Today, Russian State Duma changed the penal code to increase penalties for conscripts dodging draft, put in penalties for willingly surrendering to the enemy and reviving Soviet-era penalties against “marauding” (while also adding what would count as extenuating circumstances, which includes participating in the armed conflicts). And there are also supposed to be referenda on joining the Russian Federation in separatist-controlled parts of Donesk and Luhansk oblasti (the self-proclaimed People’s Republics), as well as the Ukrainian territories Russia occupied since the start of the war. The logic seems to be that, if Ukraine continues its advance, they would be attacking Russian territories, which would justify putting the country on war footing and partial mobilization. (As many people, including some pro-war commentators, have pointed out, the Russian Federation simply doesn’t have the infrastructure and the personal for the full-scale, World War II style national mobilization – then again, I can’t entirely rule out the Russian government trying it anyway).
The whole thing is flimsy as hell – but again, so is a lot of the spin coming out of Russian state media.
Just yesterday, a pro-war commentator linked to an article from Izvestiya, a major state-affiliated daily newspaper. It was posted earlier that day, and it stated, basically, that Western powers have been pushing Ukraine to negotiate with Russia, because Ukrainian army hasn’t been performing as well as expected.
The piece quotes Speaker of the State Duma Vicheslav Volodin as saying that “during the course of the counterattack, Ukrainian armed forces didn’t meet Washington’s and Brussels’ expectations.”
“Zelenskyy promised victory,” Volodin was further quoted as saying. “The results disappointed the Western sponsors. They understood that Zelenskyy won’t bring victory. And they don’t want to take responsibility for the defeat.”
The rest of the article not only lets these comments go unchallenged, but includes this paragraph a bit further down.
In the end of August, [Ukrainian Armed Forces] attempted to launch a counterattack in multiple directions. But, as noted by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the enemy suffered massive casualties, and the attacks are being successfully repelled. On September 17, American newspaper New York Times quoted a Ukrainian soldier as saying that UAF are suffering massive casualties in the military engagements in Donbas.
Now, the last bit is true, insofar that Ukrainian casualties have been high throughout the war, but everything before that…
I was reminded of a scene from Act 2 of The Dragon, a play by Soviet playwright Yevgeniy Schwartz. For those who aren’t familiar with the play, it features a wandering night named Lancelot (a “distant relation” of the Arthurian knight) trying to free a town from the eponymous dragon. As the fight (which takes place off-stage for the obvious budgetary reasons), the Dragon’s minion tries to spin the battle positively, in the face of the mounting evidence to the contrary.
Here is the relevant part in its entirety:
Heinrich. This is the communiqué from the town council. The battle is drawing close to completion. The adversary had lost his sword. His spear is broken. Flying carpet is infested with moths, who are destroying the enemy air power at an astonishing rate. Having lost communication with his ground bases, the challenger is not able to procure mothballs and is therefore reduced to hunting the moths by clapping his hands, which robs him of necessary maneuverability. Sir dragon has not wiped the enemy out only due to his innate love of war. He has not satisfied his thirst for heroic feats yet, nor has he sufficiently admired his own military prowess.
1st Townsman. Now I understand.
Boy. Look, mommy, look, honestly, someone is kicking his neck.
1st Townsman. He has three necks, boy.
Boy. You see, you see, now someone is riding his three necks.
1st Townsman. This must be an optical illusion.
Boy. That’s what I’m saying. I have been in fights myself, I know when somebody is getting clobbered. Ow! What’s that?
1st Townsman. Take the kid away from here.
2nd Townsman. My eyes, I don’t believe my own eyes! Is there an optometrist in the house?
1st Townsman. It is going to fall right here. I can’t stand it! Get away! Let me see it!..
Dragon’s head comes crashing down onto the square.
Burgomaster. Communiqué! My kingdom for a communiqué!
Heinrich. This is the communiqué from the town council. Lancelot is now powerless, he had lost everything and had been partially taken prisoner.
Boy. How is it – partially?
Heinrich. Just like that. It’s classified. Other parts of him continue to offer uncoordinated resistance. Incidentally, sir dragon had placed one of his heads on the disabled list. It is listed as day-to-day.
Boy. I still don’t get it.
1st Townsman. What’s there to get? Ever lost a tooth?
1st Townsman. See, and you’re still alive.
Boy. But I never lost a head.
1st Townsman. Same thing!
Heinrich. Review of the current events. The topic today: why two is in fact better than three. Two heads are attached to two necks. That gives us four, right? And attached they are unimpeachably…
Dragon’s second head comes crashing down onto the square.
We interrupt this review due to technical difficulties. Here is a communiqué. The military campaign is proceeding according to the plans developed by sir dragon.
Boy. That’s it?
Heinrich. That’s it for the moment.
So yeah. One of Russia’s biggest newspapers wanted the readers to believe that the Dragon has not lost his head and everything is going according to plan. And, reading it, I was just appalled by how blatantly untrue this is. Even pundits on state television channels acknowledged that Russian army is facing “difficult times,” but this…
To paraphrase the pro-war commentator who shared this link, this answers the question of just how much bullshit the Russian government expects the Russian people to swallow.
The question I get asked, a lot, is whether Russian people actually believe anything they are being asked to swallow and, honestly, I don’t know. I feel like a lot of people have taken the “out of sight, out of mind” view of war. The sentiment I’ve seen floating around is that they can’t do anything about the war, or the sanctions anyway, so there’s no use thinking about it too much. And the broad consensus seems to be that the reason Putin has been avoiding announcing full mobilization (other than the practical ones) is that the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach wouldn’t work when people will be drafted all over the place.
Because here is the thing – the reason why World War II mobilization worked, for the most part, was that there was a direct threat to the Soviet Union. Putin tried to evoke some of that, describing the “special operation” as “denazification” of Ukraine. But, for all the patriotic displays, it wasn’t something that the Russian society enthusiastically embraced – and I don’t think the referenda are going to change that.
But even as Ukrainian army advances and Russia continues to face manpower and logistics issues, media outlets are going to insist that everything is going according to Sir Dragoputin’s plan.