Letter From the Editors

A mere eight months in, Russian society is finally coming to grips with the implications of the conflict in Ukraine. So, for that matter, are the Russian press, government and the president himself. While the official nomenclature remains the same, the specter of conscription has turned the special operation into a real war in the popular imagination. The Public Opinion Foundation found that, when people were asked whether they sensed the public mood as calm or anxious, the numbers flipped in the week following the partial mobilization order, with those describing an “anxious” mood doubling to 69%.

President Putin acknowledged that he had received many negative reports “from citizens about the organization of the draft, the quality of supplies and living conditions,” in a marked change from a month ago, when everything was going according to plan. He ordered the Russian Security Council and Prosecutor General to correct these shortcomings, which included the mobilization of men exempted by age, disability and family circumstances, as well as the deployment of qualified medical personnel as frontline infantrymen.

Meanwhile, Russian men did not wait for the government to learn from its mistakes, and instead continued taking the proactive measure of leaving the country. Izvestia’s Elnar Bainazarov told several of their stories from the Borisoglebsk-Storskog checkpoint on the Norwegian border, the last overland crossing into Europe for Russians with tourist visas. One woman explained that her husband “is of limited fitness, officially not subject to mobilization. But there’s a lot of confusion right now. It’s better he waits on the other side of the border until they figure out the rules.”

Bainazarov stresses that few of these men plan to stay in Norway – the hotels and even cafés are full, and the prices have inflated beyond most Russians’ budgets. “That is why Kirkenes is not the end point for through the roof Russians who find themselves here, but only a transit stop on the way to more affordable Georgia or Serbia.”

Kazakh political analyst Nikita Shatalov describes a similar situation in his native country: “There are about 40,000 to 50,000 left, and this is a number we can handle.” That’s out of about 200,000 draft refugees. In contrast to Europe, however, “Kazakhstan has never been a country that shuts itself off from anyone. We are ready to receive people and support them.”

Republic.ru’s Dmitry Gubin mentions Kazakhstan among a list of Asian and Caucasus nations “that proved to be more Western” than the intolerant Europeans with regard to draft refugees. Overall, he says, “Europe started acting in a purely Russian fashion: impulsively, with abandon, taking no prisoners, without carefully calculating potential outcomes.” Removing Western cultural products from Russia has plunged the country even further into a propaganda silo; oil sanctions “sent gas prices through the roof, making the war not just sustainable for Putin but even profitable.” The week’s OPEC+ decision to cut output promises an even bigger boon.

Thus, with sanctions mitigated and his political monopoly secure, the war in Ukraine seems to be going very well for Putin – all except for the actual fighting part. Who is to blame for that? The president’s candor on the failures of mobilization comes as part of a semi-official policy of opening up discussion of this question. Within government circles below the presidential level, we keep hearing the same answer: the Defense Ministry.

Ramzan Kadyrov let loose first: “Yesterday it was the parade in Izyum; today it’s the Ukrainian flag in Liman. . . . It would all be well and good if it weren’t so bad.” Yevgeny Prigozhin, now openly affiliated with the Wagner Group, responded: “Beautiful, Ramzan, keep it up.” As Meduza’s Andrei Pertsev points out, the two men have an ongoing rhetorical partnership against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Now, the Duma is going so far as to summon Shoigu’s deputies for closed-door hearings à la the US Congressional inquiries into Afghanistan. Could more unscheduled departures be on the way?