The head of Russia’s Communist Party, these days considered the closest thing to an opposition political party, had frank words about the “extremely difficult and troubling circumstances” facing lawmakers in the wake of Ukraine’s stunning battlefield successes.
“For as long as I can remember, there has never been such a situation like this,” Gennady Zyuganov told Russia’s lower house of parliament on September 13. “The special military operation…in Ukraine has turned into a full-fledged war.”
“A war and a special operation differ at their core,” he continued. “A war cannot be ended, even if you want: You take it to the very end, either victory or defeat. The question of victory in the Donbas is the question of our historical requirements, and everyone in this hall should realistically assess the situation.”
His comments differed slightly, though significantly, from the prepared remarks released by his party: “The maximum mobilization of forces and resources is now required.”
With that, Zyuganov opened a sizable crack in the wall of discourse surrounding the nearly seven-month-old invasion, as Ukrainian forces pulled off a stunning victory in the Kharkiv region, sending Russian troops there reeling, and retaking control of the northeastern region.
Merely calling the Ukraine operation a “war” -- instead of using the Kremlin’s preferred euphemism “special military operation” -- was already problematic under laws rushed through parliament in March. Critics who have termed it a “war” or an “invasion” have faced prosecution on charges of discrediting the armed forces or spreading false news about them.
Although Zyuganov’s influence is limited in a country whose security policy is dominated by the small circle of hawkish military and intelligence officials surrounding President Vladimir Putin, his comments raised eyebrows and fueled the debate on whether Russia will be forced to declare war and begin a mobilization of troops in order to secure its goals in Ukraine.
He’s not the only one urging such steps.
“Without full mobilization, moving to a war footing, including for the economy, we will not achieve proper results,” Mikhail Sheremet, a lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party member who sits on the Duma’s Security Committee, said in a radio interview. “I'm talking about the fact that today’s society should be consolidated as much as possible, with the goal of victory.”
Yury Fedorov, an independent Russian military analyst who now lives abroad, told Current Time that a feeling of inevitable defeat is causing panic among some in “the highest circles of the Russian nomenklatura.”
“And in this panic, they start to return to old ideas, about mobilization, about having to declare war, about how the West has declared war -- although it wasn’t the West that declared war on Russia, but Russia that tried to declare war on the West last December,” Fedorov said.
War Is Hell
Since the February invasion, the performance of Russia’s military has been under a magnifying glass, particularly after its early failure to seize the Ukrainian capital, an effort thwarted by a mishmash of quick responding Ukrainian troops.
Manpower, for many analysts, is among the Kremlin’s top problems. A growing number of Western estimates says Russia may have lost around 25,000 troops since February, with some estimates putting the figure at up to 80,000 total dead and wounded.
The Kremlin has balked at declaring war and initiating a mass mobilization, however, likely because of the risk of serious domestic political fallout. Public opinion, analysts say, could turn quickly against the war if men from urban areas or the professional classes were roped into combat. Instead, Russia has relied on contract soldiers largely recruited from remote and impoverished areas.
But authorities have struggled to replenish the ranks, conducting an aggressive stealth mobilization campaign that relies heavily on private mercenary companies, coercing conscripts to extend the service beyond the end of their mandated terms, and other methods.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of one of Russia’s most notorious private military companies, recently appeared in a video shot at a prison, where he was heard recruiting inmates to join his company and fight in Ukraine.
Even before the Kharkiv counteroffensive, some of the more strident nationalist or military commentators on Telegram accused the Kremlin of pulling its punches in Ukraine.
Igor Girkin, a notorious former intelligence officer who played an instrumental role when war first erupted in the Donbas in 2014 and who is now an outspoken critic of the Russian military, said that mobilization was the "last chance" for victory.
Since September 10, such calls have grown even louder:
“If you ask me my opinion as Ramzan Kadyrov, I would declare martial law, I would declare mobilization,” the strongman Chechen leader who oversees a sizable militia that has fought in several battles in Ukraine, said.
“I would start preparing people for martial law. We don't know what will happen tomorrow,” he said in a video posted to Telegram on September 14. “We must not wait until the leadership of the state announces mobilization. We must all mobilize, each region must provide the forces and means that it has and offer what they can to support our military.”
“Everyone is discussing, arguing this question of mobilization. Do we need it? Of course, we need it. Let’s put a point on that once and for all,” Maksim Fomin, a Russian veteran who fought in the Donbas in the years after the Kremlin-backed 2014 uprising began and who knows runs a popular, and strident, blog on Telegram.
“Of course, we need it, but is Russia capable of doing it?” he said in a video. “Mobilization, in the extreme case, is the distribution of old weapons to everyone who is able to carry weapons and defend themselves. But it is also the economy, transport, and moving the entire infrastructure to a military footing. It is a different system of relations between society and the state.”
Even politicians known for liberal leanings have argued that the Kremlin is equivocating on the conflict, and because Ukraine may have the upper hand, Moscow should either mobilize or admit defeat.
“We either call for mobilization and go for all-out war, or we get out,” Boris Nadezhdin, a former Duma deputy, said during a NTV debate over the weekend.
So Will It Happen?
While Ukrainian officials have gloated over their lightning successes and basked in praise from Western officials, the Kremlin has continued to resist calling for mobilization.
Still, the Russian Defense Ministry has acknowledged the defeat in Kharkiv, calling the retreat a “regrouping” to other occupied Russian territories.
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Asked about the calls for mobilization, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on September 13 that it was not currently under discussion, but left unanswered whether that might change.
"At the current moment, no, there is no talk about it," he said.
The reason for Kremlin reluctance, analysts said, is that for the moment, the Ukraine war is a distant eventvfor many Russians, and one that polls show many people aren’t even paying attention to.
Mobilizing the population would prompt pushback, if not outrage, from wide swaths of Russian society and potentially undermine support for Putin.
Some observers have argued that Putin might order a partial mobilization that calls up the country’s reserves -- an estimated 2 million men who have served in the armed forces within the past five years.
Still, that would amount to a major escalation -- and an admission the “special military operation” is going badly, contrary to the rosy picture painted by Russian authorities.
It would also take months before a mobilized force could be deployed in effective numbers, and there are still questions about the lack of middle-ranking or junior officers who would have responsibility for commanding such units in the field.
If mobilization is announced, Fedorov said, “then those who are smarter will try to avoid mobilization by all means possible, move away to other cities, for example. Those who are dumber will go to the army, cursing at the same time and will be extremely unhappy.”
This weekend’s celebrations in Moscow marking the city’s 875th birthday illustrated the split-screen disconnect between the defeats inflicted on the Russian military in Kharkiv and the general attitude of Russian society toward the conflict.
Muscovites danced in the streets, enjoyed street fairs, and watched fireworks displays, while Putin participated in a ceremony opening a new Ferris wheel.
“Moscow is rightly considered to be one of the most beautiful and most comfortable metropolises in the world, every year confirming its global competitive edge, including by attracting talented and energetic people and in its accelerating rate of economic, infrastructural, and social change,” Putin said in a speech on September 10.
The disconnect was further highlighted in interviews conducted by RFE/RL in recent days with Russians in several cities
“The front line cracked. But the crack is very local, in the Kharkiv region,” one man, who declined to give his name, said. “It’s wholly likely that there’ll be another one somewhere else soon. But that does not amount to a turning point in the war. The war is not going anywhere anytime soon.”