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Can Putin’s ‘partial mobilisation’ achieve Russian objectives in Ukraine?

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has ordered 300,000 reservists to go to Ukraine to fight a controversial war against an enemy which has many commonalities with Russia – from religion to history. 

The decision marks a radical tactical adjustment in Putin’s Ukraine offensive in an attempt to mobilise not only reservists but the whole nation in Moscow’s fight against Kiev. But anti-draft protests across Russia and long queues of cars on Russian borders reportedly carrying reservists defying Putin’s call indicate that his plan is chequered with obstacles. 

Experts differ on whether Putin’s mobilisation will bear fruit in the long run as many Russian citizens expressed dissatisfaction with Putin’s decree.  

“If all 300,000 reservists are deployed on the Ukrainian fronts, it gives Putin better choices. For example, Putin can either build strong defences [in eastern and southern Ukraine] or go back on the offensive (or both),” says Edward Erickson, a former American military officer and a retired professor of military history at the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University.  

“Mobilising reserves provides replacements for casualties but, equally important, provides leaders and planners with strategic and operational choices and options that they would not otherwise have. It is better to have excess capacity available and not need it — rather than to do without excess capacity and then need it,” Erickson tells TRT World

Erickson assesses that these reserves will be used for “a new spring offensive in 2023 and add depth to the defensive lines in the meantime”. He also reminds that other nations, including the US, also mobilised reserves during past engagements when “wars last longer than planned”– from Korea to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Can reservists change the equation?

While the American military analyst believes that Putin’s efforts have a chance to succeed, sending a strong signal to Ukrainian president Zelenskyy and his allies that Moscow is “doubling down” on its strategic investment,  Erickson also wonders why it came so late. “I am surprised that Putin waited so long to do this,” he says. 

Under increasing Western pressure over its Ukraine offensive, Russia needs more forces to maintain its military presence in ethnically diverse regions from the Baltics to Caucasus and the Far East, Erickson believes. 

But Putin’s call-up faces many hurdles, from training issues to armament, as experts warn that reservists can’t do the job professional army has not been able to do in Ukraine until now. 

Several experts TRT World spoke to agree that Putin’s move was fraught with danger.

“Inexperienced reservists aren’t going to help,” says Ioannis Koskinas, an American military analyst. 

Mehmet Emin Koc, a retired Turkish special forces colonel and a security analyst, concurs. “It is not possible to create new units with high combat readiness in a short time by recruiting so many personnel and providing the necessary training, and then equipping them with the necessary weapons and equipment,” Koc says. 

Ulas Pehlivan, a military analyst and another former Turkish army officer, also views the situation similarly to Koc. “It will take time for the reserve personnel to refresh and adapt to the region,” Pehlivan tells TRT World.

“The compulsory inclusion of reserve personnel (with military background/experience) in the war, which has voluntarily participated since the beginning of the crisis, will not have a significant impact on the outcome of the war,” Pehlivan adds. 

But even if reservists get proper training and equipment, they might suffer from other problems Russia faces and Putin’s partial mobilisation could not address those issues, according to the experts. 

“The seriously problematic command-control and logistics problems of the Russians are not issues that can be solved with a partial mobilisation order,” Koc adds. 

But Erickson believes that time might be on the Russian side, depending on whether Europe has a harsh or a mild winter. “If the 2022-23 winter is unusually cold, the will of the EU to boycott Russian natural gas is in doubt. So, in the near term, Putin needs to hold on to the territory that he presently has and, in the longer term, hold out until spring,” he says.  

“At this point, I think that victory for Putin means holding what he has now, conducting referendums, and annexing the conquered territories…. followed by some kind of cease fire,” he says. 

But Koskinas believes that the referendums to confirm Russian control might escalate things.

Is Russia losing psychological edge? 

Beyond Russian military problems, Moscow also appears to be suffering from a lack of national morale to fight the war in Ukraine. Any warring country can replace personnel losses with fresh troops, but the lack of morale is something irreplaceable, says Koc. 

“It should not be forgotten that the Russian armed forces gave hope to their own people that they would dominate the whole of Ukraine in a few days. The point we have reached today is that Russia could not achieve any of its strategic goals; it also suffered serious losses in the east and south of Ukraine and had to withdraw from some regions,” says Koc. 

This partial mobilisation obligation is one of the important indicators that the will and determination of the Russian people to fight is not at a sufficient level, according to Pehlivan. “This factor is considered to be the most influential factor in determining the results of wars,” he says.  

“Let’s not forget that wars are between nations, not between armies. In addition to the enormous military and economic support provided by the West, the situation of the poorly trained and demoralised Russian army will be very difficult against the highly motivated and determined Ukrainian army,” Koc says. 

Erickson sums up the Russian dilemma with the assessment that Putin might be trapped in a hole of his own making.

“Putin never intended to start a long conventional war. He intended a ‘special operation’ to overthrow and replace Zelenskyy’s government. Where Putin is right now is a result of the law of unintended consequences. He is stuck with a long war with the soldiers of the Russian army, who have never had the motivation to fight their neighbour Ukrainians,” he says. 

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