The biggest problem Vladimir Putin currently faces is that he’s running out of soldiers. The U.S. Defense Department believes that as many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded since the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine less than six months ago.
A general mobilization would allow the Kremlin to recruit from the population at large. Putin would then have significantly more soldiers but a twofold problem. First, he would have to admit that the war is not only taking place in Ukraine’s far eastern provinces to protect Russian speakers. Second, he would suddenly have all the young people (and their parents) against him who are being forced to fight in Ukraine against their will.
There is a big difference between people fighting in war voluntarily (usually for money) and being forced to – on many levels. As said, a forced war effort can lead to resistance among its own people. It also can lower the morale in the army. Furthermore, it makes a significant moral difference (not that Putin would care) whether you voluntarily choose to kill people possibly or whether you are forced to do so.
The moral point is a crucial one for democracies. And it leads to the same problem, the shortage of soldiers, Putin is currently facing (although for a different reason).
Here is why.
In an ideal liberal world, everyone is able to follow their own goals in life. Being forced to fight in an army doesn’t fit with that. Consequently, the number of volunteer armies in democracies is relatively large. For example, Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Greece are the only European Union countries still using conscription.
Obviously, the armies of most democracies can currently be staffed by financial incentives. However, that could change in times of war when more man- and womanpower is needed.
Then the primacy of individual freedom of choice can endanger the very existence of a liberal society. Because national defence involves a system-related failure that can only be repaired through compulsion.
What do I mean by that?
Let’s imagine a simplified war situation. One country is attacked by another. In the event of defeat, the attacked country faces oppression and death.
In the attacked country, every citizen has the freedom to decide whether to fight or not. How will people decide?
From an individual point of view, it is best not to fight, but everyone else fights. This would maximize the individual probability of survival. But if everyone thinks that way, nobody will fight. The country is then overrun, destroyed, and people will be oppressed, tortured and killed. In the end, everyone in the attacked country is worse off, even though everybody had made the optimal decision.
This dilemma occurs in armies themselves. When soldiers try to escape combat. This is why deserting is associated with the greatest possible negative consequences for the respective soldier. Escaping the prospect of dying on the battlefield makes sense individually, but if too many do, it will lead to the army’s collapse. So from a social point of view, this understandable individual behavior must be avoided at all costs. (By the way: In earlier times, this was also prevented by putting soldiers in colourful uniforms. This made it easier to spot deserters on the battlefield.)
Society and politics always have sought ways to find enough people willing to risk their lives. Medals of honour are among the most common. But it is primarily the financial incentive that is being used to handle the dilemma. It is no coincidence that most of the soldiers in Putin’s army come from regions where military service is often the only (financially attractive) employment option.
But in the event of a large-scale war, however, hardly any country could avoid introducing the duty to fight. Neither does Russia. Because the war in Ukraine has become such a large-scale war, Putin may soon be faced with the decision to send those into battle who expressly do not want to.
The fact that he has been reluctant so far gives hope. Not only for those who don’t want to go to war but also for those of us who have not given up hope that Putin will eventually lose his power. His reluctance shows that even dictators aren’t omnipotent, they too need the consent of the people.