Putin’s Ukraine escalation fuels unease in Russia

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“The news was worse than I expected,” said Andrei, a 30-year-old financial analyst in Moscow who similarly declined to provide his last name out of fear for his safety. “I am stupefied by the degree of absurdity and madness to which we now bear witness.”

Throughout Putin’s tenure, the Kremlin has fostered a reputation for testing the limits of an arrangement in which Russian citizens largely agree to stay out of politics if the state stays out of their lives. But it has always demonstrated a sense of restraint, a hesitation to take things too far and risk sparking a broad-scale backlash. 

With his military in retreat and Ukraine advancing, analysts said Putin appears to have made the largest political gamble of his career.

“The social contract has been violated,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “In the medium-term, this is a problem for the public’s trust in Putin and his regime. In the short-term, they are not going to get serious protests, but rather sabotage,” he said, referring to the potential for drafted individuals to undermine the war effort.

The declaration Wednesday is only the third time in Russian history that the government has called for military mobilization. The other two came in 1914 and 1941, during the First and Second World Wars.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke in televised remarks just after Putin.AP

Though the Kremlin insists that the mobilization is “limited” to 300,000 reservists, the actual wording of the order does not specify or enforce any meaningful limitation on draft orders.

That has left many rushing to figure out if they are about to be called up.

“The presidential decree is purposefully vague about the expected number of draftees, their qualifications and overall draft period, which means the scope can always be widened,” said Andrei, the financial analyst. He added that he did not expect to be called up in the first wave, but fully expected to be sent into battle if this war goes on long enough.

“There are a lot of signals that this will become a significant social and political issue for Putin,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst and founder of the political consulting firm R.Politik. “People are searching on Google for things such as ‘How to leave the country,’ ‘What is mobilization?’ and ‘Who can be called up?”

Not all Russians are alarmed by the prospect of being drafted, however.

For weeks now, as Ukraine successfully staged two counter-offensives that put Putin’s military on its back foot, pro-war activists have been calling for the Kremlin to take the gloves off — criticizing the way much of Russian society has been allowed to sit on the sidelines. 

Alexander, a 32-year-old in Moscow, said that he was not worried about being called up. “Well, it’s OK,” he said. “We will go fight a little.” Alexander, who declined to give his last name, said that he was prepared to go fight, that he himself has military experience — he was a T-90 tank commander. 

In the first days and weeks of the conflict, there was a real sense of shock in Russia as the country became a global pariah abandoned by Western businesses.

But, over time and with ample encouragement from the Kremlin, the general public was able to carry on with life and not think too much about the war. In Moscow and St. Petersburg especially, the summer of 2022 was enjoyed much like any other. 

The war felt a world away. Now, rather suddenly, the war feels quite close to home.



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