The Kremlin’s tactics to enlist more men to war

Illustration by Global Voices

This story is part of Undertones, Global Voices’ Civic Media Observatory‘s newsletter. Subscribe to Undertones.

Welcome back to Undertones, where we analyze media narratives from around the world. This week marks the first year since Moscow’s attempt to mobilize more soldiers to fight in Ukraine. This had spurred panic and mass exodus among Russian men, which in turn caught the authorities off-guard.

Since then, Russian officials have adapted their tactics to enlist more manpower, namely, by using the soft power of narratives and quietly buttressing laws to force more men to go to war. Given the losses of the Russian army, mass mobilization is viewed by some to be the Kremlin’s only solution to have a chance at continuing the war.

Today, our Russian researcher will guide us through the evolving narratives surrounding Russia’s mobilization efforts and what we can expect soon. They will remain anonymous for the sake of safety.

State narratives shift and respond to how people react to the war. Here is a timeline to better visualize these changes. 

After calls to “defend the Motherland,” Russian authorities maintained a low profile when they realized people’s reluctance to go to war. People’s active support for the war was waning. Anecdotally, the graffiti intended to support the invasion with the “Z” symbol started to disappear in our researcher’s hometown after the first mobilization was announced.

Things changed in late Winter this year when posts championing “real men” started popping up on Russian social media. The Defense Ministry, politicians, and pro-state TV hosts touted the notions of patriotism and masculinity. “There were just…so many videos saying that [being a soldier] is a ‘real man’s job’,” our researcher says. The goal was to lure in contractual soldiers with salaries many times higher than the average income in most Russian regions.

How this narrative shows up online

The Ministry of Defense posted a promotional video for contractual military service on Telegram last April.

The video shows a security guard, a fitness trainer, and a taxi driver while the voice-over says: “Is that the kind of defender you dreamed of becoming?”. Their clothes are then swapped for military attire. In the last seconds, the words “You're a man. Be him” appear on the screen.

The video implies that non-military jobs are humiliating for “a real man” and that joining the army will give men a sense of purpose.

Additionally, it plays on a common toxic masculine narrative in Russia that “a man should be violent and brave to fight. Otherwise, he is a coward.”

See the full analysis here.

In April 2023, a new narrative emerged alongside important legislative changes. In a meeting with pro-war Telegram correspondents (called “Z bloggers” by the opposition), Putin stated that “there [was] certainly no need for mobilization at the moment”. Our researcher analyzed this encounter in the database.

Putin’s speech consolidated a narrative attempting to reassure worried citizens that there would be no new calls for mobilization, despite the fact that legislators were negotiating a new digital drafting system at the time.

The Russian parliament voted in favor of extending the eligible age of conscription, prosecuting deserters, and introducing “e-summons,” a digital drafting system linked to the government’s electronic services platform. Many expect a second mobilization call this fall through electronic means, which will be much harder to escape from.

Feminists, political scientists, and exiled journalists have been particularly vocal in warning people about an upcoming mobilization. For example, popular opposition blogger Stalingulag stated, “only an idiot would believe that electronic summons would only apply to conscripts” on Telegram.

Before, a military officer from the conscription office would hand the summoning document in person to the potential draftee where they live or are registered, who was required to sign it on the spot. In other words, it was relatively easy to ignore if they weren’t home.

However, with the e-summons, people are considered draftees from the moment the notification pops up. All legal restrictions are applied immediately – such as not being able to leave the country legally – whether the person has seen the e-summons or not. Whoever is caught trying to avoid going to war might get arrested.    

This electronic drafting method goes hand in hand with a unified database which would allow the state to trace who is eligible for mobilization.

“The government has decided to use this e-government tool to simplify mass military recruitment by making the delivery of electronic summons possible in one click,” our researcher says. “They are trying to close any loophole people were using to avoid mobilization.”

In light of these parliamentary discussions, the Defense Ministry, Putin’s office, and other officials have tried to defuse concerns and rumors about a new mobilization.

How this narrative shows up online

On the same day that the State Duma approved the introduction of electronic draft notices, Putin’s press secretary Dmitriy Peskov denied any “new mobilization”. His words were quoted by most Russian media.

Peskov and other state speakers tried to frame the new legislation as no more than a regular improvement of e-services for the convenience of citizens.

In the reactions below this news article, most commentators expressed doubts about Peskov’s words and asserted that the state would soon force people to go to war again.

See the full analysis of this item here.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive launched later that Spring fueled a narrative on pro-military blogs. Private armies and war bloggers were emboldened to state that “Russia needs more people” in order to win the war.

This narrative was supported by army veterans, pro-war bloggers, informal “military advisers”, and some oligarchs, such as Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary troops. Unlike state authorities, these figures have not downplayed the war’s losses – at least 47,000 soldiers as of June 2023 – and openly feared Russia might lose the war if no more soldiers are enlisted.

When the Ministry of Defense ordered Wagner to sign a contract with the military, Prigozhin staged an armed mutiny on June 24, claiming to defend all soldiers from the “evil” top generals. The coup did not go through. Still, this rebellion shook Russian society and his words appealed to many soldiers and their families. Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash exactly two months after the insurrection.

After the mutiny, some of these war correspondents and influencers continued to openly criticize the military tactics of the Defense Ministry and even Putin himself. That is, until former counterintelligence officer and popular army veteran Igor Strelkov (also known as Igor Girkin) was arrested on July 21 this year on charges of extremism.

“This was a huge sign to everyone involved in this narrative to shut up,” our researcher says. This narrative died off shortly after Strelkov’s arrest.

How this narrative shows up online

Igor Strelkov was a frontrunner in criticizing the Kremlin’s military enrollment tactics. On Telegram, he implied that the frontline’s losses are much worse than what is reported to Putin, whom he calls “Bunker Grandpa,” alluding to his perceived senility and isolationism. He called for mobilization.

Strelkov has been a loud voice among pro-war audiences due to his significant role in Russia's annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. He was briefly the Minister of Defense of the Donetsk People's Republic and was dismissed after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Russian authorities arrested him in July 2023.

See the full analysis of this item here.

What to expect next

This summer signaled a lull in state-driven narratives, but things might change this autumn. 

Both anti-war activists and warmongerers, and many people in between, expect that another call for mobilization might happen this fall, despite Putin’s avoidance of the matter. Today, state representatives continue to publicly deny that any mobilization is planned and are still attempting to recruit enough contractual soldiers. 

If the unified database becomes functional, the new electronic drafting system might herald a new phase of state surveillance that not only targets the opposition, but any citizen called to war.

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