Putin’s Male Fragility

Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
September 27, 2022

On September 21, seven months after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, the war finally came home to the Russian people. For seven months, it was mostly Ukrainians who lived with the war that Putin had unleashed. They felt its effects daily, fleeing their homes or dying in them as Russian missiles rained down, killing as many as 30,000 Ukrainian civilians. In the meantime, Russians, especially those living in Moscow and St. Petersburg, could pretend the war existed only on state TV. All summer long, the party didn’t stop. Restaurants were full, as were the parks and clubs and theaters. Sure, there were sanctions, but Russians with the means to do so shopped and traveled and life mostly went on, undisturbed. 

Then on September 21, after the stunning success of two Ukrainian counter-offensives, Vladimir Putin announced what he called a “partial mobilization.” The call to arms, Putin said, would be limited to 300,000 men with military experience—reservists—but it became immediately clear that this was a lie. Ukrainian intelligence said the real number was closer to one million and soon reports emerged on Russian Telegram channels and Russian independent media in exile that echoed that number: apparently, a secret clause in the mobilization order capped the number of men not at 300,000 but 1.2 million. 

As draft notices followed Putin’s announcement, panic descended on a nation that had managed to push the war off to the edge of its consciousness. Men with zero military experience began receiving military summons. The case of a 32-year-old I.T. specialist at Sberbank went viral. A 21-year-old man with autism and schizophrenia, who is unable to speak or care for himself, received a notice as well. Military recruiters began showing up at offices, grabbing white-collar workers from their jobs and dragging them off to military recruitment posts. Before long, Russian business had to appeal to the Kremlin to stop: the Russian army was taking so many of their employees that they could barely maintain their operations. 

Dozens of chefs from Moscow’s Michelin-starred restaurants were called up over the weekend. (The army, after all, needs to eat.) Doctors at fancy private clinics in Moscow got summoned as well, and doctors at government hospitals were getting snatched right from the hospital floor. (The army, after all, needs to heal its wounded.) None had military experience.

Others reported the opposite. One friend told me her uncle, a retired artillery officer, was called up to appear at a recruitment post and “clarify his condition.” Her uncle is 76.

Many, many others did not wait for the draft notices to arrive. Within 24 hours of Putin’s declaration, massive traffic jams had formed at all the major land border crossings out of Russia. People, mostly young men, were waiting hours—and as of this writing, several days—to get out, to Georgia, to Finland, Kazakhstan, to Mongolia. By Monday morning, the traffic jam at the Georgian border crossing, stretching nearly 20 miles, could be seen from space. People began abandoning their cars and crossing into Georgia on foot or on scooters. By Tuesday morning, the F.S.B. was sending military equipment to intercept them and the army set up a recruitment post on the border, handing out notices to the men who tried to cross. 

Others flew. Airline tickets, already harder to come by as Europe closed its airspace to Russian planes, first ballooned in price then disappeared altogether. Flights to Turkey that had once cost a few hundred dollars were now oversold at $10,000 a pop. All weekend, planes taking off for Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Israel, the Gulf—anywhere Russians could fly without a visa—were filled with Russian men, desperate to flee their own military. Soon, there were reports of the F.S.B. turning men around at the border and not allowing them to board their flights after the military provided the border patrol with draft lists.

But those were avenues for people with the means to flee. The poor, who did not have cars or enough money for a flight and a life somewhere else, hid at home or changed addresses. Still others resorted to more desperate measures: torching military recruitment posts and breaking their own limbs

“Let Our Children Live”

For all the polls that had shown two-thirds or three-quarter of Russians supporting this war, the events of the last week depict a different story. Russians were clearly happy to cheer for the invasion of Ukraine—or to tell a pollster as much—when they were told it would be easy and, more importantly, when nothing would be required of them. But when the war came to them, when they were asked to do the fighting themselves or to send their loved ones into the trenches, the veneer of patriotism vanished overnight. 

Protests broke out not just in the usual places, like Moscow and St. Petersburg, but in far more docile and loyal regions. All week, all over the predominantly Muslim region of Dagestan, protesters, especially women, have been clashing with police and military recruiters. Many of them are mothers, facing down local bureaucrats, asking if they even understand why they are sending their sons to war. In largely Muslim Kabardino-Balkaria, mothers confronted officials and police. One woman flew into such a rage that she tore off her headscarf and screamed, “I’d like to see how you’d feel if your child were [fighting] there!” In Yakutia, mothers surrounded police officers and danced around them like a sinister maypole, chanting, “Let our children live!” 

These republics, ethnic enclaves whose populations are often subject to grotesque racism at the hands of the Slavic Russian majority, have sent a disproportionate number of soldiers to the war in Ukraine. They have done most of the fighting and dying for Putin’s pan-Slavic vision and, it seems, they are about done doing so. Earlier in the war, many of the men from the Muslim North Caucasus or Buryatia, where people descend from a Mongolic indigenous tribe, joined the war volunatrily, signing up for military contracts that brought them far more money than any local job could. But when it became clear that the “partial mobilization” fell most heavily on these so-called ethnic republics while leaving the wealthy urban centers largely alone (Moscow’s official quota was only 16,000, while its population is well over 15 million) the rage boiled over. The intra-Slavic war in Ukraine, it seemed, had also become a campaign of ethnic cleansing inside Russia.

The Tampons

The men who did not flee, who ended up being pulled into the dragnet of the draft quickly revealed the wisdom of everyone who had. Some recruits were told they would get two weeks of training before being sent to face a highly motivated Ukrainian army equipped with HIMARS and other Western equipment. But that wasn’t always the case. A man who had been forced to join a tank division told human rights advocates that he and his fellow service members were being sent into battle with exactly zero preparation. As if to prove the point, on Tuesday, the Ukrainian military posted a video of a 45-year-old Russian soldier taken prisoner. He said he had been drafted in Moscow on September 21, 2022—the day of Putin’s mobilization announcement. 

Recruits were given rusty rifles and taken to military barracks that didn’t have beds or toilets. Others, made out of damaged wood, looked like they had been put together during a different century. These new soldiers seemed to be the lucky ones. Videos circulating on social media showed draftees sleeping on benches; others warmed themselves by campfires in an open field. 

One video showed a female officer advising recruits what they needed to bring from home: sleeping bags, hydrogen peroxide, tourniquets (“I don’t have enough tourniquets for all of you!”), and menstrual pads and tampons. “You know why tampons?” she asks the dazed men around her. “You get a bullet wound, you put a tampon in there, it expands and presses up against its walls. Men, I know this from Chechnya.”

This meant only one thing: untrained and ill-equipped, these men were being sent to Ukraine as cannon fodder, nothing more. And everyone in Russia knew it. Perhaps that was why the men who did end up going off to their fates after receiving draft notices got so drunk they could barely walk

Putin had wanted to draft 300,000 men, but, according to the F.S.B., more than 260,000 Russian men had fled Russia by Sunday night, just four days after the announcement of “partial mobilization.” According to the governments of Finland, Kazakhstan, and Georgia alone, some 200,000 Russian citizens have crossed into their countries. That doesn’t include the tens of thousands of others that have fled to places like Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Israel. 

It is obvious now why Putin had avoided doing this for so long. Keeping the war as a faraway and limited adventure made it possible for Russians to support both the war and him. As long as Russians didn’t have to face the reality of the war, of what it meant to fight it and of how weak, disorganized, and corrupt their military actually was, they could remain passive, a posture they had been trained into by 22 years of Putin’s reign. But Putin made mistake after mistake, first in launching the war and in counting out both the Ukrainian military and its Western supporters. As the Ukrainian army took back its territory with alarming speed, he had an impossible choice to make: lose the war or upset the political balance at home. Now it looks like he may well do both.