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Victory Day Mobilization Call Unlikely, But Putin Will Seek To Mobilize Russian Society

Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) attends the military parade on Red Square in Moscow for the Victory Day celebration in 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) attends the military parade on Red Square in Moscow for the Victory Day celebration in 2020.

"That's nonsense," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on May 4 when asked whether President Vladimir Putin planned to announce a military mobilization during Russia's May 9 Victory Day celebrations.

When asked whether Putin would formally declare war on Ukraine, Peskov's answer was the same: "That's nonsense."

Speculation has been rife that Putin could use the highly charged commemoration of the Soviet contribution to victory over Nazi Germany in World War II to set a new direction for Russia's war in Ukraine, which is in its third month and has clearly not proceeded the way Kremlin planners anticipated ahead of the February 24 invasion.

After Russian forces failed to capture Kyiv and break Ukrainian resistance, the Kremlin refocused its effort on securing the entire territory claimed by Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine -- the Donbas region -- and establishing a land bridge between those territories and the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

"I think Putin has to do something," Ukrainian military analyst Mykhaylo Samus said, adding that Putin's generals had promised him some significant success before the May 9 holiday.

"But in reality, they haven't achieved anything and there are no clear successes. Putin might make emotional declarations about war with Ukraine or mobilization, but de facto there won't be any changes," Samus said. "There won't be a real declaration of war, which would entail serious consequences including possibly the declaration of martial law."

'Partial Mobilization'

Ruslan Leviyev, an analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a Russian group now based in Georgia that monitors the military, says Putin likely views a step like mobilization through the lens of "political consequences."

"There is a serious risk that his popularity would suffer," Leviyev said. At the same time, he said, it is clear "that with current force levels it won't be possible even to surround Ukrainian forces," much less achieve the declared goal of establishing control over the Donbas.

Sergei Zhavoronkov, a researcher with Moscow's Economic Policy Institute, says the effects of a declaration of war or a general mobilization could undermine support for the war. "The popularity of the war would fall sharply," he said. "It is one thing to watch it like an amusing computer game, but it is another when it directly affects many Russians and their families."

Leviyev said a more likely scenario would be a "partial mobilization in some border regions or involving some recently demobilized troops. If such a partial mobilization is undertaken, it would be realistic to add some 200,000 troops with their gear," he said.

Samus offers a similar prognosis. "You don't need mobilization to gather 100,000-200,000 troops in Russia," he said. "It is a big country and in the repressed regions there are sufficient people who would go fight if you paid them enough. I think it wouldn't be hard to find those people with an elementary recruitment campaign."

'A Week Of Training And A Uniform'

There are signs that such a partial mobilization is already under way in Russia, says Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister who is now a leading opposition figure. "Thousands of people in the regions are writing to ask how they can avoid being conscripted and sent to Ukraine," Milov told RFE/RL. "They are already signing up everyone they can."

RFE/RL correspondents confirmed that several recruitment offices in the northwest were actively seeking discharged soldiers for contract service in Ukraine. They advertise, including on the job-seeking portal, for men under age 50 with clean military records and no criminal convictions.

"The main thing is that you were in the army and carried a weapon," one recruiter in Petrozavodsk said. A recruiter in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, told RFE/RL that his office would sign up volunteers from any region of Russia and guarantee them training and equipment.

"Come here, you'll get a week of training and a uniform," the recruiter said, adding that contracts can be as short as three months. "The first month, you'll be paid 300,000 rubles [$4,600]."

"They need to find people who have recently served in the military and have the necessary military profiles," said Prague-based Russian military analyst Yury Fyodorov. "So far it is not clear whether they can gather the necessary quantity of people to replace their losses through help-wanted ads."

Heir To The Soviet Empire

Instead of major policy announcements, the Kremlin could use Victory Day to mobilize public support for the war -- by playing up nostalgia for Soviet-style global status and pandering to the widespread sense that Russia has been victimized by the West -- and to further Putin's draconian crackdown on dissent.

In his address at a Red Square military parade or in other comments on May 9, Putin may repeat his assertions that Russia is "fighting against Nazism," Moscow political analyst Natalya Shavshukova said, while adding that the Kremlin had "a distorted understanding of Nazism."

The Kremlin narrative is that this is "a war with the entire world: 'The whole world is against us, and we are fighting for some abstract justice, for our past, and so on,'" she said.

"People live poorly, in poverty," said Andrei Kolesnikov, a prominent political analyst. "They need to be constantly fed the idea that 'we are building a bright future for our children, and we just need to be patient a while and everything will be better.' And they need to find traitors and people to blame for the fact that things are going badly for them."

"People understand that something is wrong, and successes aren't coming," he added. "That means the guilty ones must be found. And who is to blame? Fifth- columnists, paid Western propagandists, national traitors. As Vladimir Putin's position worsens, the role played in our public life by the search for enemies grows larger."

Shavshukova said Putin's government had been hamstrung by widespread passivity that she and others contend the Kremlin itself has cultivated in Russian society.

"We have seen that trotting out public-sector workers for demonstrations in support of him has been rather difficult," she said. "People are ready to write social-media comments. They are ready to give silent assent. They are ready for anything that leaves them in peace so that they can go about their business. This is the consensus of an authoritarian society."

"Now Putin is trying to transform it into a totalitarian society -- to mobilize it," she concluded.

To that end, she predicts, Putin could make a symbolic Victory Day gesture such as restoring some Soviet-era military banners or emblems.

"I think one can expect some sort of new restoration of Soviet symbols and the assertion that Russia is the direct heir to the Soviet Union with claims to restoring the great empire in its 1991 boundaries," Shavshukova said.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, Caucasus.Realities, Idel.Realties, and Current Time