Dumb Russia #2
Mobilisation, protests and the mass grave at Izyum
Welcome to the second instalment of the Dumb Russia newsletter which this week is a bit of a double edition on account of quite a bit happening in Russia and Ukraine in recent days.
But first, let’s have a look at some of the feedback from our debut edition last week…
We must be doing something right then.
First up, Russia’s mobilisation.
What do we know for certain?
In response to getting roundly thrashed by Ukraine’s counteroffensive earlier this month, a presumably rather stressed and panicked Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilisation” to boost Russia’s fighting forces by 300,000.
Well, we think it’s 300,000 people but the part of the decree announcing the mobilisation that actually specifies the figure hasn’t actually been released. “It's really for official use, so I can't reveal it,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, which definitely isn’t suspicious and cause for concern in the slightest.
A report in Novaya Gazeta said the decree could actually allow for recruiting 1m men.
The decree said only reservists with prior military training would be called up but Putin was forced to admit there were “cases when the decree is violated” amid reports of men being sent to the front without any basic training.
The announcement prompted country-wide protests and an exodus of people desperately trying to avoid mobilisation, with a scramble for flights at airports, miles-long queues at border crossings and some people even paying $25,000 for a seat on a private jet.
What it actually means for Russia’s war effort
Trying to analyse the exact machinations of the Kremlin’s military decisions is a bit beyond the scope of this newsletter but we’ve rounded up some of the expert analysis for you.
“… the more likely objective is to stabilise Russian losses and then to protract the conflict beyond 2023.” Dr Jack Watling for RUSI.
“Putin calls up more troops and threatens nuclear option in a speech which ups the ante but shows Russia’s weakness.” Stefan Wolff and Tatyana Malyarenko in The Conversation.
“No Game Changer: Russian Mobilization May Slow, Not Stop, Ukrainian Offensive.” Todd Prince in RFERL.
“Putin’s Escalation in Ukraine Is a Losing Strategy.” Joshua Yaffa in The New Yorker.
How has Russia tried to spin it?
It’s worth remembering that when Putin launched the invasion back February it wasn’t a war but a “special military operation” and was going to all be over in a blaze of Russian glory in a matter of days.
What we’re currently witnessing is one of the most tragic yet ambitious attempts at mental gymnastics in the history of mankind as Putin tries to spin recruiting wartime levels of manpower for an “operation” that was supposed to have ended in victory months ago, all while insisting everything is still going to plan.
There were a few clues in the language of Putin’s speech which help give an insight into just how tricky a spot he currently finds himself in.
“To protect our motherland, its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to ensure the safety of our people and people in the liberated territories, I consider it necessary to support the proposal of the defence ministry and the General Staff to conduct a partial mobilisation in the Russian Federation.”
Firstly, notice he was very clear this was not his proposal but that of the defence ministry. Mobilisation was never going to be popular and Putin has tried to distance himself from it politically as much as he can.
“We are talking about partial mobilisation. That is, only citizens who are currently in the reserves and, above all, those who have served in the armed forces have military skills and relevant experience. Only they will be subject to conscription.”
As we saw above, this wasn’t exactly accurate.
The view from inside Russia
This week we have two Russian guests to give us an insight into how the news of mobilisation went down in the country. First up ‘Sofia’, who watched the speech live. She tells Dumb Russia how she saw it unfold:
“The first part of the speech is completely devoted to accusing the collective West of trying to destroy Russia, as allegedly happened in 1991 with the USSR. Putin calls on the people to defend their country and the Ukrainian occupied territories. He accuses Ukraine of inability to negotiate and the desire to resolve the conflict exclusively by military means.
“In the middle of his speech, Putin talks about partial mobilisation as a necessary way to protect Russia's sovereignty. He promises those called up for military service as mobilised, social guarantees and payments are the same as for contracted employees.
“After devoting just a few sentences to the key issue of the speech - mobilisation - Putin returns to the accusations of the West in the escalation of the conflict and nuclear blackmail. Thus, he completely shifts the responsibility for the Ukrainian catastrophe to Europe, the United States and Ukraine.”
Next up, ‘Mikhail’ tells Dumb Russia about the reaction to the speech:
“Gloomy streets, grey clouds, cheerless faces. It’s Moscow, September 2022. People realised that everything was not as great as the state media told.
“Life stopped after the decree on mobilisation. When and who will be called? What is the better choice to leave Russia right now or a little later? How to avoid mobilisation if you should stay? That are the central questions for most Russians right now. It became clear that the war, which was somewhere out there, far away, came to everybody's doorstep. Nobody believes the authorities' words that 1% of people will be drafted into the army in the first wave. The question is when the second, and third waves will follow. Tomorrow? Or the day after tomorrow? Everybody understands that the worst scenario of a big war is implemented right now. But we are still waiting. Waiting that somebody will tell us what to do. We still hope to avoid the worst.
“Almost nobody wants to take part in risky antiwar actions. You can receive the mobilisation document right after the meeting. Now the pandemic problems look like a fairy tale for children.”
How did the news go down in Ukraine and abroad?
Scenes of the protests in Russia were lauded by well-meaning westerners as an example of brave civilians standing up to an authoritarian regime which has arrested and imprisoned people for protesting against the war and even just for holding up blank signs.
The protests even got the blue tick seal of approval from none other than Sting himself who applauded the “brave Russians”.
But this take on the matter is a serious misjudgment not only of how Ukrainians see the protests, but also of what caused them in the first place.
Our friends at Ukrainians Respond to Dumb Takes asked Ukrainian journalist and translator Maria Kuchapska, to explain.
She said: “I think the crux of it is the Russians aren't protesting the war. They're not bravely protesting the Russian war in Ukraine. They're protesting the mobilisation so they're perfectly OK with the war, they just don't want to be the ones sent to the front lines.
“I think this can really be seen in a video where they're chanting '[Send] Putin to the trenches!' so again the whole foundation is, they're not against the trenches, they're not against the war in Ukraine, they just personally don't want to be in them.”
Even the most recent independent polling of Russian public opinion shows huge support for the war in Ukraine which has only fallen slightly – from 81% to 75% – since March, even after news from Mariupol, Bucha, Irpin and Izyum.
“You can go onto any Telegram channel and read [Russians'] reactions to every war crime that is carried out in Ukraine,” adds Kuchapska. “They cheer for our deaths, they call us ethnic slurs, they are happy and proud. So to call them brave is insulting and especially during an act of genocide, it's just really hurtful and insulting.
“I mean, where have these people been for the last seven months, there is a genocide happening in Ukraine, their brothers, their neighbours, their friends or their colleagues are carrying out this genocide in our country and it's taken seven months for them to make any kind of commentary about it.”
Staging a fully-fledged revolution against an authoritarian government is clearly not a simple matter and would require Russian citizens to risk their freedom and their lives – just like Ukrainians did in 2014.
“People can say 'oh but they get sentenced to 15 years for protesting' – but there are not 140m prison cells,” says Kuchapska. “There's one Putin, there's one Kremlin. If they came together to protest the way we did, we had nothing to protest with. You had people out there with wooden shields and plastic helmets, we had nothing.
“We were targeted with bullets and grenades. We had 100 people who were shot and killed. If the entire country rose up and staged a revolution, you would not be able to contain that, it would be a revolution of epic proportions but they simply don't want to.”
Part II – The mass grave at Izyum – What do we know for certain?
On the 15 September in the newly-liberated city of Izyum, a number of mass graves including one which held the bodies of some 445 people were found including those of women and children.
While some of the dead died from a lack of healthcare, 99% showed signs of “violent death” according to Ukrainian officials, including being buried with their hands bound and at least one person with a rope around thier neck.
Locals who survived the occupation said Russian forces had rounded up entire families and their fate is still unknown.
How has Russia tried to spin it?
Russian officials were quick off the mark and as soon as reports of mass graves surfaced they quickly accused Ukraine of staging scenes in a bid to “mobilise the Western public”.
Inevitably, this line was then picked up by pro-Putinists in a move so predictable it was called out by satirical Twitter legend Darth Putin a week before it even happened.
We spoke to Olena Halushka, Board member at Anti-Corruption Action Centre and co-founder of the International Centre for Ukrainian Victory
She told Dumb Russia: “Obviously all sane people won't buy this bullshit but some Kremlin propagandists are pushing these messages.
“Because, you know, after having 31 years of Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union and not arranging mass grave and not torturing your own civilians, not killing, not kidnapping, forcibly displacing millions of your people to the territories of other countries, and then suddenly the Ukrainian government decides to do all these things while Russia is invading Ukraine?”
We also asked Halushka about this chilling take from a guest on Russian state TV who, rather than deny the atrocity, said Russia should absolutely own it.
Halushka said: “The mentality is pretty clear, this is not the mysterious Russian soul that many in the West want to [think], this soul is very much straightforward and it shouts out that 'I'm going to kill everybody, I'm going to destroy everybody. Either you surrender and enjoy, or we will take you by force and try to conquer you.'
“But today everybody can see what the Russian army is actually worth. They are only capable of attacking civilians, killing civilians, raping women, raping kids, deporting and all this stuff. They are not capable of fighting another army, meaning who they want to scare with these messages I do not know, but the mentality says they are imperialists who want to rule the world and conquer for as long as they are allowed to do so.”
Vladimir Putin’s ship of fools is sinking fast. Will he take everyone down with him? Simon Tisdall in the Guardian.
As winter approaches, will Putin’s ‘partial mobilisation’ help Russia win the war in Ukraine? Matthew Sussex in The Conversation.
What’s the future of Russia’s Ukraine war? Volodymyr Artiukh in open Democracy.
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