War in Ukraine: Vladimir Putin's conscription gamble risks not only his war, but his grip on power

Within minutes of Vladimir Putin’s gruff and defiant national televised address announcing partial conscription in his regime’s increasingly desperate war on Ukraine, flights were filling up.

Aeroflot routes to the Turkish city of Istanbul quickly sold out, as did journeys to the Armenian capital of Yerevan in Armenia. It is no accident that both countries are among those that still allow Russians to enter without a visa.

Mr Putin’s decision to put his country on a wartime footing, with a major conscription drive of hundreds of thousands of reservists into a beleaguered and under-resourced military, is a gamble. It is perhaps the greatest gamble of his long tenure in power.

His defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, has moved to soften the message, insisting those reservists being called up constituted a mere fraction of the 25 million eligible, with all students also exempt.

But the decree Mr Putin signed is a vaguely worded document that appears to offer no such guarantees of exemptions or caps. In theory, there is little to prevent the embattled Russian president from ramping up the mobilisation as and when he sees fit.

For a nation that has been repeatedly told the “special military operation” in Ukraine was proceeding to plan, the announcement revealed a truth that can no longer be concealed. This is a war, and one that Russia is losing.

How the mobilisation – the first such undertaking by Russia since the Second World War and only the third in its history – impacts on that conflict remains to be seen, but just as crucial is the question of how it will impact on Mr Putin’s regime.

Conscription remains deeply unpopular in Russia, where men aged between 18 to 27 are required to serve in the military for a year. That is thanks in no small part to the rituals of the former Red Army, which routinely saw junior draftees subjugated, robbed and brutalised. Such practices, known as dedovshchina, are not systematic today, but nor are they uncommon.

An Orthodox priest blesses Russian conscripts at a military registration and enlistment office in Saint Petersburg. Picture: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty

Even so, it is clear conscription is necessary. Only last month, Mr Putin signed a decree to increase the Russian armed forces' personnel. The problem is despite Moscow’s efforts to move toward a professional army, around a quarter of its ranks are made up of conscripts.

Its forces are hobbled by a shortage of soldiers, and even extreme recruiting tactics – offering prison inmates their freedom, as well as a cash stipend – have not bolstered numbers.

Indeed some pro-war activists have been calling on Mr Putin to wield the power of its vast populace. “The state must be mobilised for war and for victory,” wrote one blogger, Yurki Kotenok, earlier this month.

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But could the mobilisation lead to Mr Putin’s rule coming under jeopardy? Some believe that is what the man himself fears.

Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews, said despite Mr Putin’s warning to his people during the address the West was intent on weakening, dividing and destroying Russia, the fact he only went so far with his conscription plans was telling.

“If Putin believes this, and still won’t call for full mobilisation, he’s terrified of the public reaction in Russia,” he said, describing the address as “blue smoke and mirrors”.

Robert Pszczel, a senior fellow at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation in Poland, and a former head of the Nato information office in Moscow, said: “This partial mobilisation is something that Putin’s regime was reluctant to take because of the obvious risks when it comes to the support of the public.

“This is breaking with his doctrine that other wars should not be conducted with the use of conscripts because that could lead to a very strong degree of dissatisfaction and create a political risk for his regime. He’s decided to go for this rather desperate step. It’s not in any way a sign of strength, it’s the opposite.”

As well as marking a significant escalation in Russia’s efforts to seize hold of Ukraine, Mr Putin’s partial mobilisation also brings the issue of conscription very much back to the fore in Europe.

Although there were antecedents to conscription in the continent before the 18th century, such as the so-called ‘allotment’ system in Sweden, which tasked farmers renting crownlands with responsibility for manning the army, the mandatory enlistment of citizens in their national armed forces only became widespread in the wake of the French Revolution.

Indeed, it was France’s Jourdan law of 1798, which mandated an annual intake of young men to serve in the army, that essentially set the template for conscription across the continent.

Britain introduced varying levels of compulsory service for part-time auxiliary forces, culminating in the Local Militia Act of 1808, before conscription was fully introduced with the Military Service Act in January 1916.

Every major global war since the 19th century has seen conscripted armies fight in combat, although after the Second World War, the picture changed. The creation of Nato, the end of the Cold War and, ultimately, the collapse of the Soviet Union saw many countries suspend conscription.

In recent years, however, it has increasingly come back into favour. For some states, it is seen as a blunt tool with which to instil national values. For others, however, it is a necessary and practical bulwark against aggressive neighbours.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, both Lithuania, which borders Russia, and Sweden have reintroduced conscription. Indeed, after Mr Putin’s announcement, Arvydas Anušauskas, Lithuania’s defence minister, said it was putting its rapid reaction force on high alert to “prevent any provocation with Russia”.

Out of the 13 other countries which share a border with Russia, two of the four EU member states, Estonia and Finland, have conscription. Another, Latvia, is moving closer to reintroducing the draft. Of the nine remaining countries, all but one, China, have conscription, too.

Make no mistake, Mr Putin’s gamble will have repercussions that extend far beyond Ukraine.

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