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Mobilization versus elections

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (July 24−28)

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At the end of last week, Russians MPs associated with the Ministry of Defence introduced several amendments to the Duma concerning the procedures of mobilization and conscription. The main amendment would raise the upper limit for military conscription for compulsory military service from 27 to 30, so that starting January 1, 2024 young men aged 18−30 will be drafted into the army (now the draft age is 18−27). At the end of last year, approximately the same group of MPs wanted to set the new draft age at 21−30 years. They argued that the majority of young people want to first complete their studies at a vocational school or college and then go to the army. Now one of the co-authors of the amendments, a former Defense Ministry employee, Andrei Kartapolov, again refers to the aspirations and interests of the young people themselves when explaining the proposal to expand the draft age. He argues that some 18-year olds are allegedly eager to serve in the army and they should not be deprived of this opportunity. In addition, in an attempt to crack down on draft dodging Russian lawmakers proposed to toughen liability for failure to appear at the military recruitment center by banning conscripted men from leaving Russia after receiving their draft notices. The new amendments will also enable the Ministry of Defence to sign short-term contracts with conscripts.

Such initiatives are usually agreed upon by all lawmakers and are adopted without any objections. However, with this package of amendments, the situation took an unexpected turn. First, the senators announced that they would not support the raise of the upper age limit of men eligible to be drafted for military service to 30, from the current range of 18 to 27, but were ready to support the shift in the draft-eligible age bracket, raising the range to age 21−30. Then this idea was criticized by the «New People» faction, that did not just object to the proposal but voted against it. The Communist faction disapproved of the initiative as well, with the majority of Communist MPs voting against it. The amendments were ultimately adopted mainly thanks to the support of the «United Russia» MPs, so the Duma failed to demonstrate any sort of «military consensus.» The Federation Council eventually supported the initiative, but one of the most prominent representatives of the upper house of the parliament, the head of the Legislation Committee, Andrei Klishas, criticized one of the amendments, which denied potential conscripts any legal aid, calling it unconstitutional.

The lawmakers’ intractability made Andrei Kartapolov, who had spearheaded the amendments, nervous and too talkative for his own good. Kartapolov justified the introduction of amendments to the legislation with the upcoming «mobilization campaign» and the looming prospects of a «big war». These words drew another portion of criticism from Klishas.

The introduction of these amendments shows that the Russian authorities have not given up the idea of a new wave of mobilization, although they constantly assure the public that there are enough volunteers for the war as is. This might also prove that they intend to send fresh conscripts into battle. Both measures are extremely unpopular with the Russian citizens. According to FOM (Public Opinion Foundation) polls, each new wave of rumors about mobilization amplifies anxiety among the population. During the Chechen wars, soldiers’ mothers launched a powerful resistance effort, doing all they could to get their conscript sons out of the front. Representatives of the political bloc of the Presidential Administration are well aware that such amendments, which are proposed without a clear roadmap for the next mobilization campaign and without any clear guidance as to the potential use of the new conscripts in the war, will again aggravate anxiety and, possibly, trigger protest moods. None of this fits into the scenario of Vladimir Putin’s campaign for the 2024 presidential election, which is being designed by the political bloc. The campaign is supposed to be run against the backdrop of celebrations and success stories with one of its highlights, the «Russia» forum of regional and industrial achievements to be held at the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy (VDNKh). Anxiety is a poor match for this celebration of successes, and mobilization is even less so, let alone the idea of sending conscripts straight to the front. The political bloc of the Presidential Administration, which deliberately violates the military consensus (all parliamentary parties are loyal to the Kremlin and coordinate their actions with it), is showing the Defense Ministry that it is ready to fight unpopular initiatives. At the same time, it reminds Putin, the main commissioner of such initiatives, that he has elections to run soon enough, and that unpopular ideas provoke protests (so far, we’ve only seen resistance on the part of some MPs). The story of these amendments is one of the first evidences of splits and schisms within the power vertical, where political pragmatists are starting to fight militarists and those who support this war «fought to the victorious end.»

The illusion of friendship

The Russia-Africa summit can also be called part of Putin’s «success» campaign. In this way, the Kremlin is trying to demonstrate that Russia’s international isolation is a myth with the media coverage of African leaders standing in line to bow to Putin. At the same time, the president himself wants to fashion himself in the eyes of the international community and his voters as the leading fighter against «Western colonialism.» International observers are certain that Putin is simply trying to buy loyalty with promises of food supplies and financial aid, and these promises are what made such a summit possible in the first place. In the minds of Putin’s core electorate, the summit brings back the Soviet-era images of the «international aid» that the USSR used to send to the developing countries. Soviet leadership spent a large portion of public funds to finance and support loyal regimes, including some African ones, and the Soviet propaganda constantly made a big deal out of these efforts. However, the Soviet citizens themselves with their modest living standards who suffered from food shortages and lived rather poorly were not at all psyched about the idea of spending the country’s money in such a way.

Against the backdrop of falling living standards and rising prices in Russia, news of the government’s financial support for Africa will inevitably provoke the same reaction. Among younger voters, too, the summit is unlikely to generate understanding and increased sympathy for the president. After all, until recently, the Russian authorities tried very hard to be accepted among the leaders of the «first world» countries and paid almost no attention to Africa and Asia (with the exception of China). These continents were peripheral to Kremlin’s geo-political vision. The videos and photos of Putin surrounded by African leaders, which are supposed to prove Russia’s authority in the world, will prove the opposite to some voters: «Putin is not liked or accepted by anyone, he is forced to appeal to those whom he could not have cared less about before, and even then he has to motivate these countries financially.»

The illusion of victory

The Russian leadership was clearly apprehensive of a prospect of a large-scale Ukrainian counter-offensive, but it has not yet begun. To be more precise, the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry have mistaken the counteroffensive for isolated operations of the Ukrainian armed forces on the front, which were not always successful. In Putin’s mind, the Russian army has finally started to win, and this time, not against Ukraine, but against NATO. After all, the Russian propaganda conjures a particular picture of the world, in which Russia is at war with the Western coalition, which supplies its most modern weapons to the Ukrainian front and sends mercenaries there.

The Russian president constantly and with conspicuous pleasure that he even does not bother to conceal talks about western tanks and armored vehicles «that are burning» on the battlefields of Ukraine and the superiority of Russian weapons. Another favorite topic of Putin’s speeches is Ukraine’s losses in manpower, which he claims exceed Russian ones by dozens of times. The rose-colored glasses of «victories over NATO» can swell the collective head of the Russian leadership, which will want to consolidate the «success» with a new campaign, only this time launched against Poland, for instance. The subject of Poland’s alleged hostility to Russia has recently been more and more vocal and insistent in the media. It is quite likely that the «hawks,» emboldened by their successes, may provide Putin, who is happy to be deceived, with incorrect data about the state of the Polish army. This is what actually happened with the Russian invasion into Ukraine, which the Russian president and part of his inner circle planned to conquer in three days. Russia’s confrontation with Poland, which has a very modern and strong army, could, in theory, end with the use of tactical nuclear weapons. If Ukraine begins to consolidate the successes of the offensive, Vladimir Putin may launch an en masse mobilization and send conscripts to the front in order to pursue his «victory». Therefore, the illusions of the Russian president, which now seem grotesque and even amusing, could be very dangerous for the world community and for the majority of Russians.

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