‘Party of War’: How Russians Are Reacting to Putin’s Conscription Gamble

Real-time data from Russian social media platforms and related illicit communities is vital to understanding the domestic public response to Putin’s military mobilization declaration—a significant risk for Russia’s leader.

Default Author Image
September 23, 2022

The bounds of Putin’s conscription order

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a “partial mobilization” of Russia’s military reserves this week; it is Russia’s first general mobilization since World War II. While Putin’s order is officially “partial” in nature—only concerning men who have received military training—it remains unclear just how many men Russian authorities are actually looking (and able) to draft. 

A close reading of the presidential decree suggests that the mobilization is open-ended and can be either ramped up or reduced at any point, depending on the reading of the risks that it creates. Initial reports suggest that the pool of people whom the authorities consider mobilizing is significantly wider than the 300,000 men with recent military training suggested by Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. 

On September 22, reports started appearing that the Russian authorities are drafting men previously thought as exempt, such as IT workers and men supporting families with children. The authorities also reportedly drafted Russian citizens arrested at protests against mobilization. Anecdotal evidence, such as reports from poorer and ethnically mixed regions shared on social media suggested that similarly to the previous stages of the war, the residents of these regions may be affected disproportionately by the draft. While there is no hard evidence supporting this claim so far, some Russian social media users expressed hope that these regions, or specifically ethnic minorities, would be more affected.

Shock and awe, domestically

Initial responses to the mobilization among the general population reflected shock and panic. As of September 22, the Russian authorities have arrested more than 1,300 people across the country at protests against mobilization. The human rights organization “Vesna” announced country-wide protests against the decision. Analysts are also aware of spontaneous protests in several Russian regions, including roadblocks in the southern region of Dagestan and an anti-mobilization protest in the strictly policed Chechnya where no comparable action has taken place for more than a decade. 

Social media reaction

Russian social media users have been actively discussing mobilization; Alexandra Arkhipova, an anthropologist, counted more than 160,000 posts on social media platforms before mobilization even began in practice, around 20-30 percent of which were negative, in spite of the risks of prosecution that such posting entails in Russia. Russian citizens have been posting photos and videos of angry verbal exchanges with recruitment officers, as well as queues of vehicles near border crossings and chaotic scenes from before and after draftees were taken away in buses or aircraft.

Timeline of social media users sharing a viral video of an IT worker of the state-owned Sber bank, who unexpectedly received a draft notice on September 22. (Image: Flashpoint)

The radical opposition movement Rospartizan encouraged its followers on Telegram to ramp up an arson campaign against military enlistment offices, which started in the spring. The movement posted videos of attacks on offices; at least nine have taken place since September 21. 

Also, on September 22, a database allegedly containing the list of the first 300,000 people to get draft notices was shared on the top-tier Russian-language XSS forum. A cursory analysis of the list revealed that the list contains personal information of close to 300,000 men, mostly between the ages of 24 and 35 years, with addresses in various Russian regions. However, the geographic distribution of alleged would-be draftees is skewed heavily towards St. Petersburg, and to a lesser extent, Moscow, which would contradict reports of heavy mobilization in Russia’s poorer regions and thus makes the validity of the list doubtful. Russia’s communications authority, Roskomnadzor dismissed the database as a “foreign psyop.”

The source of the alleged draftee list is unknown. But Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also tapped into the feeling of resentment against mobilization: In his video address on September 22, Zelenskyy called on Russian citizens to “protest or surrender.” Telegram channels advertised by Ukrainian accounts are providing practical information on surrendering to Russian troops. Germany’s government announced that it would welcome Russian draft dodgers.

Fanning the flames

At the same time, some pro-Kremlin groups have greeted Putin’s announcement with elation. The pro-Kremlin hacktivist group Killnet and at least two of its associates welcomed mobilization and vowed to ramp up their activities all while targeting the domestic opponents of mobilization. In an apparent break with its previous position of not risking potentially escalatory damage to Western targets, Killnet also announced that it would move into “combat mode” and “take full responsibility” for damages caused. It is unclear whether the group, which has overstated its apparent capabilities several times in the past, will actually run more sophisticated campaigns.

Related reading: Making Sense of Killnet, Russia’s Favorite Hacktivists

Hardline nationalist Telegram channels were also generally satisfied with the mobilization announcement, albeit the “Grey Zone” channel, which is linked to private military companies, had criticized the idea of mobilization just days ago. 

“Grey Zone,” a Telegram channel connected to Russian mercenaries with more than 300,000 subscribers, comes out against mobilization on September 15, arguing that it has no legal basis and it would harm the Russian economy. (Image: Telegram)

Radical pro-war channels, some of which have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, have criticized the Kremlin in the past and demanded either escalation in Ukraine or mobilization. In early September, Yekaterina Vinokurova, a Russian journalist quoted sources in the Kremlin claiming that Russia’s leaders were “irritated” by these channels, as by increasing popular pressure, they can complicate or thwart de-escalatory moves, and impact the Kremlin’s agenda. These communities, for instance, reacted angrily to the recent exchange of prisoners of war between Russia and Ukraine, which included the former defenders of the Azovstal complex in Mariupol whom radicals—and the Russian pro-Kremlin media—had depicted as Nazis. Several users criticized the Kremlin for giving up Azovstal defenders for Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian politician who has a close relationship with Vladimir Putin.

A hardline nationalist Telegram channel with more than 800,000 followers, is calling for “more radical measures”, including mobilization, on September 18, reacting to Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive in the Kharkiv Region. (Image: Telegram)

Conclusions: A close-up of Putin’s gamble

By declaring military mobilization, Vladimir Putin assumed a significant risk. Mobilization is likely to result in mass desertion in the frontlines, a high number of Russian military casualties and increasing unease in Russia. Real-time data from Russian social media platforms and illicit communities is vital to understanding the domestic public response to the war develops in the coming weeks and the risks the Russian government is facing by pressing on with mobilization. 

Simultaneously, by taking the step, Putin also chose to placate the Russian “party of war,” which has been seeking escalation for several weeks. Hardline nationalist social media channels—and increasingly, pro-Kremlin hacktivist collectives—are the voice of this “party,” and they seem to be increasingly boldly challenging the Kremlin to adopt more escalatory positions. Flashpoint will keep closely monitoring this evolving space through our collections. 

Get Flashpoint on your side

Any organization’s security capabilities are only as good as its threat intelligence. Flashpoint’s suite of tools offer you a comprehensive overview of your threat landscape and the ability to proactively address risks and protect your critical data assets. To unlock the power of great threat intelligence, sign up for a demo or get started with a free trial.

Begin your free trial today.