- Putin announced Wednesday he was calling in reserves, prompting protests in Russia.
- Experts said Putin wanted to avoid the move, but also wanted to bolster his military.
- The move could weaken support for Putin's regime as Russians are exposed to the reality of the war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement of a partial military mobilization was decried by some as too little too late, but that may be because he had desperately tried to avoid this outcome and thought he could succeed in Ukraine without it, experts said.
Putin said Wednesday he was calling up 300,000 reservists and threatened nuclear options after the Ukrainian military made major gains in recent weeks. The Russian president has found his forces short on manpower while Ukraine, on the other hand, ordered a full military mobilization within days of the invasion in February.
"He's a master procrastinator," Michael Kofman, a military analyst of Russia studies at the Center for Naval Analyses told Puck's Julie Ioffe this week. "He procrastinates and procrastinates till the options go from bad to worse."
Experts told Insider it could take weeks or months for Russia's partial mobilization to bear fruit, as the reservists need to be trained, equipped, and deployed. They also said taking such action at this stage in the war shows things are going so poorly for Russia that Putin is anxious for something that could turn the tide.
"In hindsight, he should have done it sooner. Absolutely," Robert English, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Russia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe, told Insider, adding that an earlier mobilization of troops wouldn't have looked so desperate.
But, he said, Putin had thought he could succeed in Ukraine without taking this step, which comes with the risk of inspiring backlash among the Russian people.
"This is something he wanted to avoid at almost any cost. Because up until now, the war has been kind of a television war for Russians," English said, adding that most well-off people in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg have largely been able to tune out the war and go about normal life.
"But when you mobilize reservists — even if you target the poor, the rural, the provincial, the minorities, and still avoid the upper middle classes in the big cities — it still will touch them more directly," he continued. "The fact that he's resorted to that shows a certain desperation, that they're afraid of another big Ukrainian breakthrough that could be coming in a week or two."
If Putin was afraid of the fallout from calling up reservists, it appears to have been warranted. Since the announcement, Russians have flooded the streets in protest with chants of "no to war," an unusual sight in the country. Around 500 people had been arrested as of Wednesday evening, according to OVD-Info, an independent monitoring group.
Mobilizing troops could threaten support for Putin's regime
The outcry could ultimately threaten Putin's place as Russia's longtime leader, according to Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy and a historian of the Soviet Union and US-Soviet relations.
"The one kind of thing he had going for him, so to speak, was that the war was not really being visited on most Russians," Miles told Insider, adding that Putin and his "massive state media apparatus were able to present an extremely sanitized, different version" of the war.
For one thing, Putin and Russian media had avoided even calling it a war, instead using the president's description as a "special military operation."
But even before the mobilization — and after Ukraine's successful advances — Russian media recently started to veer from the consistently positive coverage of the war, and published criticism of the military fumbles and failures of leadership, Miles said.
Now, calling up people to fight who may not want to risks further weakening support for Putin's regime.
Daniel Treisman, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose work focuses on Russian politics and economics, agreed Putin has sought to avoid mobilizing troops due to how unpopular it would be, noting the protests show it's clear that Russians hate this development.
"That Putin would do this shows how badly he feels the need right now to change the momentum, which has been all in Ukraine's favor," Treisman told Insider in an email, noting it will take weeks to deploy the new units.
Treisman also noted that in addition to announcing that draft Putin introduced tougher penalties for draft dodging, suggesting he was prepared for the people to resist.
"There's a danger that the draft will be seen to fail and undermine still further the sense that Putin is in control at home," he said.