Has ‘partial mobilization’ breathed full-blooded democracy into Russia’s parliamentary government structure and broader society?
It is normal to think of wartime as a period of tightened censorship and imposition of ever greater controls on society at large. Indeed, Western journalists have in the past half year focused attention on the closure of several notorious anti-Putin broadcasting companies and print media in Russia, including Rain (Dozhd’) and Novaya Gazeta. They have covered the flight of editors and staff abroad after they were labeled as ‘foreign agents’ and could expect invitations to appear before the courts.
However, in the days since the announcement by the Kremlin of ‘partial mobilization’ of the reserves, it is increasingly clear to any outside objective observer that a full blast of social activism is underway, and that the dikes of state controls on free speech are being swept away. A week ago, following reversals on the battlefield and loss of territory to the enemy that could not be ignored, members of the State Duma openly denounced the Ministry of Defense for dispensing ‘fairy tales’ about the progress of the campaign in Ukraine and demanded transparency in communications to the public. Speaker of the Duma Volodin, who is a leader of the ruling United Russia party, must have been in shock.
Meanwhile, we see on state television news reporting on the formation of private committees across the country to raise funds, procure goods and directly deliver to the new recruits clothing and other gear which the Army is not providing as it sends them off to the front. This is presented as representing a patriotic upsurge in Russian society, but on closer view it is a damning criticism of the incompetence of the powers-that-be for sending citizens off to war without the kit they need.
In the United States, and to a lesser extent in Europe, the escalating confrontation between Russia and NATO in and over Ukraine is presented as a repetition of the actors and principles underlying the outbreak of World War II. Putin is the modern day Hitler and Western leaders must defend democratic institutions against authoritarian regimes which commit aggression against neighbors.
In Russia, the escalating confrontation is seen in different terms, as a repetition of World War I, when the leaders of the Great Powers ‘sleep walked’ into the greatest tragedy for civilization of all time by failing to see the abyss before them. If the Kremlin is not careful, the likeness of today’s developments on the home front to the situation at the start – and more importantly, at the end – of WWI may yet be proven. That war did not end well for the tsarist regime and to a very considerable extent it was brought down precisely by patriotic society.
Current Russian television footage of the send-off of the reservists in provincial cities, with busloads of recruits driving past cheering citizenry waving little flags and bouquets of flowers, bears an uncanny resemblance to vintage photos taken in Russia at the outset of The Great War. The patriotic organizations formed by local politicians to support the war effort in 1914 over time became hotbeds of open criticism of the army leadership and of the tsarist dynasty, leading to the February Revolution and forced abdication of Nicholas II. Kremlin elites have excellent memories and surely are concerned.
Why is there today such a public display of civic activism? What has happened to the passive Russian public? The one-word answer is mobilization. As Sergey Mikheev, a panelist in last night’s Vladimir Solovyov talk show explained, the mobilization has turned what was a technical operation manned by professional soldiers into a ‘people’s war’ and the people now want a say in how it is conducted.
That is a sea change in Russian domestic politics. But it was to be expected, and its emergence so quickly is precisely why the Kremlin postponed mobilization as long as it could.
A little less than a year ago, I published an essay about the passivity of the Russian citizen-taxpayer under the piquant heading “no representation without taxation,” standing on its head the call to arms that once motivated American Revolutionaries against their colonial masters in England – https://gilbertdoctorow.com/2021/11/03/no-representation-without-taxation/.
For a number of reasons, the lion’s share of the Russian state budget comes from export taxes on gas and oil, with a relatively low share coming from taxes on the average Russian citizen: income tax is set at a flat rate of 15% and property taxes on houses and apartments are close to nil, while the government assures welfare state benefits of free medical care and education to the broad population. But when the Russian citizen has a direct interest in the game, as is now the case with the mobilization of husbands and fathers, that passive citizenry can become very emotional, involved and vocal.
Last night’s political talk show hosted by Vladimir Solovyov was outstanding for giving voice to precisely the thoughts you otherwise hear in people’s home as they talk in their kitchens with relatives and close friends. There were several noteworthy contributors to the discussion, but the most comprehensive contribution was made by Sergey Mikheev, whom I briefly cited above. He was given the microphone for ten minutes or more, was not interrupted by the host or fellow panelists, which is common practice on these talk shows, and he delivered a stirring programmatic speech which, if you take it apart, was severely critical not of the generals for unprofessional management of field operations but of the country’s political leadership, going straight back to Vladimir Putin, for deeply flawed concepts on how the war should be prosecuted.
The mobilization, per Mikheev, is merely an extension or escalation of the failed policies to date, namely the attempt to conduct an artillery and infantry war with successes measured in destruction of Ukrainian military assets, instead of conducting total war, with the emphasis placed on destruction of the entire Ukrainian power generation, logistics and other infrastructure so as to demoralize the Ukrainian population and deprive its army of the wherewithal to continue fighting.
Mikheev attributed to his opponents in the Kremlin the argument that what they are doing is more humane, that Russia has no intention of leaving the broad Ukrainian public without heat or electricity in winter, or of causing unnecessary civilian deaths in its missile strikes. He insisted that the more humane way would have been to inflict massive pain on Ukraine back in March and April, so as to bring the conflict to an early conclusion. Escalation by baby steps is only prolonging the war and raising the risk of nuclear Armageddon.
Mikheev said that the loss of territory during the recent Ukrainian counteroffensives has many citizens scratching their heads. Why is Russia not using the technological superiority of its weaponry to greatest advantage? Why is it instead only increasing the numbers of its front line fighters as if this were a 20th century rather than a 21st century war?
Doubts about how the war is being conducted are causing ordinary Russians to lose confidence in their leadership and to look for hidden traitors. People are asking whether the oligarchs are influencing how the war is being fought so as to protect their interests. There is no room for private interests in what has been described as an existential conflict, says Mikheev. How is it that the truck loaded with explosives was allowed onto the bridge despite what had been described as tightest security? People are thinking that someone was paid off to let this vehicle through without inspection. Such corrosive doubts can be cut short only by a change in the way the war in being conducted.
It is hard to imagine a more damning statement than what Sergey Mikheev was allowed to present live on air on the Solovyov show. All reports about secret messages of criticism to Putin from within the Kremlin ranks that our newspapers feature pale in significance by comparison.
Another noteworthy panelist in last night’s show was the general director of Mosfilm, Karen Shakhnazarov, who, like Mikheev, is a regular visitor to the program. Shakhnazarov had two points to convey, one minor, and strictly professional from his domain, the world of entertainment, and the other major, and likely more broadly representative of thinking among Russia’s ‘creative classes.’ The minor point was to call out the absence today of a comprehensive patriotic management of the war effort. With all due respect to the mastery of foreign film directors and production companies, how can it be, he asked, that our television stations, including the private station NTV, are showing Rambo films these days? Such adulatory films of American daring-do could and should be put on hold till after this war is over.
Shakhnazarov’s major point was that Russia erred in not taking up Elon Musk’s latest proposal for ending the war. This was a missed Public Relations opportunity of great potential value in the Information War. Yes, Russia does not accept certain points in the plan, in particular, regarding holding new referendums in the four newly annexed territories. But it would have served Russia very well to say ‘yes, the plan is worth considering, and we are ready to go the extra mile in pursuit of peace’ when Zelensky unreservedly rejected the Musk plan. Said Shakhnazarov, Musk has tens of millions of followers and they could have been won over to Russia’s cause had the Kremlin given a qualified yes to the plan.
Finally, I call attention to the remarks made by a retired military intelligence officer, hero of the Russian Federation, who gave highly relevant explanations to the alleged Russian targeting of purely civilian targets like children’s playgrounds and opera houses in its missile strikes on cities across Ukraine a day ago in revenge for the bombing of the Crimea bridge. As he noted, Ukrainian authorities have claimed that the Russians fired 72 missiles that day, of which 42 were supposedly knocked out by the Ukrainian air defenses. Meanwhile the Russian authorities have said nothing about possible losses of their missiles to Ukrainian defenses and only said that all of the targets on their list were destroyed.
Let us say, this general argued, that the Ukrainian figures were inflated and that they shot down not 42 but 21 of our missiles. That would take the loss rate into typical range given that Ukraine still has a powerful anti missile defense in Kiev and elsewhere, which has been strengthened in recent weeks by more advanced systems sent in from NATO countries. “Shot down” is a deceptive term: usually this means not total destruction but the break-up of the incoming missile into fragments which contain explosives and land wherever gravity brings them down. Accordingly it is entirely possible that fragments of such Russian missiles indeed landed in civilian, residential neighborhoods with associated loss of life. Though the general did not mention it, exactly the same scenario occurred in Donetsk and other cities in the rebel provinces when they came under attack from Ukrainian Tochka-M rockets early in this war. The rockets were intercepted by Russian air defenses, but the fragments landed in city streets and caused significant loss of life as well as damage to infrastructure.
Finally, this military intelligence expert had some interesting and possibly valuable words to say about the newly appointed head of military operations in Ukraine, General Sergei Surovikin, whom he met several times in the past and for whom he has great respect. Surovikin has been given this assignment after serving as chief of the Aerospace Forces, which was in itself an unusual career move for an officer whose basic education and experience was in charge of ground forces. In this appointment, we may well see better coordination and use of the two different branches of the military, which have been criticized in Western expert circles for precisely a lack of effectiveness. As regards the coincidence between the new assignment and the dramatic ratcheting up of Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian cities a day ago, the general insisted that from one day to the next a new appointee cannot master all aspects of the ongoing complex military operations, so that Surovikin cannot be the author of these strikes.
Having some experience as an historical researcher in Russian government archives from the tsarist period, I learned one lesson that bears on today: in government offices there are always competent and highly experienced officials who draft legislation or orders that sit idly in their desk drawers but which can become government policy in a matter of hours if events outside the bureaucracy force a change. I believe that is precisely what happened with respect to Russia’s massive attack on Ukraine of late.
With this, I rest my overriding point from the foregoing summary of the 10 October Solovyov show: Russian state television is essential reference material to anyone seeking to make sense of this war and to see where it may lead.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022
19 thoughts on “‘Partial mobilization’ and democracy”
I totally agree that the missile attacks of these days cannot be attributed to the will of General Surovikin, rather, the appointment of Surovikin seems to respond to the same logic that led to the intensification of the attacks on Ukrainian soil and which, evidently, can only have been decided by the highest political level of the Russian state (probably within the Security Council of the Russian Federation). The reference to General Surovikin is evidently the result of a deliberate choice by the Western press which, in its work of demonizing the Russian military operation, simplistically prefers to attribute the responsibility to a military man famous for his determination and who was, previously, portrayed in a particularly grim way: general armageddon.
On the other hand, Mr. Shakhnazarov’s views appear, at best, insane. Elon Musk is a man of great popularity and success but, certainly, his ability to influence the choices of the current U.S. administration and the U.S. deep state are very limited.
First of all, the Kremlin’s manifestation of interest in Musk’s proposal would have put a state actor on an equal footing with a private citizen with the consequence of heavily exposing the Russian administration to no involvement, even at the lowest levels, of the American administration: an obvious disaster in terms of image.
Moreover, in the face of the possible advantages in terms of PR in the face of Western public opinion (which in this conflict has shown itself willing – even if only for simple ignorance – to accept uncritically a one-way narrative that in some cases has gone far beyond the ridiculous: for example the Russians bombing themselves at the Zaphorizia nuclear power plant), the loss of image among the internal public opinion, and especially among the citizens of the secessionist oblasts, would have been so enormous that it could not be measured: the votes have just ended with the solemn proclamation of the return to the arms of the motherland of these people and the next day you tell them it could all have been a joke.
There is undoubtedly a concept in politics called raison d’état, and in its name a state can certainly make painful concessions to achieve an important goal, but lose face, moreover, in the course of a war, to respond to the simple idea of a private citizen would constitute an event not yet seen in the history of international relations.
I believe that the fact that Mr. Shakhnazarov is granted an important platform to expose his ideas more than an example of pluralism must be considered an element of serious weakness in Russian society: on these assumptions a nation can lose even against a very weak enemy
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“closer view it is a damning criticism of the incompetence of the powers-that-be for sending citizens off to war without the kit they need.”
oups.. désolé, j’ai omis ma réplique…la voici:
YT Comentator iEarlGrey countered this argument. He’s a former UK soldier and affirmed this is normal practice for ALL military in the world: every one complement their kit (better goggles, kevlar plates, etc…)
Bonjour du Québec!
Yes, I live in a garrison city and and often see Canadian Forces members shopping in the local “army surplus” store. Boots seem popular.
The Musk issue is intriguing. His peace proposal was a reasonable starting point; I think the Kremlin would accept that. But in combination with the proposal is Musk’s administration of the Starlink satellite chain, through his Space-X company, and the complaints from Ukraine/NATO forces that their intel feeds had been cut on the southern front. This is surely no coincidence. Earlier in the conflict Musk made a great play of providing the starlink devices that would enable real time intel to Ukrainian troops, later confirmed by the capture of some by Russian forces. The accusation is that subsequently Musk has cut off this flow, clearly aiding Russian forces. What has brought about this about face? Musk is not admitting he has cut off the intel, but points out his considerable outplay in providing the service to Ukraine – an outlay that clearly was not open-ended and has not been repaid. All he will say is that the matter is ‘classified’. There are several teasing options here. What if Russia has offered him the money to cut off the service? What if Russia has merely offered him the money to reveal the satellite codes by which their electronic counter-measures may block the signal? Either way Mr Musk makes more money but formidable enemies. The Pentagon paid for the Starlink chain, Musk merely manages it.
It remains to be seen whether the blockage applies to the other fronts, and it may be they will not even be acknowledged, should it be so. The proof probably will be demonstrated by battlefield success. Remember Lavrov complained that NATO had an unfair advantage in now using such omniscient intel – pinpointing Russian troop numbers and equipment? I suspect the approach to Musk may have come through diplomatic channels…
Prolonging the war is commonly accepted as favoring the G7, the name I would prefer for the heirs of Hitler who are entirely and completely responsible for the entirety of the conflict.
That said, it is possible prolonging the war favors Russia and China, the heirs of Lenin, if you will. In
that view, the Russian leadership needed to put off this moment as long as possible. Public opinion is wavering in the G7. More than it is in Russia. How many citizens in the G7 are calling for “taking the gloves off” as they freeze in their living rooms?
Thank you again!
Hindsight is easy and lazy. If the SMO does not seem to be going well, it is easy to look backward and suggest a different plan. And that is also lazy, because anyone can pick up the pieces of what has happened and rearrange them to suit their desire. It is much more challenging to work forward without the information of what will happen in the future. For the simple reason that no one knows the future.
In the actuality, the SMO nearly succeeded in its goal of ending Ukrainian aggresssion against Donetsk and Luhansk; Ukraine and Russia were close to a peace agreement in March. It required the intervention of Boris Johnson, who personally visited Zelensky and convinced him to keep the war going. (What did Boris say to Zelensky? Curious minds would like to know.) I don’t believe that the Kremlin could have predicted that turn of events in advance.
What if Russia had gone all-out for a Shock-and-Awe destruction of Ukraine, such as the US applied to Iraq in 2003/2004? Can anyone be so sure that there would be no unforseen and untoward outcomes from that? Might we not already be living (or dying) in the aftermath of nuclear war?
It’s fun, I guess, to speculate about such things, as if everything were a board game. But when real lives are at stake, I’m inclined toward taking the incremental path rather than going directly to the extreme.
I think ANYONE paying attention could have predicted Western intervention to prolong the war.
An interesting article as always.
I guess this is potentially a threat for the regime but also an opportunity if they get on the right side of public opinion. A difference with WW1 is that I struggle with the idea that Wilhelmine Germany and Austria Hungary were existential threats for Russia in 1914. The situation today may have more parallels with the Great Patriotic War. If I understand history correctly, this served to legitimize the Soviet regime. But your point that this could easily go wrong for the regime if they play it the wrong way is a valid one.
When it comes to military incompetence and official blunders on equipment then I think iEarlGrey’s comments reported above are spot on. During the Afghan and Iraq wars there were huge challenges with the equipment supplied to the British Army. Most of this was swept under the carpet and covered up by our own awful, corrupt deep state. It is still not really accepted by our officials and it is hard to point to anyone having been fired as a result. My own interpretation of Russia right now is that there is a healthy debate and my understanding from various articles is that the regime has even encouraged media to report on mobilization challenges so that they can be addressed. This is how a serious society wages war. The west has largely forgotten how to do this, and of course has been used to fighting wars of choice against deeply inferior enemies with almost zero public engagement. PR / propaganda are the major skills that have been developed. Our regimes strike me as far more complacent and corrupt (while claiming not to be, but how else do politicians become multi millionaires, how else do generals all end up with consulting contracts) than Russia.
“As regards the coincidence between the new assignment and the dramatic ratcheting up of Russian missile strikes on Ukrainian cities a day ago, the general insisted that from one day to the next a new appointee cannot master all aspects of the ongoing complex military operations, so that Surovikin cannot be the author of these strikes.” This does not make any sense: what, they appointed him one day, and the next, voila, he’s in charge? I am sure that he has been involved in the operation for many months in more ways than one. And when the time was right, he was officially appointed and the announcement made.
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