How will Putin’s mobilisation change the war in Ukraine?
Russia’s war call-up comes as troops suffer battlefield losses and amid plans to annex more Ukrainian territory.
Kyiv, Ukraine – Battle-tested and determined to win, Ukrainian soldiers consider the looming arrival of tens of thousands of mobilised Russians a minor threat.
“Their attacks will be aggressive, but not dangerous,” a serviceman, who spent several months on the front lines of the southern Mykolaiv region, told Al Jazeera.
Analysts are a bit more cautious.
On Wednesday in a televised address, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the mobilisation of 300,000 men to “protect our motherland, its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to ensure the safety of our people and people in the liberated territories” of Ukraine.
But the real figure of those to be mobilised is one million men, Novaya Gazeta Europe, the exiled version of Russia’s oldest independent daily, claimed on Thursday, citing a top-secret decree and a source in Putin’s administration. The Kremlin denied this report.
The partial mobilisation follows Ukraine’s unexpected counteroffensive success in the eastern Kharkiv region that was almost fully liberated from Russian troops earlier this month.
And the Ukrainian forces are ready to counterattack in three more directions, observers say.
One is in the Luhansk region that lies south of Kharkiv, where the counteroffensive will focus along the strategic Siverskyi Donets river.
Fierce battles with heavy losses took place there in the summer after Moscow withdrew its forces from four northern regions and the capital, Kyiv.
The second direction is in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, around the town of Hulyaipole, from where Ukrainians can wedge deep into Russia-occupied areas and bisect them.
And the third is the southern region of Kherson, an entrance to the annexed Crimean peninsula that was occupied in early March, possibly due to treason by Ukrainian officials.
If the Ukrainian counteroffensive takes place in the coming days, Russia will not have time to train and deploy the newly-mobilised troops.
Russian forces “will have to use [the mobilised troops] to form a second line of defence about 100km (60 miles) away from the current front line,” Nikolay Mitrokhin, a Russia expert at Germany’s University of Bremen, told Al Jazeera.
The Russians will have to replenish their battalions that have a “huge deficit” of manpower due to heavy, disheartening losses in the past six months, he said.
“If by mid-October Ukrainian forces can break through the front lines in at least two directions and advance for at least 50km (30 miles), they will deal the Russian forces a heavy blow that will upturn the mobilisation,” Mitrokhin said.
As a result, the inevitable loss of armoured vehicles and artillery will heavily impede the revitalisation of Russia’s military might in occupied areas, he said.
But if there is no successful Ukrainian breakthrough, the Russians could restore the combat readiness of many front-line units.
“It doesn’t mean they will be ready to attack, but they could hold the front line,” Mitrokhin said.
‘We will face attacks’: Separatists
Pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine are far from optimistic about the looming Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“We will face attacks from all sides, and their objective will be to dis-balance and take us apart,” Aleksandr Khodakovsky, who commands the East Battalion of pro-Russian separatists in the southeastern region of Donetsk, said on Telegram on Thursday.
“We are not dynamic, we act with inertia, and much of what we say often contradicts what we do,” he said referring to the boastful declarations from the Kremlin and separatist leaders about the further “liberation” of Ukraine.
Although Putin’s announcement of “partial mobilisation” became front-page news worldwide, Russia has already spurred up recruitment, according to rights groups, opposition figures and media reports.
Newly enlisted, mostly teenage conscripts were pressured to sign up for front-line service.
Older men with prior military experience were lured with promises of high salaries and huge compensations in case of their deaths.
Thousands of inmates were recruited from prisons across Russia to join the Wagner private army led by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s chef.”
“They have already been doing a partial mobilisation and only legitimised it now, got more rights to forcibly do it,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, the former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told Al Jazeera.
But the mobilisation will unquestionably result in a logistical and financial quagmire.
“The 300,000 will have to be armed and supplied somehow, and that’s questionable,” he said.
And the quality of new recruits will be light years away from the 170,000 experienced servicemen Moscow used to invade Ukraine in February, after a year of intense training and team-building.
The Kremlin will therefore use the archaic model of massive attacks that involve huge amounts of servicemen – and gigantic losses.
This is the tactic Soviet leader Josef Stalin used against Nazi Germany and its allies during World War II. It led to the highest loss of military staff and civilian population in history – 27 million people.
“They will resort to the old Russian way of using the gang-up principle, using quantity [of servicemen], because the quality is problematic,” Romanenko said.
Ukraine will have to compensate for the quantitative increase by speeding up its counteroffensives, conducting preemptive strikes along the 2,700km-long (1,677-mile) front line, especially the 1,000km-long (620-mile) stretch of active warfare, he said.
Successful counteroffensives similar to the one in Kharkiv may even cause unrest in Russia and topple Putin’s government, Romanenko said.
“If there is a couple of such [counteroffensives], the quantity will become quality and start a domino effect that will destroy Putin and all of his coterie,” he said.
Planes and foreigners
Putin’s announcement created a sense of panic among Russian men, who rushed to buy plane tickets, sending prices flying.
Their hasty flight continues the exodus of hundreds of thousands of middle-class Russians that followed the war’s beginning in February.
Many Russian families who can afford a relocation abroad have already safeguarded their sons.
“We’re not going back, I am not risking their lives,” the mother of two sons aged 17 and 21, who moved to Montenegro in July, told Al Jazeera. “They’d better be poor and alive here than dead heroes back home.”
Apart from the mobilisation of Russian nationals, the Kremlin seeks to recruit foreigners with promises of Russian citizenship, the holy grail of millions of labour migrants from ex-Soviet republics.
The step mostly targets nationals of ex-Soviet Central Asia, the largest group of labour migrants who suffer from corrupt police and bureaucratic problems that can be solved once they get a burgundy Russian passport.
Heavily influenced by the Kremlin and their parents’ nostalgia for the Soviet era, some are already ready to volunteer.
In early August, Jahongir Jalolov, an Uzbek community leader in the Urals Mountains region of Perm, came up with the idea of creating a battalion of pro-Russian Uzbeks.
“We live and work in Russia. We don’t just need to, we ought to justify the bread we’re eating,” he said standing next to a Russian flag and addressing several dozen Uzbeks who greeted his speech with an ovation.
After Putin’s mobilisation announcement, notable Uzbeks started an online campaign urging their compatriots not to be recruited and reminding them about possible criminal persecution back home for becoming a “mercenary”.
“Listening to the ‘white czar’, I realised that Uzbeks have all the chances to take part in this suicidal war legally,” Timur Numanov, a blogger in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, told Al Jazeera.
“Today, there must be a call … to urge authorities to denounce the Uzbek-Russian treaties of alliance because the [Russian] side is inadequate,” he said.