Could Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilisation lead to revolution in Russia?

The Kremlin is facing increasing dissent over its first call-up of conscripts since Second World War

Vladimir Putin
Putin has passed new laws to punish deserters with a ten-year prison sentence
(Image credit: Contributor/Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin’s plan to send 300,000 new conscripts to support his war in Ukraine is facing increasing resistance in Russia as anti-mobilisation protests spread across the country.

According to Foreign Policy, more than 2,000 people have now been arrested for protesting against Putin’s plan to call up hundreds of thousands of men into the Russian army as part of a “partial mobilisation” – the first since the Second World War.

The “defiant” protests, which are taking place as “tens of thousands” of men rush to escape the country to flee conscription, display “an outpouring of frustration that underscores the public’s anger with the decision” and show the risks “many are willing to take to avoid being deployed”, said the foreign affairs magazine.

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The Financial Times reported that “long lines of cars” have formed at Russia’s borders with Georgia, Finland, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, with others attempting to “cross on bicycles” or “buy places in the line on social media”. The mobilisation decree has “shattered a carefully maintained equilibrium”, said the paper, which has, until now, “allowed most Russians to largely go on with their lives as normal” since the invasion of Ukraine.

Despite assurances from Russia’s defence ministry that only men with military experience will be summoned for the mobilisation, there have been reports that a “broad swath of people who do not fall under the terms of Putin’s decree” has been summoned, including those with no military experience, students, disabled people and those past military age.

What did the papers say?

“With the Ukraine war going badly and would-be conscripts resisting the draft, the spectre beginning to haunt Russia is that of 1917, when military defeat led to revolution,” wrote Gideon Rachman for the FT. “But the subsequent Bolshevik coup, civil war and Stalinist dictatorship underline that internal turmoil in Russia brings its own dangers.”

A “happier” parallel might be Argentina after the Falklands War. Its defeat in 1982 “discredited the military regime that launched the invasion leading to the collapse of the junta and subsequently, “democracy took hold”.

But while many in the West are no doubt “hoping for some variant of the Argentine outcome”, merely “hoping for something does not make it more likely”. And many of the outcomes of revolution in Russia “range between bleak and catastrophic”, said Rachman.

Putin’s mobilisation has certainly prompted “widespread panic” among much of the Russian population, said The Guardian, but we are yet to see “mass protests”. Indeed, “experts predict that the effect of the call-up on public opinion will be gradual”, said the paper.

This is because “Russian society has been repressed to the core and has become compliant”, said Andrei Kolesnikov, of the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank, speaking to the paper. With most of Russia’s population under the belief that they are unable to influence events in the country, it has forced the public into a “state of anticipatory obedience”, he said.

But Putin’s mobilisation could still “prove to be a costly gamble”, said The Guardian, as Kolesnikov’s research – published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – suggests that there could be less support for the war among the Russian public than is generally assumed.

And now, even Putin’s “staunchest Russian nationalists and propagandists” have begun to challenge the Kremlin’s rhetoric on the war after its defeat in Kharkiv, said the Daily Mail. The loss was “so glaring and egregious that it shook the upper echelons of Russia’s political and media elite to the core”, said the paper.

The Mail reported that Chechen leader and close Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov had declared that “changes must be made” to Russia’s approach to the war during an 11-minute tirade on the Telegram messaging app. Kadyrov reportedly added that he would personally speak with Putin to explain “the seriousness of the situation on the ground”.

Meanwhile, “a host of leading media personalities, Russian MPs and even former FSB officers involved in the 2014 annexation of Crimea” have “openly voiced their concerns” as they increasingly fear an imminent Russian defeat.

And in Slovakia, which is historically pro-Russian, Prime Minister Eduard Heger and Defence Minister Jaroslav Nad have strongly condemned the mobilisation and the sham referendums announced by Putin, reported Euractiv.

“By drafting the sons of Russian mothers, he will put himself in a challenging political position, and I assume that this will end up in the overthrow of Vladimir Putin as president of the Russian Federation,” Nad said.

What next?

Putin has “ramped up the cost of dissent” in Russia as protests in the country slowly mount, implementing new laws to punish those who desert, surrender or resist fighting with a ten-year prison sentence, reported Foreign Policy.

But these anti-mobilisation street protests and “exodus of fleeing conscripts” are the “latest omens of change” in Russia, said foreign affairs correspondent Simon Tisdall in The Guardian. Ultimately it is the Russian people, “not the western powers or regional neighbours”, who will decide what happens next, and whether “what follows will be more democratic, more law-abiding, less aggressive” than Putin’s regime.

Interest in the war and its “accompanying rally-around-the-flag effect” is “waning” among Russian citizens, said Professor Marlene Laruelle in The New York Times. Putin may escalate domestic repression to shore up his hold on power, but there is “no assurance that hard-liners in the ruling elite will accept domestic repression as a substitute for military success abroad”, she wrote.

Even as Putin faces difficulties at home, “it would be a mistake to foresee a collapse of the regime, ensconced for two decades”, said Laruelle. Nevertheless, like any leader, Putin “depends on legitimacy to ensure his rule” and in the coming months, “he may discover that the ground beneath his feet has started to shift”.

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.