In his speech on Wednesday, Vladimir Putin announced that the Kremlin would be mobilising 300,000 military reservists to serve in Ukraine. He insisted that Russia was merely defending itself and its territories – and that the west did not want to see peace in Ukraine. Paradoxically, the response of many Ukrainians to Putin’s speech was relief – and even hope.
For all these months, the Kremlin has wanted Russian people to remain distanced from the military campaign; the state will leave you alone so long as you stay away from politics and demonstrate indifference towards the war. The mobilisation might change this. Some 300,000 more families will start to feel the war personally. The move also confirms that Russia will be unable to defend territories it has occupied without more personnel. The Russian army desperately needs more troops to hold a frontline that stretches for 1,500 miles.
On the day of Putin’s speech, around 1,300 people were detained across Russia for protesting against the call for new military recruits. This was a smaller number compared to the anti-war protests that took place right after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Still, it is not their opinion that matters, but the silent Russian majority who have tolerated or even supported the war playing out on their TV screens.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy recently told a journalist at a Ukrainian newspaper that intelligence suggests the Kremlin has already started mobilising reserve troops. But it will take another month for Russians to join the combat – time that Ukrainians can use to regain as many territories as possible before winter arrives.
Liberating occupied territories isn’t just about saving locals from the atrocities committed by Russian troops. The further the frontline recedes, the safer that towns in central, southern and eastern Ukraine will be. Through a successful counteroffensive, Ukrainian troops have already reclaimed large portions of territory in the Kharkiv region.
The sham referendums that have been abruptly planned in four occupied regions also tell us more about the Kremlin’s predicament. These votes have no influence on the status of these territories, though Russia may be hoping they will help in the annexation of these regions. Polls held in support of the referendums look even more ridiculous. A Ukrainian news service obtained a document showing that in the Kharkiv region, the Kremlin planned to stage a forced referendum for joining the Russian Federation on 7 November, registering 75% support in its favour. The document was dated 24 August; a few weeks later, the territory was liberated by Ukrainian forces.
It’s important to stress that any data supposedly showing support for an occupying power can’t be taken seriously. In the places where Ukrainians are tortured and executed, there is no way to express opinions. The resistance against the occupation itself is a less reported phenomenon, as resistance is extremely dangerous. Nonetheless, it has been taking place in occupied territories.
Kremlin-appointed local leaders are marginal. Local investigative reporters working for the organisation I belong to have been forced to work in exile and can hardly find out who these leaders are, or learn about their dubious histories.
The experience of the occupied Crimea is also a reminder that Russia’s real aim in the occupied territories may be to establish a military base for attacking Ukraine. The annexation of southern Ukrainian regions such as Melitopol, Berdyansk and Kakhovka would boost morale at home in Russia; yet often Russian soldiers are not even able to pronounce the names of the places they occupy. Russia may also have practical reasons for occupation. It could forcibly recruit locals, which would be against the Geneva convention, and use them as cannon fodder in further military campaigns.
Instead of thinking about Putin’s speech, many Ukrainians celebrated the exchange of 215 Ukrainian prisoners of war that took place on the same day. Among them were Azov battalion fighters, members of the the national guard, the head of the Mariupol patrol police, and a nine-months-pregnant paramedic who had spent six months in prison.
Exhausted, thin, and wearing the same clothes they had on when captured in May 2022, many had a chance to call their relatives for the first time in months. “The best soil in the world,” one of the fighters said, kneeling down and kissing the land. Ten foreigners, including five British citizens who were fighting on the Ukrainian side, were brought to Dubai. Five Ukrainian commanders were brought to Turkey under the guarantee of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that they wouldn’t be permitted to return to Ukraine until the end of the war. More than 2000 defenders of Mariupol were imprisoned; many remain in captivity. After the attack on Olenivka prison this summer, where many Ukrainian prisoners of war have been jailed, it’s not clear who is still alive.
These 215 prisoners were released because Ukraine agreed to give back a few recently captured Russian officers, and Viktor Medvedchuk, a friend to Putin and his key man in Ukraine, who had been charged with treason. Some Ukrainians would like to have seen him serve his term in prison, but the majority couldn’t care less what Russia does, so long as it helps to save the lives of its own people. This is the same sentiment that many have felt about other recent Kremlin moves. Regardless of what Putin says, Ukrainians are going their own way, according to their own plan: right now, that plan is to continue a counteroffensive.