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.
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