremlin in the past week is the number one item of news and discussion in the social networks here as well as on radio and television broadcasting. As I mentioned a day ago in my coverage of the national radio station Business FM, there is extensive examination on air of the implications of the call-up to military service for business and society in general.
A great deal of attention is directed at exemptions from service for various categories of the population, primarily, by relevance of their work to national defense and technological sovereignty. In this regard the most widely discussed industry is IT. The public is being told that software programmers are absolutely needed in their present workplaces to further the import substitution program. But does that extend to individuals and companies developing software for video games? And what about the owners-managers, the finance directors, the legal department heads of IT companies that do serve the defense industry and/or technology more broadly? As we hear on air, these other members of staff are also critical to the viability of the companies and so to the national interest. Without them the companies in question just fold.
Another related issue widely covered in the media here is draft evasion, in particular, by those leaving the country clandestinely by plane, by private car across the land frontiers, and even by electric scooters which move straight to the head of the queues at the border crossings. The Georgian border is now being closed by authorities in Tbilisi. The border with Kazakhstan is being closed down to auto traffic. But there is still the Finnish border, where 7 hour lines are forming.
Media reporting tells us that some 300,000 Russian males eligible for call-up, which now extends to age 55, have already fled the country. The significance of that number, if it is in fact reliable, depends on who these draft dodgers are: if they are skilled and experienced, say in computer programming and communications, then the loss is significant; if they are hair dressers and farm hands, then the loss of 300,000 in a population of 145 million is a drop in the bucket.
Those who are departing to evade the call-up are being denounced as “rats” by socially prominent personalities before the radio and television microphones. Ordinary women interviewed on the streets of Moscow or other multi-million cities across Russia tell members of the opposite sex to “be men” and do their duty.
I have no doubt that the European elites shudder at this very traditional appeal to sexist stereotypes that underlie national defense and patriotism. But such appeals definitely have resonance in Russia today. My 50-year old main taxi driver, infantry captain in the reserves, has little doubt he will be called up, if not in this first “partial” mobilization then in the general mobilization that is sure to follow once Russia declares war on Ukraine, which may be within the coming two weeks. And what does he say about it? “I already have the best years of my life behind me. I am ready to go and, if necessary, to die for my country.” Verbatim and without a hint of jingoism. It sounds a bit like the charming “my country write [sic] or wrong” that my grandfather Max, who emigrated to the U.S. from the Russian Empire in about 1910, wrote to me in the 1960s. Both expressions were heartfelt and merit respect.
In my description of how Business FM covers the impact of the mobilization on society and also the issue of lines at the borders, I said the broadcaster was neither pro-Putin, nor anti-Putin, but that is not entirely true. By its nature, such coverage provides useful information to draft dodgers, meaning the Opposition. I mention this to underline the fact that despite the heightened controls on society that the war has brought with it, Russian media are still often honest, transparent and useful in ways that your average Russia-basher in the West cannot conceive.
On the question of escalation, there is less public discussion but a lot of grumbling in the kitchens of ordinary folk that the war is proceeding much too slowly, that Russia should apply the devastating conventional weapons at its disposal to put an end to the fighting one-two-three. The hard-line patriots are calling for Defense Minister Shoigu, who in fact never served in the armed forces, to be replaced by someone with “balls,” like Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechnya Republic. Kadyrov sent his forces to the Donbas, where they spearheaded the conquest of Mariupol and are destroying the enemy now by tough urban warfare in other Donbas settlements
War by escalation was the policy which the Kennedy brain trust of the “the best and the brightest” implemented in Vietnam. From a modest expeditionary force, it led finally to the deployment of more than 600,000 troops in Vietnam and to vastly destructive bombing of that country and neighboring Laos and Cambodia. But to no avail. This seemingly rational doctrine was overturned when Nixon came to power and introduced the “madman” leader guise by his Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972. The U.S. then projected the image of a dangerous foe ready to inflict all manner of atrocities on the enemy, and some have argued this helped bring the North to the negotiating table. Regrettably, this approach to war seems not to have caught the attention of Mr. Putin’s inner circle of advisers. I recommend it to them.
But perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps the mobilization is just a cover, suggesting continuation of the war under its present method of attrition, while de facto preparing the way for a change of tactics to destruction of the Ukrainian command and control at the Ministry of Defense and destruction of the civilian decision making instances by precision bombing in Kiev using unstoppable hypersonic missiles for which the latest air defense installations coming from the USA are useless. Perhaps the mobilization is merely to have ready boots on the ground to occupy and hold the Ukraine following the decapitation of its civilian and military leadership. Time will tell.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022