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MOSCOW — When Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilization was sprung upon him last fall, Sergei felt that staying in Russia was tantamount to dancing with death. So he fled to Finland.
Now back in Moscow, he feels better prepared.
“I carry my papers on me at all times,” he said, lowering his voice while speaking in a central cafe in Moscow. “My military ID, which states I have a health condition, and my work pass.”
His boss had promised an exemption had been secured for him from the Defense Ministry as an essential worker for a state company. And although there was no physical evidence of the agreement, Sergei trusted he is on “some whitelist.”
“I have double protection.”
As rumors of a looming second wave of mobilization swirl, Russians appear aloof to the idea that their armed forces might soon again draw from the civilian population for more manpower ahead of a spring offensive.
In September last year, Russia had already been a country at war for seven months when, with the announcement of the partial mobilization campaign, the reality of it first hit home. The backlash was instant.
There were small but fierce protests in places as far apart as Yakutia in Russia’s far east and Dagestan in the North Caucasus. Military buildings were set on fire. Flights abroad quickly sold out, and tens of thousands of young men poured across border checkpoints into neighboring countries to avoid the draft. It has been described as the biggest exodus since the Bolshevik Revolution.
Meanwhile, those who stayed and were mobilized aired their grievances in posts and videos shared widely online, decrying a lack of training, infrastructure and equipment.
Up until that point, most Russians had adjusted to the first shock of war with Ukraine with the assumption that it would not affect their own lives, Denis Volkov, director of the Moscow-based independent polling organization Levada Center, wrote on its website.
The mobilization drive changed that.
“It was then that the extremely vague recruitment criteria, mistakes made by military … and contradictory statements by officials at various levels gave people the impression that almost any Russian man could be called up. This meant that it was no longer an option to just ignore what was happening,” Volkov wrote.
At the time, Levada documented the sharpest decline in what it refers to as social well-being indicators in its more than 30-year history.
Return to normalcy
A month on, in late October, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the mobilization drive complete with 300,000 new recruits. “No further measures are planned,” Shoigu told Putin in a televised meeting clearly meant to soothe Russians’ frayed nerves.
It worked. “Most of our respondents expressed relief: We got through it!” according to pollster Volkov.
Since then, normal life has resumed. So much so that some Russians who initially fled abroad have returned, often spurred on by family and financial obligations. As Russia’s border service does not publish data on the number of Russian citizens entering the country, it is not possible to say how many.
Konstantin, a 38-year-old language teacher, fled to Uzbekistan and then Spain after recruiters came knocking at the place of employment of his boyfriend, an engineer. Two months later, they were back in Moscow. “Because of the language barrier, my boyfriend couldn’t find a suitable job, and I didn’t want him to have to work as a waiter. I told him: ‘We’ll be unhappy here, let’s go back.’”
He stressed that his return to Russia was not a reflection of his support for the war: “I think it’s horrible.”
Others who spoke to POLITICO cited debts, homes that needed to be fixed or sold, or employer demands as reasons to return to Russia. But many also said that after the initial panic, their perception of the threat level had ebbed away.
“It’s like with the lockdown during the pandemic: The first time you go outside again, you feel fearful. But before long, you’re taking off your mask and visiting crowded places again,” said Fyodor, a 32-year-old researcher, who avoided the draft by hiding in a country cabin for several months.
Ramping up recruitment
Legal experts, however, point out that Putin’s initial mobilization decree is still in full force. And a steady trickle of reports shared on social media suggests some men are still being recruited, albeit at a less frenetic pace than before and away from the public eye.
Now, military experts predict Russia might have to ramp up the tempo again in light of losses sustained in bloody battles around fighting hotspots such as Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
“Even just to make up for those losses, to restore the balance so to speak, you’d need a second mobilization wave,” military analyst Ruslan Leviev, of the open-source investigative project Conflict Intelligence Team, told POLITICO.
He added that the new year brought with it a shift in Russia’s military strategy, from being focused mainly on artillery with the goal of maintaining the frontline, to a bid to shove it forward with a ground offensive, having as its main strength a high number of troops.
“Starting January, we are seeing that a part of those who were mobilized but still in training camps and not yet involved in combat are gradually being redirected to the frontline,” said Leviev. “Russia is trying to seize the momentum.”
He estimated that, depending on the scale of ambition, the Russian armed forces would need an additional several hundred thousand to up to a million more men.
To avoid a bottleneck and maximize impact, those extra troops would have to be recruited and trained before the start of Russia’s annual spring draft in April; and also before the delivery of Western tanks and rocket systems to Ukraine, which could take place as early as March.
Seen from that perspective, military experts say a second mobilization campaign is already overdue.
Second draft in the works
In December, Ukraine’s defense chief warned Russia would launch the call-up in early January. And though that deadline has passed, more recently CNN cited unnamed U.S. and Western intelligence sources as saying Putin was considering calling up 200,000 men in the next several weeks.
In a rare instance of agreement, Russian ultranationalists similarly claim a second campaign is close, with former Russian paramilitary commander Igor Strelkov putting the target at 500,000 men.
Yet the days continue to go by with no such striking announcement, and the Kremlin has dismissed the reports as “provocations.”
Just days ago, Putin, in a speech on the 80th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Stalingrad, made a thinly veiled nuclear threat, saying those who draw European countries into a new war with Russia “apparently don’t understand that a modern war with Russia will be quite different for them.”
“We have the means to respond, and it won’t end with the use of armored vehicles, everyone must understand that.”
One widely held explanation among experts is that Putin is stalling the decision in the hope of a sudden windfall on the battlefront. Or, that he is wary of the political risk and might choose to conduct a less-controversial “stealth mobilization” instead.
This could involve the immediate mobilization of last spring’s conscripts upon completion of their year of service, or of this year’s new recruits in the name of the war effort. Or even both.
But such measures would only provide around 150,000 additional personnel, said Leviev, which would be insufficient to overwhelm Ukrainian forces.
In the meantime, the state apparatus is showing all the signs of laying the groundwork for a more streamlined mobilization campaign — if or when it comes.
Regional military chiefs are recruiting new staff. State-funded institutions are demanding to see students’ and employees’ military IDs to update their records so as to keep tabs on those eligible for mobilization.
And a draft law that recently appeared on the State Duma’s website, and then promptly disappeared, proposed introducing restrictions for vehicles at Russia’s land border checkpoints starting in March.
Other legislation under review suggests introducing a mandatory military ID check for those who want to get a driver’s license or to register at their home address.
Оn Putin’s orders, authorities are also working on creating a single electronic database combining the data of military departments with that of other government agencies.
Taken together, the measures appear to suggest that a second mobilization wave is right around the corner, even as the net is closing in around Russians of military age.
Various views — and strategies
But Elena, a hairdresser and mother to a 7-year-old, saw no reason to be worried.
Her boyfriend stayed in Moscow during the first campaign and would do so again in case of a repeat scenario. “If his turn comes, he will go defend us there,” she said, referring to the battleground in Ukraine. “And otherwise, he will defend us here,” she added, echoing a line pushed by Russian officials and state media that a NATO invasion of Russia is imminent.
Those who did flee Russia during the first wave also said they were unlikely to go anywhere if a second call-up is announced.
Researcher Fyodor first wanted to fix up his home in order to rent it out as a supplement to his income. He is also retraining to become a programmer, which he believes will improve his employment prospects outside of Russia. If in the meantime recruiters come knocking, he said he would simply not open the door. If caught out on the street, he joked how he might make a run for it.
Konstantin, the teacher, was also still planning to move abroad, but only once he and his partner had the necessary documents, a job and language skills. He said he had been reassured by the stories of acquaintances with a background in the security and military who managed to dodge the first draft.
“If even these kinds of people find a way to avoid going to war, it should be even easier for me,” he said.
“Despite the totalitarian nature of this system, it does not work well, and it lacks the resources to force everyone to become a slave.”
That, he said, gave him all the peace of mind he needed. For now.
Some names have been changed to protect identities.