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Amy Knight is the author of Orders To Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement to his country last week that he had authorized a conscription of reservists to fight in Ukraine suggests the Kremlin is in a panic over its military losses there. A former Russian prime minister even says Mr. Putin’s seemingly desperate decision could eventually cost him his presidency.

Adding to the sense of crisis, the Kremlin has also hastily conducted sham referendums on joining the Russian Federation in four occupied regions of Ukraine. Mr. Putin is clearly facing the greatest challenge of his leadership tenure – but is he really in danger of being forced out?

When Mr. Putin launched Russia’s “special military operation” against Ukraine in February, he did not order a general military mobilization in his country. With good reason. He knew that there would be widespread public unrest if Russians were forced to risk their lives fighting for the dubious cause of “liberating” Ukrainian citizens from their “Nazi” rulers in Kyiv.

The Russian force of 190,000 troops that invaded Ukraine consisted mainly of contract soldiers and volunteers, aggressively recruited with generous pay, rather than conscripts. Since then, the Russian military has suffered losses of an estimated 80,000 dead or wounded, including a significant number of generals, and its supplies of weapons and military equipment are being drained.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s army, bolstered by high morale and generously armed by the U.S. and NATO countries, has recently retaken significant amounts of territory (around 9,000 square kilometres) in the Kharkiv region that was seized by Russians in earlier phases of the invasion. Russian forces in the city of Kherson, a crucial Black Sea stronghold, are under threat of encirclement.

No wonder Mr. Putin has now resorted to what he called a “partial mobilization” of 300,000 Russians to serve in Ukraine.

According to Mikhail Kasyanov, Mr. Putin’s first prime minister: “His decision means that even those people who were neutral or supported Mr. Putin, in general, will start reconsidering their attitude because of the fact that they are now obliged to go to a war they were previously [just] watching.” As a result, Mr. Kasyanov predicts, Mr. Putin will eventually be ousted from power, although he “cannot say how long it will take.”

However grim Mr. Putin’s situation, it will have to get a lot worse before this happens. His long-time allies occupy leading posts in the country’s Security Council and control key agencies such as the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the National Guard, which keep the population in line.

These so-called siloviki owe their positions to Mr. Putin and are loyal to him. Having endorsed the President’s decision to invade Ukraine, they share the blame for military failures. If Mr. Putin goes down, they go with him, so they will do everything to protect him.

Although demonstrations against the announced conscription have erupted in 33 Russian cities – with 2,398 arrests as of Sept. 27 – the numbers of protesters are not large in comparison with past years. (More than 14,000 were detained in anti-war protests just after Russia invaded Ukraine.)

It has been widely reported that conscription is focused on Russian regions such as Dagestan, Buryatia and Yakutia – the home of poor, non-Russian ethnic and Indigenous groups, who often don’t have internet access and are less likely to protest than those in prosperous cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The majority of Russians have until now supported the “special operation” in Ukraine, passively at least. As of last month, Mr. Putin’s approval ratings were still over 80 per cent. The Kremlin has shut down all independent media, rigorously censored the internet and thrown critics of the invasion into prison. So the public has been shielded from information about battlefield casualties and military losses.

Also, Russians have a tradition of venerating their leaders, reinforced by the barrage of television propaganda glorifying Mr. Putin as the country’s saviour against the evil West. From the onset of the Ukraine conflict, the public has been told that the U.S. and its NATO allies are the real enemies, who are supporting Ukraine with the aim of destroying Russia.

So as long as they can go about their everyday lives and not suffer serious financial hardship, the majority of Russians are unlikely to take to the streets. Unless, of course, the mobilization becomes broader and their loved ones are called up.

The problem for Mr. Putin is that this might be necessary. According to the Institute for the Study of War, only 10 per cent of the two million former conscripts and contract servicepersons in the Russian reserve receive refresher training after their initial service.

As a result: “Russian efforts to mobilize more manpower can bring more people into Russian combat units, but those people are unlikely to be well-enough trained or motivated to generate large amounts of new combat power.” Already with this limited conscription, recruitment centres are being attacked, and targeted conscripts who have the means are fleeing the country.

If Russia cannot reverse Ukraine’s battlefield gains and loses even more territory, Mr. Putin will face the choice of acknowledging the failure of Russia’s “special operation” – and thus his failure as his country’s leader – or conscripting huge numbers against their will, which risks large-scale public unrest.

Could this dilemma make a desperate Mr. Putin recklessly resort to strategic nuclear weapons, as he has threatened? No one can predict his reactions, but that decision would not be his alone. And it is doubtful that even the most fervent warmongers in Mr. Putin’s elite would want to face the “catastrophic consequences” of the U.S. response.

Mr. Putin is a shrewd political strategist who has demonstrated incredible resilience during the challenges he has faced over two decades as Russia’s leader. But the next few months will test those qualities like never before.