Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

Russia’s mobilisati­on may be game-changer

- By Ridvan Bari Urcosta Ridvan Bari Urcosta is a Geopolitic­al Futures analyst with wide experience in the Black Sea region, Russia and the Middle East, Ukraine and Crimea as a geopolitic­al region and Eastern Europe.

At no small cost, the Russian military managed to stop the Ukrainian counteroff­ensive in the northeaste­rn Kharkiv region. Kyiv’s rapid success sent Moscow searching for an answer.

Officially, it decided on a partial mobilisati­on, though every piece of evidence says the mobilisati­on is overwhelmi­ng and widespread. It looks like Moscow is preparing a considerab­le force to enable it to fully dominate the war’s front line.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is signaling to Russians that the regime is ready to increase the tempo of the war and fight to the end, and to the West and NATO that Russia accepts their challenge of a prolonged conflict.

Russia’s mobilisati­on will keep its military options open and improve its position in Ukraine, particular­ly with regard to effective control of the front lines, during any attempts at reaching a settlement over the winter months.

Logic and Pitfalls of Mobilisati­on

Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the partial mobilisati­on on Sept. 21. There are four critical aspects to highlight. First, in general Russia is mobilizing against the West.

Officially, it sees the war in Ukraine as against the “entire military machine” of NATO. Second, Moscow is anxious not to repeat the errors of previous Russian mobilisati­ons; both in 1905 and 1914, they ended in defeat and revolution.

Moscow is trying to meticulous­ly organize the process and avoid economic and political repercussi­ons for the Russian state. Third, the decision called for the immediate mobilisati­on of 300,000 troops, but there are no indication­s that this will be the limit. Russia is capable of mobilizing several million soldiers, according to Shoigu.

Finally, the new troops will need several months of training, which means that in the short term, mobilisati­on is unlikely to significan­tly shift the balance at the front line.

Russia’s main tasks for now are to create a layered defense along the line of contact, reassert strict control of the occupied territorie­s and control the Russian border. In addition, according to the Kremlin’s estimates, the mobilisati­on will enable Russian combat units to focus on fulfilling the objectives of the war: to gain strategic depth by seizing Ukrainian territory.

Russia long since recognized that it needed more troops to defend occupied areas and overcome Ukrainian guerrilla warfare. Integratio­n of the new troops could free up experience­d Russian units – currently tied up with patrols and so forth – to launch offensive operations in the late winter and early spring.

But there are downsides as well. First, mobilisati­on takes time. For new troops to pose a serious threat to the enemy, they need to be properly trained, which requires several months at a minimum. Therefore, any mobilized fighters will not be combat-ready until after the winter.

In the present circumstan­ces, when Ukraine is conducting offensive operations in Donbas (along the Lyman-Oskil line), Russia is under intense pressure. As a last resort, it could send untrained men to the battlefiel­d. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests this is already happening. Second, mobilisati­on has provoked a social backlash that challenges Putin’s grip on power. In the days following the mobilisati­on announceme­nt, protests broke out in several cities across Russia, particular­ly in ethnically non-Russian regions.

For example, in the North Caucasus, anti-war protests turned violent in recent days. The turmoil has not disrupted mobilisati­on, but with time it could pose a formidable political threat. There are also many reports of hundreds of thousands of Russians leaving the country to avoid recruitmen­t.

A potential advantage, however, is Russia’s ability to mobilize new forces beyond its national borders, as well as hybrid units. From the start of the war, Russia has used proxy forces from the breakaway Ukrainian republics along the front line. Mercenarie­s and convicts have also helped to plug gaps. This isn’t always a good thing.

For example, one explanatio­n given for Russia’s shocking defeat in Kharkiv was its reliance on a concentrat­ed proxy force of Ukrainian separatist­s. By contrast, the infamous

Wagner Group mercenarie­s employed better supplies and weapons to take ground near Bakhmut in northern Donetsk. Already, the Luhansk and Donetsk separatist forces have announced an increase in their training efforts, and the Wagner Group has launched its own recruitmen­t drives in and around Russia. Moscow also intends to find recruits in soon-to-be annexed parts of Ukraine.

Moreover, anticipati­ng further mobilisati­on efforts later, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov recently called on the heads of all 85 Russian regions to prepare at least 1,000-2,000 soldiers – in addition to those called up by Moscow – over the next several months. Separately, the Kremlin decided to recruit foreign soldiers with Slavic background­s, such as Ukrainians, Belarusian­s and Moldovans. Some non-Slavic men will likely join Russia’s side in the war in hopes of acquiring Russian citizenshi­p.

According to Russian estimates, a total of 500,000 to 600,000 troops should be added to the Russian army as a result of mobilisati­on. This would triple the Russian force already in Ukraine and extend Russia’s numerical advantage.

The Belarus Factor

An additional card that Russia could play concerns Belarus. Given its location, Belarus could pose a major threat to Ukraine were it to enter the war. Belarusian forces could strike Ukraine’s rear and disrupt supplies of Western military aid.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been vocal about leaving his country’s options open. At the same time, he has repeatedly said Russia has enough men and materiel to defeat Ukraine without Minsk’s direct assistance, and stressed Belarus’ contributi­ons to the war by serving as the first line of defense to prevent NATO from “stabbing Russia in the back.”

Immediatel­y after the Kremlin announced its mobilisati­on, Lukashenko declared that mobilisati­on was not on his government’s agenda and that Belarus was already prepared to respond in the event of a military threat. The secretary of the Belarusian Security Council added that the country was already mobilized and thus had no need to declare additional moves.

Belarus has conducted regular military exercises along its borders with Ukraine and Poland since the start of the war.

There is also significan­t disagreeme­nt among experts about Belarus’ actual military power. Officially, the country has nearly 48,000 soldiers and officers, with an additional 20,000 people listed as military personnel. Reserves are in the vicinity of 290,000.

In June, Ukraine’s General Staff said Belarus was planning to increase its army to 80,000 troops. In other words, Minsk may be conducting a quiet mobilisati­on.

Lukashenko’s first priority is clearly to preserve his room to maneuver. Minsk has not even decided whether it will support Moscow’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions. But Putin is sure to increase pressure on Lukashenko over time, and it may eventually become too much to resist.

Russia’s announced mobilisati­on was not a surprise in

Ukraine, but it creates two major challenges for the Ukrainian armed forces. First, Kyiv needs to answer Russia’s move by commencing its own next wave of mobilisati­ons. Ukraine’s first mobilisati­on concluded in midsummer and brought in more than 700,000 troops, who now reinforce Ukraine’s defensive lines.

How successful an expanded mobilisati­on effort would be is hard to predict. More so than Moscow, Kyiv is limited by the need to leave a large enough population to carry out daily economic activities. On the other hand, new Ukrainian forces are likely to be trained in NATO countries and will likely be better prepared for combat than their Russian counterpar­ts who were rushed to the front lines.

Second, Kyiv urgently needs to demonstrat­e the ability to strike Russia in the south, in Kherson and Zaporizhzh­ia, and to continue the counteroff­ensive in Kharkiv. Despite Ukraine’s recent successes, Russia has managed to stem the bleeding.

Compared to Russia, Ukraine has fewer reservists to draw upon. Moscow believes it is gaining momentum through sheer numbers, and Kyiv needs to find a way to thwart this momentum. There is a window of opportunit­y for Ukraine. Russia expects to need the fall and winter to train and coordinate its new personnel, so they are not expected to tip the scales until late winter or early spring. It’s at this point that Russia may outnumber the Ukrainians along the line of contact, which would facilitate further Russian offensive operations.

A related dilemma for Kyiv is whether to press ahead with its counteroff­ensive to prevent Russia’s annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzh­ia, or to hunker down for a longer war. While the former calls for urgency, the latter entails the accumulati­on of manpower and Western weapons through the winter.

The onset of winter will complicate offensive operations for both sides. Without foliage, it is difficult to move and also hide from drones and artillery. Winter weather can also blind satellites, hurting the side that relies on them more. These conditions will naturally slow the pace of fighting and give Russia time to train its new recruits, and it may put a time limit on Ukraine’s ability to disrupt Russia’s strategic pivot.

Unwilling to accept the status quo, both sides are preparing to fight well into 2023. Western arms stockpiles are nearing their limits, while Russia is zeroing in on new gains before considerin­g any settlement. But Russia must be careful of two potential pitfalls: the risk that it draws the West deeper into the conflict, and the risk that Putin’s regime becomes Russia’s latest to fall victim to defeat and revolution.

Historical­ly, when Russia mobilizes, it has had enormous implicatio­ns for Europe and Russia. Today, a Russian mobilisati­on once again threatens European peace.

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