When Autocrats Get Desperate

Autocrats facing defeat have all kinds of counterproductive, dangerous ideas.

Vladimir Putin’s latest actions certainly have the whiff of desperation. Putin has been deeply involved in operational decisions since the spring, and now he’s boring even more deeply into details that he should be leaving to his commanders. The rushed referendums in occupied zones designed to provide the thinnest of fig leaves over naked annexation are ridiculous theatrics designed to make deter attacks on “Russian soil.” And, of course, his decision to hastily conscript 300,000 civilians into the Russian army has backfired, with draftees fleeing the country, and more critical voices raised against him, putting the social contract between the tyrant and his subjects, particularly the elites, at risk.

But the draft is even worse than it looks. The news coverage, predictably, has focused on the dramatic elements happening right now, such as young men fleeing to Finland and Georgia, or the boldness of protesters in the face of fatal “accidents.” Most of the coverage missing an even bigger story, how conscription will hurt, not help, the Russian war effort. The draft will dig an even deeper hole for the Russian army, and Putin personally.

Let’s say that every one of the 300,000 conscripts shows up for duty. That’s 300,000 troops that the already strained logistics of the Russian army has to equip, feed, and clothe. Certainly, you can cut some corners such as asking 1-day wonders to bring their own sleeping bags and improvised bandages. But you can’t let an army starve, just as you can’t fail to equip them with weapons and ammunition. Otherwise, you’ve just added to the list of responsibilities for the barely-functioning military that exists taking care of the equivalent of 300,000 prisoners. Alternately, you could just let them go to maraud Ukraine, or flee back to Russian on foot. Regardless, Russia’s logistical problems remain, especially in the south, with long supply lines stretched across the Kerch Straits, or stretching from Russia through Luhansk, Donetsk, and beyond. (And Russian logistics are even more fragile because of its dependence on rail.)

Even if the draftees stay and try to fight, the lack of training makes them worse than useless. Shoveling untrained conscripts into battle only makes a confused, unmanageable situation even more confused and unmanageable. And who will lead them? While the news of Russian officer casualties has focused on the generals, the even more painful losses have been happening at the lower levels of command. Someone needs to lead troops into harm’s way, execute maneuvers, hold ground against counterattacks, coordinate with other parts of combined arms operations (armor, artillery, air), and perform the other critical functions of battlefield leadership. Who will fill be these non-coms and officers? Certainly not the conscripts themselves. If they’re added as replacements in existing units, instead of forming new units, the impact will be less, but they will still add dead weight to a military organization already under enormous stresses.

It takes time to become an effective soldier. Basic training for the US army takes 10 weeks — and that’s just the basics. Learning technical skills, or becoming an officer, takes even more time. Further weeks, months or even years of training are required to become more than just a moderately effective soldier with a gun. Russian needs go beyond the poor bloody infantry, to exactly the kind of systems (tanks, APCs, artillery, electronic warfare, etc. etc.) that require technical skill. And, of course, the Russian army needs to replenish its leaders, a process that takes many, many times longer than teaching someone how to fire an anti-tank weapon.

So why is Putin doing something as loony as mass conscription? There is a good chance that he is succumbing to an autocrat’s derangements arising from a strange brew of overconfidence and desperation. If you believe yourself to be smarter than anyone, including the military experts, or you intrinsically don’t trust them, then you take increasing control over operations. (That’s a pattern epitomized by Hitler’s increasing involvement in Wehrmacht operations.) You start taking even “tougher” measures, like Stalin’s famous “Not one step back” dictum, because few dare tell you how counterproductive they might be. You take steps to plug manpower gaps, no matter how ineffective these measures may be, such as Hitler’s order to create the Volkssturm units out of invalids, the elderly, and children. You press rifles and Panzerfausts into their hands and tell them that the Fatherland or Motherland depends on their sacrifice.

Despite these desperate measures, or in part because of them (including the costly “wonder weapons” programs), Nazi Germany fell. Russia isn’t facing the threat of total war, but Putin’s mouthpiece, Dmitry Medvedev, is talking as if the nation were facing an existential threat. Russia certainly isn’t, but Putin is. Where that sense of personal peril leads, as the Russian invasion continues to unravel, is still a frightening unknown.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Democratic Theory, Political Theory, , , , , , , , , , , ,
About Kingdaddy
Kingdaddy is returning to political blogging after a long hiatus. For several years, he wrote about national security affairs at his blog, Arms and Influence, under the same pseudonym. He currently lives in Colorado, where he is still awestruck at all the natural beauty here. He has a Ph.D in political science that is oddly useful in his day job.


  1. Lousbury says:

    Frankly focused on the conscription as loony decision does not make sense. It’s fairly evident Putin was backed into executing that and it would seem by the public evidence, as a step to respond ot the military faction of the Kremlin elites and the domestic fascist wing. It’s not really a good example.

    The nuclear threats and now the apparent strikes on Nordstream in Danish territorial waters near Baltic pipe, those are rather more. While of course one can not know for certainty re the Nordstream it was Russian, the dirty logic of FSB as the Moscow Chechen bombings rather strongly suggest. Of course the Anti Americans immediately blither on about CIA or American corporate action, which makes no sense of course, so an added win. Action taken in Danish territorial waters – in NATO waters – near Baltic pipe is message and a dangerous, dangerous act.

  2. Lost in Quebec says:

    Desperate times can cause democracies to take the same actions.

    During WWI, the British War cabinet debated calling up all males up to the age of 50. They were also going to conscript Irish males. Irish were no more willing than Ukranians today.

    This debate took place in the spring of 1918 when German forces were threatening to encircle the British plus capture Paris. Less than 8 months later, the Germans surrendered.

  3. SC_Birdflyte says:

    The $ 64,000 question is: When will his generals get so concerned about what the war is doing to their army that they decide to give him the Krushchev treatment – or worse?

  4. gVOR08 says:

    You start taking even “tougher” measures, like Stalin’s famous “Not one step back” dictum, because few dare tell you how counterproductive they might be.

    I have seen a claim that his generals want to withdraw from their exposed position in Kherson but Putin won’t allow it. Not repeating, but rhyming pretty good.

  5. Kingdaddy says:

    @Lousbury: Conscription per se is not inherently loony. It’s how he did it that’s counterproductive. Short term, it invited desertions and protests. Middle term, it hurts more than it helps, militarily. Long term, it puts the war, and Putin’s position, at greater risk.

  6. gVOR08 says:

    I’m not sure there’s more reasoning behind this than the common – Putin had to do something and this call up is something.

  7. Sleeping Dog says:


    The difference between Putin today and Khrushchev then is that the old SU had a governing council, the Politburo that had the power to remove the leader through a ‘constitutional’ process. That no longer exists, Russia today is more like Germany under Hitler, a far more centralized authoritarian state under one man, Putin, though not quite a totalitarian system. Getting rid of Putin will be a pure coup, think any number of South American leaders that were quietly killed in the basements of the palace.

  8. JohnSF says:

    To be fair-ish to Putin and the Russian government, it look like the original plan was to activate and recall reservists who’ve already had military training, rather than outright mass conscription.

    Problem was, the plan was then implemented by the Russian bureaucracy with all their famous efficiency and attention to detail.
    Oh dear.

    So they are scooping up non-served military eligibles, new “legal” conscripts who had evaded/been excused, etc, and just plain press-ganging
    And mixing them all up regardless of training status, and shipping them more or less randomly to training establishments, rear formations in Russia, and the “expeditionary forces” in Ukraine.

    Also, it seems quite a few reservist who were supposed to have served and been trained in the past, never actually went to the barracks, or if so only briefly.
    They bribed officials in the commanders to let them bugger off, and said commanders then pocketed the bribe, the pay, and other consumables.

    As lots of people have already noted, this is more to do with Putin satisfying the demands of the frustrated militant nationalist elements within his siloviki support coalition than immediate military utility.

  9. Kathy says:

    Mad Vlad seems to be going for disingenuous on a massive scale. Like proclaiming the call up of 300,000 conscripts will mean 300,000 fully fit, ready to fight troops. As Kingdaddy notes, this cannot possibly happen.

    Or take the referenda. Even if they were 100% legitimate, and the people living there voted sincerely to favor becoming part of Russia, the effect he is expected to accomplish is absurd.

    Expectations are he’ll annex the Ukrainian territories in question (even parts not under Russian control, one assumes), and claim any attack on them is an attack on Russia, to which he can respond in any way he wants, including by setting off nukes if his whims drive him there.

    This overlooks two things:

    1) Russia invaded Ukraine without provocation. This means Russia is the aggressor, and morally Ukraine can take any measures in self defense, including attacks on Russian territory. the only reason we haven’t seen much of that, is that Ukraine lacks the means. If they had long range bombers and missiles, they’d be pounding the crap out of Russia’s supply lines into their lands, and maybe military bases as needed. Russia, you may note, has been doing just that in addition to bombing civilian targets all over Ukraine.

    2) If Mad Vlad can invade a nation unprovoked and then carry out a referendum in occupied lands, then Ukraine can do the same, with sufficient provocation BTW, and set up referenda of their own. Hell, they can take bits of Belarus if they want, too, and they’d have better justification (like Belarus allowed Russian troops to launch attacks on Ukraine form their territory).

    Useful idiots must be a nice thing to have. But can your strategy rely on them?

  10. DK says:


    Frankly focused on the conscription as loony decision does not make sense. It’s fairly evident Putin was backed into executing that and it would seem by the public evidence, as a step to respond ot the military faction of the Kremlin elites and the domestic fascist wing. It’s not really a good example.

    I don’t understand this. It’s like saying a guy that murders his neighbor then, chased by cops, runs into a burning building to try to escape isn’t making a loony decision: he was forced to risk burning up because of the firemen.

    Yeah, the draft is a loony decision. Because his attempt to decapitate Kyiv was a loony decision. All of this is Putin’s fault, because he’s a paranoic, a pathological liar, a thug, a murderer, and a narcissistic, neurotic nutjob who has surrounded himself with liars and goons.

    Every decision he can make besides packing up and going home is loony: they double down on the original dumb decision. Because Vladimir Putin is a shitty and selfish person, a shitty and selfish decision-maker, and a shitty and selfish leader. Aside from a decent job singing “Blueberry Hill” karaoke, he sucks.

    His death will be the first I ever publicly and open celebrate. May it come swiftly.

  11. JohnSF says:

    I think Lounsbury is making the same argument I’ve made.
    Putin is indeed, a massive a—hole; and an incompetent one at that.
    But the failure of this measure in military terms, which was predictable, does not address why Putin made it in the first place.

    He, and the “realist” faction in his siloviki based support coalition, have been under pressure from the hardline nationalist/militarist types calling for “all out war”, “sterner measures”.

    This buys them off, may prevent them taking overt measures to undermine the “realists”, and sets then up for a possible tactical defeat when the measures fail to deliver.

    Putin is always maneuvering among the shark shoal of his support: he is constrained by petty legalities, but neither does he control a apparatus like Stalin, Hitler or Xi.
    More like a monarch: you may be able to chop any single aristocrat’s head off, but you can’t decapitate the lot.
    If a plurality of the state elite turn on him, he’s done.

  12. Just nutha says:

    @DK: There’s a YouTube of Putin singing ‘Blueberry Hill’? How come no one told me?

  13. JohnSF says:

    Wretched edit fail,
    above should read
    “Putin is always maneuvering among the shark shoal of his support: he is NOT constrained by petty legalities, but neither does he as absolutely control an apparatus as Stalin, Hitler or Xi.”