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Russia’s Mobilization and China’s Options

Oct 03, 2022
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

By ordering a partial military mobilization, Russia intends to boost its chances of winning the war against Ukraine and reinforce its strategic stance. Long-term war will favor Russia, while the West will ultimately lose patience. Following the recruitment order, anti-mobilization rallies occurred in more than 30 Russian cities, including St. Petersburg, Moscow and Makhachkala, which have become international media hot spots. The Russian government’s order will have the following influences:

As the military grows, Russia’s national defense spending will increase. According to the draft federal budget report Russia published in September, Russian defense spending will increase year-on-year by 14.9, 14.5 and 15.3 percent, respectively, from 2022 to 2024. Spending for culture, education and environmental protection will hardly increase at all. But more will be needed to support additional troops.

Although the shock to the energy sector is less severe, under the dual pressures of increased defense spending and Western sanctions, it will become increasingly difficult for the energy sector to meet the need. Russia’s GDP has already shrunk by about 5 percent from 2021, and the shrinkage accelerated each passing month since the start of the war.

As the cost of war hovers at a high level, the shock will be transmitted first to the Russian public’s social welfare. According to data released by the Russian Federal Statistics Bureau on Sept. 7, as of the second quarter of this year 14.3 million Russians were living below the poverty line — 9.9 percent of the country’s population. Aggregate social expenditures during the same period were about $68 billion (more than 4 trillion rubles). Without a decent increase in revenues, it will be difficult for the Russian government to maintain the current level of social welfare benefits.

Overestimation of the ruble’s value as a result of sanctions have created potential currency risks and have exerted a negative influence on the Russian economy. Previously, Russia had cited the ruble’s appreciation as proof of the stability of its macro economy and the failure of Western sanctions; yet import issues have led to sliding profitability for Russian companies and left many on the brink of bankruptcy.

Under pressure from the nosediving economy, the Russian government must opt for pragmatic economic policies. Over the past few months, the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Economic Development and the Russian central bank have been discussing budgeting rules and planning to let the ruble depreciate to reduce economic losses.

The military mobilization indicates that Russian hawks have prevailed, at least temporarily, over the doves. There has been plenty of criticism from the hawks since the Russian military’s abortive onslaught on Kiev. At present, the political elites in Russia’s decision-making circles are generally on the hawks’ side, manipulating the country’s stance on the war. These hawks adhere to an outlook under which Russia should commit to a long-term war against the West — culturally, politically and militarily. The troop call-up means the hawks’ view has become mainstream in decision-making circles; however, if Russia loses the war, the group will be saddled with blame.

The order for partial mobilization has already dealt a blow to social stability, with tens of thousands of Russians fleeing their country. Thanks to visa exemptions for Russian citizens, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, members of the Eurasian Economic Union, have been the most popular destinations. Most Russians have been welcomed by Central Asians, because they include in their number many badly needed professional and technological  workers.

Of course new immigrants from Russia have also encountered problems in the process of integration — for example, driving up real estate and commodity prices, occupying local jobs, weakening Central Asian countries’ de-Russification efforts and solidifying the Russian language’s status in Central Asia. All these are pressing imperatives facing Central Asian nations.

It would be difficult for the recent military order to change the basic trend in the Russia-Ukraine war. Theoretically, the order will give Russia an absolute advantage against Ukraine in manpower and enable it to sustain a long-term war, but Russia will have to suffer tremendous costs.

In addition, the Russian military’s existing organizational structure won’t be able to adapt to the mobilization in the short term, especially because of problems such as a lack of officers with modern warfare experience, soldiers’ low morale, inadequate supplies of weapons and poor logistics. Unless such problems can be addressed in a timely manner, it will be very difficult for Russia to win. Meanwhile, the U.S. and its European allies will take advantage of the opportunity to defeat Russia, mitigate the Russian threat and seek to transform the country.

Finally, Chinese national interests will not be served whether the war in Ukraine escalates or goes long-term. While China and Russia are all-around strategic partners, so are China and Ukraine. Under the China-Ukraine joint declaration on further deepening their strategic partnership — which was signed by their leaders in December 2013 — the two countries reached consensus that they would preserve national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Chinese side promised that under no circumstances would it use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, a non-nuclear state. It guaranteed Ukraine’s security in the event the country were ever to be the target of nuclear weapons or the threat of their use.

Therefore, based on its own interests and international responsibilities, China’s basic position on the Ukraine war is peace — ending the fighting as soon as possible through peace talks.  

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