Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s declarations about which categories of Russian males will be exempted from partial mobilization may not reflect Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions or orders. A Russian media insider claimed on September 24 that officials of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) reprimanded military commissars in person for negligence in carrying out mobilization and sending out summonses in “excess,” and contrary to the explicit MoD guidance regarding exemptions for age, disability, or other limiting factors. Another Russian source claimed that certain heads of federal subjects acknowledged that they have mobilized citizens who are technically ineligible.
The Kremlin’s heavy-handed approach to partial mobilization may successfully meet the Kremlin’s internal quota of mobilized personnel but is unlikely to generate effective soldiers and is prompting significant domestic backlash for little gain. Russian authorities are forcibly recruiting Russian citizens to fight in Ukraine on flimsy pretexts, violating the Kremlin’s promise to recruit only those with military experience. Russian authorities are also demonstrably mobilizing personnel (such as protesters) who will enter the war in Ukraine with abysmal morale. The Kremlin's heavy-handed approach to partial mobilization will likely exacerbate domestic resentment of a measure that would have been unpopular even if implemented without the harsh approaches observed in the last 24 hours.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of “partial mobilization” on September 21 reflected many problems Russia faces in its faltering invasion of Ukraine that Moscow is unlikely to be able to resolve in the coming months. Putin’s order to mobilize part of Russia’s “trained” reserve, that is, individuals who have completed their mandatory conscript service, will not generate significant usable Russian combat power for months. It may suffice to sustain the current levels of Russian military manpower in 2023 by offsetting Russian casualties, although even that is not yet clear. It will occur in deliberate phases, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in an interview on September 21, likely precluding any sudden influx of Russian forces that could dramatically shift the tide of the war. Russia’s partial mobilization will thus not deprive Ukraine of the opportunity to liberate more of its occupied territory into and through the winter.
Russian-appointed occupation officials in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts announced on September 20 that they will hold a “referendum” on acceding to Russia, with a vote taking place from September 23-27. The Kremlin will use the falsified results of these sham referenda to illegally annex all Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine and is likely to declare unoccupied parts of Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhia oblasts to be part of Russia as well.
Urgent discussion on September 19 among Russia’s proxies of the need for Russia to immediately annex Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (much of the latter of which is not under Russian control) suggests that Ukraine’s ongoing northern counter-offensive is panicking proxy forces and some Kremlin decision-makers. The legislatures of Russia’s proxies in occupied Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR), each called on their leadership to “immediately” hold a referendum on recognizing the DNR and LNR as Russian subjects. Russian propagandist and RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan spoke glowingly of the call, referring to it as the “Crimean scenario.” She wrote that by recognizing occupied Ukrainian land as Russian territory, Russia could more easily threaten NATO with retaliatory strikes for Ukrainian counterattacks, “untying Russia’s hands in all respects.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly relying on irregular volunteer and proxy forces rather than conventional units and formations of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. ISW has previously reported that Putin has been bypassing the Russian higher military command and Ministry of Defense leadership throughout the summer and especially following the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. Putin’s souring relationship with the military command and the Russian (MoD) may explain in part the Kremlin’s increasing focus on recruiting ill-prepared volunteers into ad-hoc irregular units rather than attempting to draw them into reserve or replacement pools for regular Russian combat units.
Russian forces continue to conduct meaningless offensive operations around Donetsk City and Bakhmut instead of focusing on defending against Ukrainian counteroffensives that continue to advance. Russian troops continue to attack Bakhmut and various villages near Donetsk City of emotional significance to pro-war residents of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) but little other importance. The Russians are apparently directing some of the very limited reserves available in Ukraine to these efforts rather than to the vulnerable Russian defensive lines hastily thrown up along the Oskil River in eastern Kharkiv Oblast. The Russians cannot hope to make gains around Bakhmut or Donetsk City on a large enough scale to derail Ukrainian counteroffensives and appear to be continuing an almost robotic effort to gain ground in Donetsk Oblast that seems increasingly divorced from the overall realities of the theater.
The revelations of mass graves of civilians and torture chambers in newly liberated Izyum confirm ISW’s previous assessments that the Bucha atrocities were not isolated war crimes but rather a microcosm of Russian atrocities throughout Russian-occupied areas. The Ukrainian General Staff published images on September 16 showing a mass burial site in Izyum, Kharkiv Oblast and noting that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the site contained more than 400 bodies showing signs of torture and brutality.
Ukrainian forces are continuing counteroffensive operations in eastern Ukraine, increasingly pressuring Russian positions and logistics lines in eastern Kharkiv, northern Luhansk, and eastern Donetsk Oblasts. Russian sources reported that Ukrainian forces are continuing ground operations southwest of Izyum, near Lyman, and on the east bank of the Oskil River, reportedly compelling Russian forces to withdraw from some areas in eastern Ukraine and reinforce others. Russian forces in eastern Ukraine will likely struggle to hold their defensive lines if Ukrainian forces continue to push farther east.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is being established as the face of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine. Prigozhin gave a recruitment speech on September 14 announcing that Russian prisoners have been participating in the war since July 1 when they were instrumental in seizing the Vuhlehirska Thermal Power Plant. A Russian milblogger noted that Prigozhin is introducing a “Stalinist” method that allows the Kremlin to avoid ordering a general mobilization that could ignite social tensions in Russian society. Milbloggers have been consistently praising Prigozhin’s success in Ukraine and some even said that he should replace the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, whom milbloggers and Kremlin pundits blame for the Russian defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. Russian military correspondent and milblogger Maksim Fomin (alias Vladlen Tatarsky) claimed to have spoken to Prigozhin about the situation on the Ukrainian-Russian border after the withdrawal of Russian forces in the area. The Prigozhin-Fomin meeting, if it occurred, could indicate that the Kremlin is attempting to address milbloggers’ months-long complaints that the Russian Defense Ministry did not hear their criticism highlighting the ineffectiveness of Russian higher command. Prigozhin is Putin’s close confidant, and his developing relationship with milbloggers may help retain milblogger support for the Kremlin’s war effort while scapegoating Shoigu and the Russian Defense Ministry for the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin has changed its information approach to address the demands of the Russian milbloggers and nationalists’, suggesting that Putin seeks to win back the critical milblogger community alienated by Russian failures.