Vladimir Putin’s lie that the war in Ukraine is a “special military operation” is becoming increasingly “threadbare” to the Russian population, Western officials have said.
The Russian president’s order for partial mobilisation on Thursday, estimated to be for about 300,000 trained personnel like veterans and reservists, has sparked a wave of protests and people fleeing the country.
Western officials said on Friday that the announcement is likely to cause political problems in Moscow, has the potential to dent support for the war across Russian society and contribute to the “very poor morale” among troops.
One official said Russia has “effectively exhausted the pool of willing volunteers” to fight in Ukraine.
“What you might see in the decision to mobilise is the erosion of this fiction of a special military operation, conducted with a limited portion of its force where much of the Russian population is protected from the effects,” they said.
“Although they continue to maintain that fiction, it is perfectly clear from the reaction of the Russian population, some of whom are voting with their feet either by going out on protests or by leaving the country, that the plausibility of this particular lie is looking very, very threadbare.”
They later added there has been no indication Mr Putin will admit the “special military operation” is in fact a war.
“We feel that the dissonance still that this is creating in Russian society is likely set to increase,” the official said.
Mr Putin has repeatedly shied away from mobilisation and Western officials say the decision is unlikely to solve the problems on the battlefield in the short term.
“It does create political problems in Moscow and it should be seen as a sign of weakness, not of strength,” one official said.
The official described 300,000 people as an “immense number”, meaning authorities will struggle to muster this many before they can get them to be effective in Ukraine.
Their military planners also have the problem of deciding between deploying “very low-quality reinforcements soon or a better-trained force later”.
Western intelligence also confirmed that most recruitment efforts are in the regions as opposed to from wealthy urban families in Moscow or St Petersburg.
The move could also have an impact on the morale of Russian soldiers as those whose term in Ukraine is ending soon may think it will be extended on hearing the news of mobilisation, officials said.
“I think morale we’re generally seeing as bad at every level,” he said.
Officials said the Russian domestic response to the Ukrainian advance has prompted criticism of the military high command and more pointed comments against Mr Putin himself.
They said the range of these voices is growing – including local councillors in Moscow and St Peterburg, the nationalist military-linked community, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, state-sanctioned TV pundits and singer Alla Pugacheva.