No More Illusions Putin Bets It All in Ukraine

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Illustration: Pete Reynolds / DER SPIEGEL

Russian President Vladimir Putin had wanted a war on the cheap in Ukraine. But he has now called for mobilization. The move is incredibly dangerous, not least for Putin himself.


Feeding the poor and needy is an act that draws us closer to Allah. We earn His forgiveness, mercies and blessings through this act of charity.

“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)

By Şebnem ArsuAnn-Dorit BoyAlexander ChernyshevChristian EschChristina HebelOliver ImhofMaximilian PoppFritz SchaapThore Schröder und Lina Verschwele


Wednesday evening found Dmitry with his backpack at the Istanbul airport, newly arrived from St. Petersburg – a young man from Russia fleeing from the Russian army, one of many these days, burdened with only very little luggage and quite a bit of uncertainty. A slim, blond 21-year-old, Dmitry has fled his country to escape conscription. Out of fear of the possible consequences for his family, he has declined to provide his real name. “You have no choice but to leave,” his mother told him that morning as the family was discussing a television address by Vladimir Putin and what it would mean for the children. Needing fresh soldiers for his war in Ukraine, the Russian president had announced a mobilization on Wednesday morning.

Dmitry, who interrupted his university studies, was able to buy one of the last tickets available for the flight to Turkey. He told the border official in St. Petersburg that he was going on vacation. “Thank god they are still allowing people to leave,” Dmitry says. His brother managed to make it across the border into Finland.

Putin, Russia’s head of state and warlord-in-chief, heralded a new phase in his war against Ukraine this week, and triggered a flood of young men leaving his country in the process. He did so with two announcements: First, Russia is apparently preparing the annexation of additional Ukrainian territory and is planning to orchestrate referendums in the two self-proclaimed “people’s republics” in the Donbas and in the southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to make it seem as though people in those areas are in favor of becoming part of Russia. Second, he is introducing mobilization.

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 39/2022 (September 24th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International

Putin is essentially going all-in. He has deprived his people of the illusion that the invasion of Ukraine could be pursued at little cost. And he has also deprived himself of the possibility of pulling back from his destructive adventure. The same man who otherwise tries to give himself as much room for maneuver as possible has committed himself to a single strategy – like a luckless gambler who doubles his bet because he is unable to walk away from the gambling table. He is risking everything. For Putin, as for Dmitry, the refugee from St. Petersburg, there is no going back.

Why, though, did he take this step? And what does it mean for his country?

Despite the mobilization only having been announced on Wednesday, the conscription campaign, as chaotic as it may be, has already begun. Reservists are receiving phone calls, getting emails from the state service portal Gosuslugi or being approached in person. In one town in the far eastern region of Primorye, police used loudspeakers to call on young men to report to their local draft office. Lines formed in front of military offices in places like Khabarovsk in the east and Belgorod in the southwest.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking to the nation on Wednesday

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking to the nation on Wednesday Foto: Russian Presidential Press Service / AP / dpa

Igor, a 27-year-old from Moscow, can also relate such a story. He was on his way to the south when DER SPIEGEL reached him, heading for Georgia with friends to escape military service. A reserve officer who completed his military training in parallel with his studies at Moscow State University, Igor has also asked that his real name not be used for this story. Over the phone, he said he was in a state of shock because his brother, who is four years younger, received his conscription order in the mail on Wednesday. DER SPIEGEL has seen the document. “What is going on?” Igor wanted to know. “The defense minister said that students aren’t affected and can continue their studies. And then they do this.”

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Hundreds of thousands of men across the country are now wondering if they have to go to war. In many families, it’s the only thing they are talking about. Lawyers like Alexei Tabalov, who heads up an NGO called Schooling for Recruits, speak of panic among the populace. Tabalov says he has had numerous phone conversations with mothers, sisters and wives, and that he is forced to tell them that their sons, brothers and husbands have hardly any chance of avoiding conscription. The law requires that conscription orders be handed over in person. But for how long can would-be conscripts dodge the authorities?

Andrei Shashkov, an 18-year-old from Moscow, received his draft papers in a particularly surprising manner: While participating in a Wednesday protest in the Russian capital against the war and conscription, he was taken into custody by the police. At the station, as he would later relate, he was approached by an official who called on him to accept conscription to a military training program and to sign a paper confirming he had received the notice.

Police dragging away protesters at an antiwar demonstration on Wednesday

Police dragging away protesters at an antiwar demonstration on Wednesday Foto: Yulia Nevskaya / DER SPIEGEL

The woman who served him the papers, says Shashkov, wasn’t interested in answering questions – such as why he was conscripted if he had never served before. His military training was scheduled to start on Thursday morning – the very next day – but Shashkov says he didn’t turn up, even though the draft order indicates that doing so could have legal consequences. DER SPIEGEL has also obtained a copy of Shashkov’s draft order.

It is hardly a surprise, then, that long lines of cars have developed at some Russian border crossings and that the prices of airline tickets to countries for which no visa is required – places like Serbia and Turkey – have spiked. Putin has triggered a new wave of emigration, similar to the one the country experienced in February when rumors spread that Moscow would be declaring a state of war.

The decision to mobilize his population and thus bring the war into the heart of Russian society was clearly not an easy one for Putin. After all, he began this war with a promise. On March 8, just two weeks after Russian troops had invaded Ukraine, he delivered his traditional International Women’s Day address. He spoke of “positive feelings” and “a warm heart,” and how vital women’s love for Russia’s male defenders had been during World War II.

This time, though, a determined-looking Putin insisted, “only professional soldiers” were fighting. He expressly ruled out the deployment of conscripts or specially called-up reservists. It was a promise that wasn’t entirely true even then: It soon became clear that some recruits had indeed been sent into the war zone. But those cases apparently took place without Putin’s knowledge, and they were condemned by officials in Moscow. Putin had really meant what he said. He didn’t want the invasion of Ukraine to feel like a war back home in Russia. Officially, it was just termed a “special military operation.” Even the euphemism sounded professional, like just another project for the professional troops, similar to Syria.

It took Putin half a year to break his promise. How he arrived at that decision can be traced in broad strokes. His change of heart apparently took place in September, triggered by the counteroffensive  launched by Ukrainian troops – one that didn’t just take Russia’s military completely off guard, but apparently also Putin himself.

On Sept. 10, Russian TV showed Putin dedicating a giant Ferris wheel in Moscow: “140 meters high, there’s nothing like it in Europe,” the president proudly proclaimed. He had already opened a martial arts center earlier in the day and the capital was set to celebrate its 875th anniversary that evening with a huge fireworks display. At almost exactly the same time, Russia’s army was suffering its most painful defeat in months, with troops forced to hastily abandon the strategically important city of Izyum. Russian troops had been hoping to use Izyum as a staging ground for conquering the rest of the Donbas, which had become Moscow’s primary war aim. The loss of the city was a catastrophe for Putin.

The images from Moscow were also disastrous for the Russian president. A commander-in-chief dedicating a Ferris wheel as the front disintegrated was not a good look. “No comment,” wrote the former “defense minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Igor Girkin aka Strelkov, on Telegram in reference to Putin’s appearance. Apparently, he wrote, Moscow is celebrating the transfer of Izyum to Ukraine. Girkin is among those who had long been demanding – in increasingly sharp tones – a full mobilization. Indeed, pressure on Putin from pro-war nationalists increased noticeably. It was this day that Putin’s idea of essentially dividing Russian society – sending some to war and isolating others from it – failed for all to see.

A destroyed Russian military base in eastern Ukraine

A destroyed Russian military base in eastern Ukraine Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL

The next defeat would follow not quite a week later, at a summit meeting in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. Beyond being militarily hamstrung, Putin’s political isolation was highlighted during the visit. At a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it became clear just how critically Putin’s attack on Ukraine is seen by those whose help the Russian leader needs in his war against the West. One of those is Chinese President Xi Jinping, with whom Putin met in Samarkand for the first time since the beginning of the conflict – a man who once called Putin his best friend. In February, the two leaders spoke of their “no limits partnership.” But on this occasion, Putin was forced to begin the official part of their meeting by mentioning the “questions and concerns” that China apparently has about the war, and which must be discussed. It sounded as though the partnership was no longer quite as unlimited.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also apparently had some questions and concerns, and issued a public warning to Putin in Samarkand: “Today’s era is not of war,” he said. India is important for Putin: Not only is New Delhi a major buyer of Russian arms exports but since the beginning of the war, the country has also become a major purchaser of Russian natural gas.

To top it all off, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would later discuss his meeting with Putin in Samarkand with U.S. broadcaster PBS. The two leaders, Erdoğan said, had discussed the end of the war, adding that he believes peace in Ukraine is only possible if Russia gives back all of the territory it has conquered. “This is what is expected. This is what is wanted,” he said.

Samarkand must have been a cold shower for Putin. Given that he is no longer used to criticism at home, the public rebukes from foreign leaders must have seemed like a slap in the face.

Did the meetings in Uzbekistan reinforce his sense that he had to take the next step? Three days after the summit, in any case, precipitous efforts were launched to prepare the public for “referendums” in the areas of Ukraine under Moscow’s control. First in the Donbas and then in the occupied regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, there were sudden calls – apparently orchestrated by Moscow – for rapid pseudo-votes to be caried out regarding annexation. On Tuesday of this week, legal amendments were rapidly pushed through Russian parliament, the Duma, to prepare for mobilization. A new bill defines new offenses such as “voluntary surrender” and strengthens punishment for crimes committed during the period of mobilization. It is the first time the term “mobilization” has appeared in Russia’s criminal code. The changes are set to come into force immediately.

Nevertheless, Putin himself seemed to hesitate, cancelling a television appearance scheduled for Tuesday evening. Only on Wednesday morning would he make the announcement that is likely to permanently change his regime: mobilization. He apparently needed one more night to finally overcome the paralysis that had afflicted him since the Ukrainian counteroffensive. “It is a paralysis that speaks for him in a certain sense,” political scientist Abbas Galyamov said on Dozhd, the Russian broadcaster in exile. “He has apparently understood that he only has poor options to choose from.”

The speech he then held on Wednesday morning was typical Putin. Once again, he sought to demonstrate decisiveness while blaming others for the results of his decisions. He tried to appear threatening while downplaying the burden that the Russian population must bear. To play up the threat from the outside world, while playing down the burdens he is placing on his people.

As commander-in-chief, one might expect Putin to say something like: We have experienced a setback. For that reason, I am ordering the mobilization that I once ruled out. We are no longer pursuing a “special military operation” in Ukraine, but a real war.

Instead, though, Putin didn’t even mention the losses his military had suffered and continued to refer to the conflict as a “special military operation.” And he sought to play down his own role, saying he “supported” the “proposal by the Defense Ministry and General Staff on the implementation of a partial mobilization” – as if the decision wasn’t completely up to him. Right after his appearance, he left it up to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to explain the details in a pre-recorded interview.

The partial mobilization, Shoigu explained, would only affect 300,000 people, only “slightly more than 1 percent” of the 25 million people who would be subject to a full mobilization. It was his effort to calm the population by contrasting the total affected with an arbitrarily high number. Twenty-five million would be a third of all the men in the country. At the same time, Shoigu played down the number of casualties Russia has experienced in the war, saying that 5,937 soldiers had fallen and claiming that it was 10-times fewer than the number suffered by the Ukrainians. By that measure, the military’s need for 300,000 seems rather excessive, particularly in addition to the annual autumn conscription of around 135,000 recruits.

In fact, the Russian military is suffering from an acute shortage of personnel. Even right after the invasion started, analysts began pointing to the thin ranks on the Russian side. According to Western estimates, Moscow initially deployed some 180,000 troops for its invasion of Ukraine. In August, the United States reported that since hostilities began in February, somewhere between 70,000 and 80,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded.

Moscow has long sought to fill the gaps in its ranks without having to resort to an official mobilization. The army has tried to attract new recruits with generous salaries that are often several times higher than average for many regions of the country. There have also been aggressive recruitment campaigns in mostly poorer areas, such as in the Siberian Republic of Buryatia on the border with Mongolia. Ramsan Kadyrov, the dictatorial ruler of Chechnya, contributed a “volunteer” battalion to the war effort, an example that was then followed by other regions.

A recruitment poster in St. Petersburg: "Serving Russia is a real job."

A recruitment poster in St. Petersburg: “Serving Russia is a real job.” Foto: Olga Maltseva / AFP

In the small pro-Russian republics in the Donbas, which have been under Russian control since 2014, men have been conscripted since the beginning of the war, frequently being nabbed on the street. At the beginning of hostilities, Luhansk and Donetsk are thought to have contributed 14,000 and 20,000 soldiers respectively – troops who essentially were used as cannon fodder for the Russians. The Donetsk People’s Republic has said that more than 3,000 of its soldiers have fallen and more than 13,000 have been injured, a casualty rate of 80 percent of the initial fighting force.

In fact, however, Russia was carrying out a hidden mobilization long before announcing it officially, a fact clearly illustrated by the rather bizarre activities of Yevgeny Prigozhin. The shady businessman and military contractor from St. Petersburg is extremely well connected to the Kremlin. According to Russian prisoners, he has been visiting prison camps throughout the country since July, personally attempting to recruit fighters for the mercenary unit known as the Wagner Group. A video of such an appearance even turned up recently, showing a man in olive-green garb with two decorations on his breast, apparently Prigozhin himself, speaking to black-clad prisoners on the grounds of a camp.

A former prisoner himself, Prigozhin promises that all those who make it through a six-month stint with the “shock troops” will receive a presidential pardon. Those who change their mind before that time, he says, “will be declared a deserter. And then: shot.” All prisoners up to the age of 50 and all types of offenders are welcome, he says. Alexei Navalny, the opposition politician who is currently serving time in a prison camp, said: “The first thought of every prisoner upon seeing this video is: My God, if they’re trying to recruit us, what has happened to the regular army? Does it even exist any longer?”

There are thought to be thousands of mercenaries with the Wagner Group fighting in Ukraine. But the hidden mobilization that the Kremlin had been pursuing apparently wasn’t enough. Putin’s random group of fighters lacks a unified command structure and efforts to recruit prisoners were not enough to solve the military’s personnel problems.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, D.C., while Russia’s reserve force may theoretically include more than 2 million former conscripts and contract soldiers, only very few of them are actually trained and combat ready. Analysts at the institute say that the Russian military is in particular need of highly qualified soldiers. “The Russian performance thus far has really damaged a lot of their prestige units, their elite units like VDV (paratroopers), Spetsnaz and the 1st Guards Tank Army,” says Ed Arnold, a military expert with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. Some units, he says, have been entirely destroyed or are no longer deployable.

It will take months to train the reserve troops now being called up and to form new units complete with command and logistics structures. Michael Kofman, director of the Russian Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, says that the Kremlin’s first step will likely be that of calling up those personnel whose military experience is more recent in order to replenish the decimated ranks of units in the field. But: “The military will be limited as to how many additional forces it can deploy in the field.”

It is a different step that will provide immediate relief: Those soldiers serving in Ukraine on limited contracts whose tours are soon scheduled to end will have to continue serving for as long as the mobilization is in force. That will solve some of the personnel problems, but does so at the price of lower morale. “If you were serving on a three or six-month contract and now suddenly see no perspective of ever getting out of this war, that is, of course, incredibly demoralizing,” says Liana Fix , an expert on Russia and Eastern Europe with the Berlin-based foundation Körber Stiftung.

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Ed Arnold from RUSI believes that the mobilization “won’t operationally make a difference in battle until 2022 … and possibly not until the middle half of 2023.” The Russians, he says, simply aren’t able to integrate 300,000 soldiers into their army.

Putin seems to be well aware of this. In his Wednesday morning address, he threatened to use nuclear weapons – of which, in contrast to soldiers, he already has more than enough. He said that if Russia’s “territorial integrity” is threatened, he reserves the right to “use all available means.”

But where does the violation of “territorial integrity” begin when Russia declares parts of Ukraine to be its own territory? Would a new counteroffensive by Ukraine on regions occupied by Russia be considered grounds for a nuclear strike? Putin’s loyal ally Dmitry Medvedev, a lover of propagandistic statements, has clearly interpreted it that way, although as Putin’s deputy on the Russian Security Council, he should know that Russia’s official nuclear weapons doctrine sets far narrower limits on the use of nuclear weapons. The doctrine stipulates that a first strike is justified only if “the existence” of the Russian state is threatened.

The threat to use nuclear weapons to secure new territorial gains in Ukraine isn’t particularly credible. But it is part of the escalation that Putin and his people are currently seeking. Furthermore, talk shows on state-run television broadcasters have long and gleefully speculated about nuclear attacks on the West.

On Wednesday evening, several hours after Putin’s television announcement, emotions were running high in Old Arbat, a pedestrian zone in Moscow’s city center. Several hundred people had gathered to protest the mobilization, mostly women. “Putin to the trenches,” they shouted. “No to war.” It was the first significant protest Moscow had seen since February, when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Officers from the notorious riot police unit OMON grabbed people and dragged them to the waiting paddy wagons. In the end, more than 500 people would be arrested in Moscow alone. Putin’s state is showing that it intends to crush any resistance to the mobilization.

Nevertheless, partial mobilization is a huge and risky move for Putin. It contradicts the system of rule he has built over the decades, one rooted in the principle that Russian citizens should not be unduly troubled. For years, the regime has demanded little from its people – it expected obedience, but no expressions of loyalty. In contrast to Soviet times, membership in organizations loyal to the Kremlin has been voluntary, as is participation in official demonstrations. If you don’t interfere in my politics, then I won’t interfere in your private life: That was the pact between Putin and the Russians.

Russian soldiers in Moscow in August 2022.

Russian soldiers in Moscow in August 2022. Foto: 

Nanna Heitmann / The New York Times / Redux / lai

After two decades of demobilizing his citizens politically, Putin has now terminated that contract. It is no longer enough for the regime if the people stay out of political protests. The state is demanding more now.

Still, sociologist Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, an opinion research institute in Moscow, doesn’t expect major, long-lasting protests. “People will be dissatisfied, but they will remain passive,” Gudkov believes. “Only as the months go on, when more and more men are actually drafted, can I imagine resistance, passive resistance.” To a certain extent, that is already happening. “Of the 130,000 soldiers who were to be recruited in the spring, only two-thirds could actually be drafted,” Gudkov says. “The others have eluded it one way or the other.”

The question is what will be greater: the Russians’ dissatisfaction with the mobilization or their fear of the government. In polls conducted by the Levada Center, three-quarters of respondents said they supported Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. According to Gudkov’s assessment, though, only a maximum of 15 percent are truly convinced by the propaganda.

In Kyiv, officials don’t appear to fear the Russian mobilization. On Wednesday, the day of the broadcast of Putin’s mobilization speech on Russian television, his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, also made a video appearance – a speech of almost 30 minutes to the United Nations General Assembly. His wife Olena was part of the Ukrainian delegation at UN headquarters in New York.

Zelenskyy speaks in English in a proud and combative tone, calling for Russia to be punished for attacking his country. Before long, it starts to sound like the speech from the war’s provisional victor, from a man whose troops have just inflicted a stinging defeat on the far more powerful Russian enemy and who is hoping for further victories on the battlefield and not just at the negotiating table, though there have been some of those as well. Zelenskyy, for example, succeeded in getting the defenders of the city of Mariupol released from Russian war captivity, primarily in exchange for Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian politician in Kyiv and close confidant of Putin. One traitor for many heroes – most in Kyiv view that as a good trade.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaking by video to the United Nations General Assembly

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaking by video to the United Nations General Assembly Foto: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office / ZUMA / ddp

Russia claims it wants peace talks, Zelenskyy says towards the end of his speech. “As if they would really be ready for them. But. They talk about the talks but announce military mobilization. They talk about the talks but announce pseudo referendums in the occupied territories of Ukraine … Russia wants war.”

Mikhailo Podolyak, an adviser in Zelenskyy’s presidential office, calls Putin’s mobilization “a gesture of desperation and an admission that the Kremlin’s plans have failed.” To be sure, Ukraine would not underestimate the threat, he says. “But nothing changes for Ukraine in that we have no choice at all but to continue our struggle.”

Meanwhile, there is surprisingly little evidence of the pseudo-referenda that Zelenskyy mentions, people from the occupied areas report to DER SPIEGEL in unison. “There are no preparations for it at all, because the referendum won’t actually take place,” says Ivan Federov, who has fled but is mayor of the city of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhia oblast. “The occupiers are simply going to present some fake results, that’s what this is all about.” Federov sees only one reason for the fake vote: that they want to conscript the male population into military service for Russia just as they have done in the “people’s republics” in the Donbas region.

“As of today, men between the ages of 18 and 33 are no longer allowed to leave the area,” he says, adding that the occupiers have collected enough data in recent months for forced recruitment: “The Russians have made copies of all the identity papers at the checkpoints.” Even in occupied Kherson, many already fear they will be conscripted. “If military police show up here, I will hide in an empty cellar,” says one young man on the phone. He says they won’t go out in the public then.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the mercenary leader who has been recruiting in Russian prison camps, recently sought to justify his efforts. Those who don’t like the fact that mercenaries and prisoners are fighting at the front, he wrote, should just send their children. “Either private military companies and convicts – or your children. Decide for yourself.”

Now, Putin has decided, doing so in his typical style. He’s simply sending both, convicts and children. The mobilization he has ordered gives him wide latitude. Point seven of the decree, which contains the number of people to be mobilized, is classified. According to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the official figure of 300,000 reservists isn’t in it, but rather 1 million. If that’s true, then Putin is settling in for a long war.


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