The Kremlin reacted to the defeat in the Kharkiv region by increasing its unofficial mobilization efforts, but did not create the conditions for widespread recruitment into the army. For the first time, the Russian authorities announced a national recruitment campaign for the army. The Russians are losing influence in eastern Ukraine, where incidents are becoming more frequent. These are some of the conclusions of another report by the Washington-based international team of experts of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
Ukrainian forces continue counteroffensive operations in eastern Ukraine, putting increasing pressure on Russian positions and logistics lines in eastern Kharkiv, northern Luhansk and eastern Donetsk region, ISW said. Russian sources said Ukrainian forces continued ground operations southwest of Izyum, near Liman and on the east bank of the Oskil River, reportedly forcing Russian forces to withdraw from some areas in eastern Ukraine and reinforce others. Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are likely to struggle to hold their defensive lines if Ukrainian forces continue to advance east.
The Kremlin responded to the defeat in Kharkiv region by doubling down on covert mobilization instead of providing conditions for general mobilization. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called on all federal subjects to start “self-mobilization” and not wait for the Kremlin to declare martial law. Kadyrov said that each federal entity should prove its willingness to help Russia by recruiting at least 1,000 troops instead of giving speeches and holding fruitless public events. Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan reiterated the need for Russians to join the war effort voluntarily, and several loyalist Russian governors publicly endorsed Kadyrov’s speech. The Russian-appointed head of occupied Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, announced the formation of two volunteer battalions on the peninsula in support of Kadyrov’s calls.
The defeat in the Kharkiv region forced the Kremlin to announce a campaign to recruit military personnel throughout Russia. Kremlin officials and state media previously did not conduct official nationwide recruitment campaigns, but instead tasked local officials and media with gathering forces, allegedly on their own initiative. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hailed the creation of the battalions on July 12 as 47 loyal federal entities advertised and funded the recruitment drive for regional volunteer battalions. A prominent Russian blogger and supporter of general mobilization praised officials like Kadyrov for taking the mobilization campaign out of the hands of Russia’s ineffective Defense Ministry. This freshening of mobilization efforts is likely to provide more support for the Kremlin among nationalist figures who are increasingly critical of the Russian Defense Ministry.
The Kremlin has likely abandoned its efforts to protect selected federal regions from mobilization campaigns that could increase social tensions. ISW had already reported that the Russian authorities had tried to protect Moscow residents from mobilization in the formation of the volunteer “Sobyanin regiment”. Russian opposition publication The Insider notes that several groups in the republics of Buryatia, Kalmykia, Tuva and Yakutia have publicly opposed the Kremlin’s largely ethnic recruitment. For her part, the propagandist Simonyan’s statement that people should self-mobilize has had the opposite effect, and she herself has been the subject of critical comments calling on the Russian oligarchs to pay and fight at the front.
ISW analysts believe that the Kremlin has almost certainly depleted much of the forces initially stationed in Russian bases in former Soviet states since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February, possibly weakening Russian influence in those states as well. A Radio Free Europe investigation announced on September 14 that the Russian military has already deployed to Ukraine approximately 1,500 fighters from Russia’s 201st military base in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and plans to transfer another 600 from units in Dushanbe and Bokhatar, a southern Tajik city. Russia is likely to have redeployed to Ukraine and about 300 Tuvan soldiers from the Russian Kant Airbase in Kyrgyzstan to Kyrgyzstan.
The withdrawal from Central Asian states is interesting in the context of border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, ISW points out. Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards exchanged fire in three separate incidents on September 14, killing at least two people. The escalation of force between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (both of which are members of the Russian-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization, CSTO) comes at the same time as Azerbaijan’s renewed aggression against CSTO member Armenia. At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russia withdrew its 800 fighters from Armenia to replenish its losses on the Ukrainian front.