From Thanking God to Seeing the Abyss: Russians React to Putin’s Mobilization
Vladimir Putin on Sept. 21 has done what hardliners inside and outside of the Russian government have repeatedly called for, calls that intensified after Russia’s military setbacks in eastern Ukraine: announced a mobilization of Russian reservists (though partial, not full) and officially blessed the annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories through “referenda.”
It became clear on Sept. 20 that mobilization was ahead when the Duma rubber stamped previously unheard of amendments to toughen punishments for military desertion and insubordination as well as for the violation of martial law, among other things. Putin even delayed his speech, previously scheduled for Sept. 20, to let Russian MPs rush through the bills that would make it tougher for Russians to dodge combat. Announcing the mobilization on Sept. 21, Putin said “necessary” and “imperative” measures were needed to “protect the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Russia and support the desire and will of our compatriots to choose their future independently.” Putin claimed the goal of “some Western elites” is to “weaken, divide and ultimately destroy” Russia, again framing his war in Ukraine as a conflict between Russia and the West. He also reissued his warning to the West against aiding and encouraging Ukraine in the war, alluding to language on the use of nuclear weapons in Russia’s strategic documents to imply that not only today’s Russia, but also territories it plans to annex via referenda, would be under the country’s nuclear umbrella. “In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff,” he warned.
Predictably, Putin’s announcement drew diametrically opposite reactions from Russia’s pro-war and anti-war camps. Some of the former invoked and thanked the heavens for Putin’s decision, which they saw as progress past a point of no return, while others, equally thankful, claimed that some of the newly-drafted soldiers and officers would somehow observe combat from distance. In contrast, the anti-war camp, which is a minority in no small measure due to the criminalization of dissent in Putin’s Russia, took a dim view of the Russian autocrat’s latest step. Some in that camp expected the partial mobilization to turn into a full one, yet remained skeptical that Putin will achieve what they saw as his ultimate aim of conquering and/or subjugating Ukraine—all while pushing Russia further into an “abyss.” Interestingly, some in the anti-war camp saw Putin’s announcement as moving the world to just one step away from nuclear war, while others in that camp believed that Putin was bluffing and that he rattled his nuclear saber again to convince Ukraine to negotiate with Russia. As interesting, representatives of both camps agreed that it would take several months to determine whether Putin’s latest measures will impact the war and the warring sides’ positions, as it will take that long to call up, retrain, arm and deploy the 300,000 reservists.
See below for how selected representatives of both camps reacted to Putin’s announcement in greater detail.
Russian and separatist officials:
Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic: “Today's appeal to the Russians by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Putin has put the Kyiv elite and all of NATO in a hopeless situation … it is very important to finish the special operation in the Donbas, otherwise the presumptuous enemy may come to our country, to our cities and villages, to our homes.” (Telegram, 09.21.22)
Alexander Khodakovsky, Donbas separatist commander: “Now the enemy [should be expected] to seize the moment, and try to maximally move us before this decision [by Putin] begins to work.” (Telegram, 09.21.21)
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council: “They [referenda] will completely change the vector of Russia's development for decades. And not only of our country. ... Encroachment on the territory of Russia is a crime that when committed, allows us to use all the forces of self-defense. But it is no less important that after the amendments to the Constitution of our state, not a single future leader of Russia, not a single official, will be able to reverse these decisions.” (Istories, 09.21.22)
Igor Kimakovsky, advisor to the head of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR): “For us, the people who have been in the people's liberation war since 2014, this is a positive decision. We also rejoice at the fact that a referendum is being prepared. Respect for our leadership, respect for those who are now in the NWO zone. For us, this is the right decision. Today, my son is already preparing to go there [to fight].” (Telegram, 09.21.22)
Sergei Shoigu, defense minister of Russia: "I cannot help but emphasize that today we are at war not only with Ukraine and the Ukrainian army, but with the collective West.” Shoigu, who addressed Russia after Putin, claimed 300,000 reservists will be called up and that this number will include neither conscripts nor students. "Naturally, what is behind [a 1,000-kilometer line of control], and what is there, along this line, it must be secured, these territories must be controlled. And, of course, first of all, this is what this work is being done for—I mean, partial mobilization.” Shoigu also claimed that 5,937 Russian soldiers had been killed in the fighting in Ukraine, offering the first official account of casualties since an announcement by a Russian defense ministry spokesman in March. Shoigu also claimed Ukraine has lost 61,207 soldiers killed in action. (KP.ru, 09.21.22, Sputnik, 09.21.22)
Andrei Turchak, secretary of the general council of the United Russia party: “The special military operation has clearly shown who the mother of this land and these people is, and who the stepmother is. The fate of Donbas, the fate of the liberated territories is to be together with Russia, to be an integral part of it. ... A referendum is needed, and has been needed for a long time. And it will definitely pass. An honest and open vote will secure de jure its results once and for all. De facto, Donbas and the liberated territories are already Russia.” (Istories, 09.21.22)
Roman Starovoit, head of the Kursk region, which borders Ukraine: “As the head of the border region the president of our country Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin spoke about in his speech, I want to express my support. The decisions made are certainly overdue.” (Meduza, 09.21.22)
Pyotr Tolstoy, deputy speaker of State Duma, said there was no way back. “The West is waging war against Russia, and the Russians must rally and win. Partial mobilization, support for referendums in the Donbas—all this is a historical moment, after which the world will no longer be the same. And, God knows, we didn't start it,” he said. (Tsargrad TV, 09.21.22)
Russian and separatist pro-war pundits and experts:
Igor Girkin (Strelkov), former DNR “defense minister”: “The die is cast. The war in Ukraine and the confrontation with NATO are entering a new round.” (Telegram, 09.21.22)
The editorial team of the Dva Mayora (Two Majors) telegram channel sought, not very convincingly perhaps, given the death toll caused by the firing of long-range systems on both sides, to assuage concerns of Russian reservists, claiming that “this does not mean everyone will be going into a bayonet attack. Most will never even see the enemy through binoculars.” (Telegram, 09.21.22)
Yuri Kotyonok, war correspondent: “After the announcement of partial mobilization, one should not rush to conclusions about ‘quick victories.’ ... We are approaching a certain peak moment, a red line, but some people in the Russian Federation did not understand this until recently. Russia must prove its right to exist, and now is the time to prove it with arms in hand.” (Telegram, 09.21.22)
German Kulikovsky, editor of Starshe Eddy, a pro-Russian Telegram channel: “If it had not been for a heavy defeat in the Kharkiv region, Russia would have continued to wage war with a limited contingent for some time. The painful blow near Balakliia … led to the fact that now we will begin to wage war with all our forces. … Do not wait for momentary improvements, the time lag between the decree and how it manifests itself on the fronts will be about two months; the mobilized must be distributed in parts, trained and combat coordination should be carried out.” (Telegram, 09.21.22)
Konstantin Malofeyev, a nationalist Russian tycoon:
- “The whole world should be praying for Russia’s victory, because there are only two ways this can end: either Russia wins, or a nuclear apocalypse.” (FT, 09.21.22)
- “The history of Great Russia, the Third Rome, continues. This is what Vladimir Putin said in his address today. We would not have been able to fulfill our mission of the Catechon, which keeps the whole world from evil, if we had not stood up for our own national unity, for the Russian world ... [I]t is important for us, Russians, to unanimously support him and lift up the prayers to the Mother of God for our victory!” (Telegram, 09.21.22)
Nikolai Sevostyanov, political scientist: “We have passed the point of no return in the war against the West. In this sense, today is more important than Feb. 24. Then we went to war without a specific goal. It seemed that it was worth hitting, and Ukraine would fall apart, and there--as God would give. But God did not give—it was not possible to get victory from a swoop. Difficult months began with a blurred horizon, without clear guidelines. Now these guidelines are.” (Telegram, 09.21.22)
Vladimir Solovyov, TV host: “The West is hysterical. They don’t understand what to do.” (Pravda.ru, 09.21.22)
Russian anti-war politicians:
Alexei Navalny, Russian opposition politician: “The main thing is already clear, that the criminal war of aggression that is going on is getting worse. And Putin is trying to involve as many people as possible in all this, he wants to smear hundreds of thousands in blood. Of course, this will lead to huge tragedies, a huge number of deaths, and definitely no good. The size of this crime and the number of those involved is growing, and this is done solely to ensure that one person holds on to his personal power.” (Meduza, 09.21.22, Twitter, 09.21.22, RFE.RL, 09.21.22)
Lev Shlosberg, leader of the Pskov branch of the Yabloko party: “Sixty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis (Oct. 16-28, 1962), the world is one step away from nuclear war. Moreover, the possibilities and guarantees for preventing the use of nuclear weapons 60 years ago were significantly higher. Because then there was the Potsdam peace, but now it is no more.” (Meduza, 09.21.22)
Russian anti-war pundits and experts:
Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist: “At this point in the conflict, any on-the-fly ideological revision looks and feels like an attempt to justify defeats. Putin missed his chance to become an ideological, populist leader years ago—while he was still winning.” (Bloomberg, 09.21.22)
Yuri Fyodorov, military expert, said hours before Putin’s announcement that “300,000 is, apparently, as much as they need, in their opinion, to win. But in order for them to be able to fight, it is necessary to create 70% of the units and formations from those that are now available. ... It takes a long time to summon 300,000 people. ... If they try hard, four to five months. But it takes a lot of effort. They need to be retrained or renewed with the skills they have acquired, if they have any at all.” (Sibreal.org, 09.20.22.)
Abbas Gallyamov, political scientist and former speechwriter for Putin: “I would venture to suggest that Putin does not need mobilization in order to achieve some success on the battlefield with its help. I think that he no longer believes in the prospect of a military victory. He needs mobilization to force Ukraine to sit down at the negotiating table. Putin wants to demonstrate readiness for escalation—so that, seeing his decisive attitude, the Ukrainians—including a nuclear strike—could not rule that out. ... Demonstrating his readiness for this very clash, Putin is bluffing. Nothing new in that.” (Telegram, 09.21.22)
Andrei Loshak, journalist: “Everything is bad, and it will only get worse, but this is not news. As long as Putin is alive, there can be only one dynamic—a fall into the abyss. ... That's it, friends, armchair wars are over.” (Meduza, 09.21.22)
Ruslan Leviev, head of the independent organization Conflict Intelligence Team, said hours before Putin’s speech that partial mobilization is possible, and that the mobilized will be able to join the hostilities approximately by the new year, in what will enable the Russian army to "plug the holes" and prevent catastrophic defeats, but will not fundamentally affect the course of the war. (Sibreal.org, 09.20.22.)
Gleb Pavlovsky, political scientist and former Putin advisor wrote “This is a Russian roulette with two last round chambers remaining” and informed his audience that outbound air tickets have become "quite lively." (Telegram/RM, 09.21.22)
Yekaterina Shulman, political scientist: “The presidential decree calls the mobilization partial, but no parameters of this partiality—neither territorial nor categorical—are indicated. ... And yes, the operation is now being described as preventive rather than special. Acting specially did not work, so now they are embracing a total approach.” (Meduza, 09.21.22)
Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R.Politik: “Mobilization will be gradually expanded. Society will slowly become irritated and indignant—do not expect mass protests, but rather waves of indignation. This is the erosion of Putin’s power in its purest form.” (FT, 09.21.22, Telegram, 09.21.22)
Editorial board of Russia’s Vazhnye Istorii (Important Stories) outlet: “Vladimir Putin's statements about partial mobilization and hints at the possible use of nuclear weapons are intended, among other things, to cool hot heads not only in the West, but also among populist politicians in Ukraine. So far, however, this goal has clearly not been achieved ... it is hardly worth expecting that after Putin's address, Kyiv will agree to negotiations and renounce their territorial claims. On the contrary, the Armed Forces of Ukraine now really need to demonstrate the ability to win as soon as possible, before filling the fronts with Russian reservists. ... Neither referenda, nor the inclusion of the liberated territories into the Russian Federation, nor partial mobilization will stop the war.” (Istories, 09.21.22)
This item is part of Russia Matters’ “Clues from Russian Views” series, in which we share what newsmakers in/from Russia are saying on Russia-related issues that impact key U.S. national interests so that RM readers can glean clues about their thinking.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the individuals quoted. Photo by the Russian Defense Ministry shared under a Creative Commons license.