Beginning a new phase of the war, the cornered Putin is dragging a significant portion of Russians behind him. He has de facto declared war on the domestic front — not only on the opposition and civil society, but on the male population of Russia.
Why is Putin taking the risk? Because he himself has encouraged the lack of public attention to the war for several months. Mobilization is fraught with serious discontent in society. That is precisely why he decided to make a partial mobilization, rather than a full one. In the long run, he laid a mine under his regime; in the short run, he will face sabotage.
For so long, Putin fostered a disinclination among the masses for war, a disinclination that will now cost the Russians, who are being turned into cannon fodder.
How might Wednesday’s announcement take Russians out of their comfort zone — those who remained indifferent to the “special operation” in the current circumstances?
Until now at least, the main emotion (or rather, its absence) felt here was indifference. That indifference comes in different shades — genuine, imitative or self-cultivated.
The indifference of ordinary people benefits Putin. We, the citizens, do not interfere in the affairs of our political class and support their initiatives, but in exchange we ask them to maintain an impression of normality.
But even those who were indifferent could not ignore the Ukrainian counterattack. Although here, too, a reluctance to know the truth prevailed: if the officials said that it was not a retreat, but a regrouping of troops, then that was the case. Yet even the official Kremlin talk shows were full of admissions of failure.
That said, it is not profitable for Putin to provoke the discontent of the middle classes, who are happy to watch the war from their sofa on TV, but are not about to go to the trenches. Moreover, general mobilization would divert the human capital needed for the economy — simply put, there would be hardly anyone to work.
Discontent with Putin on the part of radical hawks is not a new phenomenon. But nevertheless, it has not yet manifested itself so vividly. However, they have no chance of competing with Putin — the ultra-conservative radicals will be suppressed with the same energy as the pro-Western liberals: the dictator will not tolerate any competition in the niche of war and imperialism.
While public opinion is in a state of inertia, Putin has a chance to find words to pass off defeats as victories. He could stop the war right now by describing the losses as gains. And partly he did, when he decided to fix the losses by announcing the urgent holding of referendums in the four occupied territories of Ukraine on their accession to Russia.
It’s evident that Putin is not ready to stop what he started. He presumes that Russia will succeed on the battlefield. Or at least would gain a stronger foothold in the occupied territories, declaring them Russian, in which case any fighting in them would be assessed as an attack on Russia. And then he will have the opportunity to transfer the “special operation” into the official status of war and to create the possibility of general mobilization. Now Putin has announced only limited, “partial” mobilization.
But as time passes, defeats will become increasingly difficult to present as victories — above all for the hesitating 30% who “rather” support him.