Russian combat losses in Ukraine, problems with this year’s spring draft, trouble recruiting volunteers, and difficulties in forcing soldiers to fight abroad in the absence of a declaration of war are prompting ever more questions about how sustainable Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is at its current level of manning and resourcing (Online.ua, March 2; LBC, April 28). In response, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov declared yesterday (May 4) that suggestions Moscow would use the May 9 Victory Day commemorations to announce a general mobilization or even officially declare war were “nonsense” (Meduza, March 4). Yet unintentionally, his words had the effect of calling more attention to both the steps Moscow has taken toward mobilization over the last few weeks and to talk inside Russia about whether the country has no choice but to pursue such measures.
When Putin launched his war in Ukraine, he as well as many in the West expected the campaign would be quick and involve few Russian casualties. But the action has now entered its third month, and Russian combat losses are estimated as high as 20,000 or more—figures that exceed Soviet losses in ten years of fighting in Afghanistan. Making up for those deaths is not easy, especially in the absence of a declaration of war. In peacetime, draftees cannot legally be sent to fight abroad, and those soldiers who refuse to fight cannot even be charged with crimes, although commanders do intimidate them into going to the front. Moreover, the Kremlin is encountering difficulties with recruiting fresh volunteers—it is having to offer them more money than ever before. And Russia faces problems if it shifts forces from other parts of the country given that the military is the last line of defense for the survival of the regime in the event of domestic political challenges (see EDM, March 31, April 19).
With a declaration of war and general mobilization, Moscow would be able to raise a far larger army and freely and openly send draftees to fight or criminally punish those who refuse to go. Moscow could then also extend the time of service for military personnel and recall those who had recently served and are categorized as ready reservists. Obviously, some in the military top brass would like to have such levers available to reinforce Russian units in Ukraine and possibly bring the war there to a victorious conclusion (Zona.media, April 22). But doing so would impose serious costs. Such moves would call into question Putin’s insistence that he is not fighting a war. Also, they would be deeply unpopular and difficult to sell to the increasingly hard-pressed population. Additionally, this escalation would have extremely negative consequences for Russia’s economic recovery because it would entail sacrificing the younger and more educated workers to the war effort —individuals whom Russian firms and the employment pool desperately need (see EDM, March 31).
So far, Russian officialdom has limited itself to moves that endeavor to extract more men for service but do not yet represent full mobilization. Cossack units are being activated in some places (see EDM, March 30, April 25). And Russians are being called up in regions far from Moscow for service in non-military capacities—but in ways that could be easily transformed into military roles if a mobilization were to be declared. Indeed, some commentators are already suggesting that these policies are a form of “hidden” mobilization that may become more general and public in the near future (Lenta  , Pozitciya.com, Argumenty i Fakty, March 4; LB, March 2; Apostrophe, April 27.
So far, it has been experts in Ukraine and the West who have focused most on this issue, with many saying that Russia will not be able to field a large-enough military in Ukraine over the longer term without some kind of mobilization (LB, May 2). However, there is growing evidence that these discussions abroad are echoing within the Russian security community as well. And those in Russia calling for an official declaration of war and mass mobilization are apparently no longer only figures on the margins but include more mainstream voices as well.
When Putin launched his massive re-invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russian “hotheads” like Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, the Donbas leader in 2014, argued that “without a mobilization, the Russian Federation will not have any chance of winning this war. Ukraine is going to mobilize and form a half-million-man army.” In that event, Russia will have no choice but to respond if it wants to avoid defeat (YouTube, April 6). Others of his ilk have picked up on that argument since. But what is more significant is that mainstream media outlets are beginning to repeat similar things as well.
The clearest example of this development is an April 16 article by Moscow-based commentator Petr Akopov on the government’s own RIA Novosti news agency portal. He says pointedly that “mobilization in Russia has not been declared but it is already going on.” More than that, he asserts, “The country needs mobilization [b]ecause we live in war times.” He adds, “This war will not end with the end of the [special military operation]: the West set the goal of isolating and crushing Russia.” Moscow must respond, Akopov writes, by creating a system capable of fielding a far larger military for a far longer time than many thought, only a few months ago, would ever be required (RIA Novosti, April 16).
Such an article would not have appeared in that venue without significant support from above. While it might be a trial balloon, more likely it points to plans to declare some kind of mobilization—even if short of a declaration of war—sometime in the near future, if not in fact on May 9. In that event, Peskov’s denial, to the extent it is not an outright lie, is true only about timing. The Kremlin may, therefore, declare a mobilization soon, especially if its failures on the battlefield continue to mount.