President Vladimir V. Putin says Russia is fighting for its very existence in Ukraine, taking on a country that is conspiring with the West to destroy Russia. In high-octane talk shows on Russian state television, the war is presented as a continuation of the Soviet Union’s fight for survival against Nazi Germany.
But if the battle is existential, the Kremlin’s actions do not bear that out. Six months into the biggest land war in Europe since World War II, Russia continues to wage it with a military that is essentially at peacetime strength — even as the invasion’s loudest cheerleaders increasingly clamor for Mr. Putin to declare a draft and put his nation on a war footing.
The debate over a draft has grown more urgent in recent weeks as Ukraine has gained momentum on the southern front and the killing of an ultranationalist commentator in a car bombing outside Moscow has magnified the voices of Russia’s most radical hawks. To those hawks, the Kremlin — which continues to refer to the war as a “special military operation” and insists it is going “according to plan” — is underestimating the enemy and lulling Russian society into a false sense of security.
Mr. Putin, by all accounts, is trying to avoid declaring a draft, intent on maintaining a sense of normalcy in Russian cities to prevent any public backlash. On Tuesday, his spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, declared in a regular conference call with reporters that the “special military operation” was continuing “methodically” and “in accordance with the plans.”
“All its goals will be achieved,” he said.
That need to preserve a sense of domestic stability reflects the limits of Mr. Putin’s power and, some analysts say, the superficial nature of support for the war in Russia. It has also caused tensions among his supporters to break into the open, with some accusing the Kremlin of keeping much-needed reinforcements from reaching the battlefield in order to preserve the oblivious contentment of the urban middle class.
In a phone interview, one of the invasion’s most vocal proponents, the pro-Putin lawmaker and former separatist leader Aleksandr Borodai, said it was a “glaring injustice” that life in Moscow went on “just as it did before the beginning of the special military operation.”
“They’re losing their health, sometimes dying,” he said of Russia’s forces. “But the whole rest of the country, in whose interests the people at the front are fighting, is living an absolutely relaxed life and many people think that nothing is happening at all.”
While the Kremlin released an order last week to increase the target size of the military by 137,000, analysts said it appeared that Mr. Putin was still intent on adding to the ranks by aggressive recruitment rather than by large-scale conscription. Russian men ages 18 to 27 are required to serve in the military for a year, but those conscripts are not being sent to Ukraine, officials insist.
Mr. Borodai, who leads an organization of pro-Russian volunteer fighters and helped lead the Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, said he favored a draft that would add 300,000 to 500,000 soldiers to the battlefield. Otherwise, he said, Russian units would continue to be outnumbered against a Ukrainian Army whose ranks have been boosted by conscription, with Ukrainian men of military age barred from leaving the country.
The State of the War
- A New Counteroffensive: Ukraine has long vowed a major push in the southern region of Kherson to retake territory seized by Russia. It may have begun.
- Nuclear Plant Standoff: After renewed shelling intensified fears about a nuclear accident at the Zaporizhzhia power plant, U.N. inspectors arrived in Ukraine for a high-stakes visit to the Russian-controlled station.
- Russia’s Military Expansion: President Vladimir V. Putin ordered a sharp increase in the size of Russia’s armed forces, a sign that he expects a prolonged war — an outcome Ukraine has incentive to avoid.
- ‘MacGyvered’ Weapons: Ukrainian forces have battled Russia by using arms and equipment in unexpected ways and jury-rigging some on the fly.
“The situation is such that we are often going on the offensive when there are fewer of us and more of the enemy,” he said. “This is causing the war to drag out. The number of victims is rising on both sides.”
Western officials are increasingly puzzled by Mr. Putin’s decision to avoid mass conscription. American and British military officials have estimated that Russia has suffered up to 80,000 casualties in Ukraine, including dead and wounded, since Mr. Putin ordered the invasion in February. American officials have repeatedly said they believe the extent of Russia’s losses is such that Moscow cannot achieve its strategic goal of taking over more of Ukraine without requiring a draft.
A pro-Kremlin political analyst, Sergei Markov, said Mr. Putin’s political strategy was simple: “Let people live their lives.”
“One of Putin’s main philosophical paradigms from the very beginning, when he first came to power, has been: Leave the people alone,” Mr. Markov said in a phone interview. “Ideally, they must not notice this special military operation almost at all. It shouldn’t affect their lives in any way.”
Indeed, when Mr. Putin launched the invasion, it seemed that he had violated his two-decade, unspoken contract with Russians that traded political passivity on their part for rising living standards. But Western sanctions have failed to bring down the Russian economy; a crackdown on the opposition and the news media has silenced dissent; and while thousands of middle-class Russians fled the country — in part because they feared conscription — many more stayed behind and sought to preserve the status quo.
Support for the war is “silent, passive,” said Denis Volkov, the director of the Levada Center, an independent pollster in Moscow. “I think that the authorities understand the mood and this attitude very well.”
Russians are paying less and less attention to the war, he said. When Levada asked Russians in March to name the recent events that they most remembered, 75 percent mentioned the war in Ukraine; asked the same question in July, 32 percent did.
The blasé attitude is infuriating the invasion’s most ardent supporters, including pro-war bloggers with hundreds of thousands of followers on the social messaging app Telegram.
One ridiculed the Russians who are afraid of conscription as “owners of electric scooters and lovers of raspberry frappés.” Another, Dmitri Steshin, described his horror when returning to Moscow from Ukraine at seeing the highways jammed with “fat little vacationers” under a government whose strategy was “pretending that everything is fine.”
“They gnawed on hot dogs at gas stations, drank horrible coffee, fed their expensive cars,” he wrote. “This will not end well.”
The calls for an escalation of the war grew last week after the killing of Daria Dugina, a pro-war commentator. The Russian government said Ukrainian intelligence had directed her assassination — a claim Ukraine has denied. Her father, the ultranationalist Aleksandr Dugin, said on state television that the country needed to “wake up” and “unite” so that her “sacrifice will not be in vain.”
The killing, coming days after an audacious Ukrainian attack on a Russian base in Crimea, infuriated hard-right nationalists in Russia and led Ms. Dugina’s supporters to call for revenge. But there was no significant escalation in the fighting by Russia.
Mr. Borodai, a former leader of the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, insisted that even without a draft, Russia would continue pummeling Ukrainian forces until their losses become “psychologically and physically unbearable.”
While the Kremlin is not conscripting Russians to fight in Ukraine, its proxy forces in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory are pressing local residents into service. It is also conducting a “stealth mobilization” that uses aggressive recruitment tactics, financial incentives and mercenaries to fill personnel shortfalls.
Still, analysts, predict those measures will prove insufficient.
“Russia is doing everything it can to avoid mobilizing,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “If the conflict continues at this level or expands, eventually, they’re going to run out of options.”
Julian E. Barnes and Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.