September 26, 2022
Vladimir Putin’s announcement of partial mobilization on September 21 signaled a major escalation of the war and caught the world’s attention. Putin was forced to do this because of battlefield reverses and a shortage of personnel. Other sources of personnel are drying up. Many commentators have pointed to training and equipment challenges, which will be real, but not insurmountable. Mobilization will not turn the tide of war, but may allow Putin to implement his political strategy, which is to outlast the Europeans. What is uncertain is whether Russian popular opposition to mobilization will derail military plans. In any case, Ukraine has a window of opportunity for battlefield success before these mobilized troops arrive.
What Russia Is Doing
In his speech on September 21, Putin announced partial mobilization:
Today our armed forces . . . are fighting on the line of contact that is over 1,000 kilometers long, fighting not only against neo-Nazi units but actually the entire military machine of the collective West. . . . I find it necessary to support the proposal of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff on partial mobilization in the Russian Federation to defend our Motherland and its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to ensure the safety of our people and people in the liberated territories. . . . Only military reservists, primarily those who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialties and corresponding experience, will be called up. Before being sent to their units, those called up for active duty will undergo mandatory additional military training based on the experience of the special military operation.
The decree implementing partial mobilization adds what is called “stop loss.” Personnel will remain on active duty involuntarily until the end of partial mobilization. This is a sensible step when militaries face personnel shortages and large-scale military operations, as the personnel retained are already in units and trained. However, in the United States, “stop loss” proved to be controversial when implemented during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics called it a “backdoor draft.”
Putin declared that this mobilization would be limited to former military personnel. It would not expand conscription or put the nation on a war footing; that requires full mobilization. Putin’s announcement also included an industrial surge to increase weapons and munitions production.
Later, Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu elaborated that the mobilization would come in phases. He also described a deliberate training process. Shoigu and Putin stated that students and workers in the defense industry would be exempted.
This action is roughly equivalent to U.S. partial mobilization (10 USC 12302). The United States has used that authority many times in the past for Desert Storm and for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for smaller operations.
Media reports have cited the number 300,000 troops being activated, but that does not appear in the original speech. The implementing decree leaves the number to the Ministry of Defense. Some Russian bloggers have claimed that the number could be 1 million. All these numbers are speculative. Russia’s ability to induct, train, equip, and move troops to the front is limited. This mobilization will be a stream, not a surge.
Some have speculated that this will severely disrupt the Russian economy, but that is unlikely. Even if 300,000 troops are mobilized, that represents only .4 percent of the Russian labor force.
Initial Reports Indicate Mobilization Is Going Badly
The bureaucracy appears unready to handle the demands of such a complex effort. Personnel must be identified, notified, medically evaluated, administratively brought onto active duty, and then sent to a training establishment. During this administrative period, personnel must be fed and housed. The United States suffered problems with its mobilization mechanisms in 1991, the first large mobilization since World War II, but worked out procedures over time. The Russians may have the same experience.
Like many bureaucratic tasks in Russia, mobilization is being conducted using quotas levied on districts. The quota system decentralizes and simplifies execution but incentivizes local authorities to prioritize output at any cost. This can create abuses.
In addition to bureaucratic problems, security forces seem to be threatening demonstrators with mobilization, contrary to the announced policy.
Russia Is Struggling to Turn Potential Power into Actual Power
From the beginning of the conflict, commentators have pointed out that the Russian population is over three times the size of Ukraine’s (146 million versus 41 million), with larger armed forces and a much larger economy. In theory, it should prevail in a long war of attrition. Russia’s problem has been turning potential power into battlefield capabilities. Putin has described the conflict as a “special military operation” and not a war. That limited his powers. For example, the Russian military has not been able to use many conscripts, even though they constitute the major part of the ground forces. Partial mobilization will tap into some of this potential power. Ukraine, in contrast, has been able to access all the elements of its national power.
Russia Is Mobilizing Because It Is Running out of Soldiers
The Russian army has taken many casualties (some estimate 80,000) out of an initial invasion force of about 190,000 troops. Ground combat troops numbered about 140,000. From the beginning, the Russians have scrambled to maintain the ranks, taking a wide variety of actions, sometimes called “covert mobilization.” They have deployed soldiers from nearly every unit in Russia, mobilized some reservists, brought in ethnic minorities (particularly Chechens), offered large recruiting bonuses to personnel who will enlist or stay in the service, used the private contractor Wagner Group, and even recruited in the prisons. The quality of replacement personnel has not been high, but the numbers and quality have been enough to keep the Russian forces operating in the field.
As Russia analysts Michael Kofman and Rob Lee point out, the Russian army is structured to defend the homeland against invasion, not to invade a neighboring country. Thus, units were typically at about 70 percent personnel strength and had a lot of conscripts who could not deploy outside of Russia proper. For defense of the homeland, reserve call-up would fill the ranks. For a special military operation, where mobilization authorities were limited, there were just not enough troops to deploy. This is a very different military from that of the United States, which is structured for high readiness and rapid deployment outside the country.
The Timing Is Driven by Recent Russian Reverses on the Battlefield
Russia’s attacks in the Donbas region petered out in July having gained some territory, though at high cost. The Ukrainian counteroffensive has begun. In the southwest, the Ukrainians are currently attacking toward Kherson and though they have not taken much territory, they are putting the Russians under considerable pressure. Russian forces are vulnerable, occupying a large bridgehead on the west side of the Dnipro River. Ukrainian precision strikes are squeezing Russian logistics.
In the northeast, the Ukrainian counteroffensive gained much territory east of Kharkiv, though progress has slowed. The Russian generals likely told Putin that they could not hold their gains without additional troops.
Putin did have two other options: use nuclear weapons or negotiate a settlement. The commentariat has speculated endlessly about the use of nuclear weapons. Such use would risk Russian national survival for a sliver of Ukrainian territory. So far, Russia has limited nuclear threats to NATO direct intervention or Ukrainian movement into the Russian homeland.
A negotiated settlement is not possible currently because the two sides are so far apart. Putin cannot give up his conquests without endangering his regime, but Ukraine insists that Russia evacuate all occupied territory, including Crimea.
Russian Forces Are Not Large
It is important to keep in mind just how small the Russian forces are. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union maintained a military of about 3.5 million. That military is long gone. Today, Russia maintains a total military of about 900,000, of which 280,000 are in the army.
To put the Russian force into perspective, the United States has an active-duty force of 1.3 million and organized, trained reserves of 800,000. Thus, the United States has about twice the readily available trained personnel that Russia does.
To further put the Russian force into perspective, the United States sent about 540,000 troops to Saudi Arabia in 1991 to liberate Kuwait from Iraq. Total coalition forces numbered about 750,000. Russia has conducted this invasion on a shoestring.
Russia Lacks a Strong Reserve Force
Russia has tried to create reserve forces like those in NATO, which train regularly, but such efforts have not made much headway. Instead, Russia maintains lists of former soldiers who could be called to service. This is typical of military system that uses conscription because the system produces relatively large numbers of personnel. Those conscripts recently released from active duty have usable skills, but those skills deteriorate rapidly. It is a much less expensive system, but requires time and training post-mobilization.
The United States maintains a similar system called the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). This consists of military personnel who have completed their active-duty commitment but not their full eight-year military requirement. (All servicemembers have an eight-year military obligation, and enlistment contracts are written for that period of time.) These personnel remain on military rolls for possible mobilization. However, this is a second backup force behind the organized reserve units that train regularly and that most people think of as reservists. The United States called some IRR personnel to service during the height of the Iraq war, but it was very controversial, and the numbers were minimized. In effect, Russia is calling up its version of the IRR.
Training Will Be a Challenge
Both Putin and Shoigu stated that reservists would receive additional training, likely two weeks. By U.S. standards, this is not nearly enough. The United States gave mobilized units months of training before sending them to Iraq or Afghanistan, though personnel mobilized as individuals received less training. The Russian military bureaucracy is not prepared to take on so many troops. Unlike the United States, the Russians do not have basic training centers. Most training is done at the combat units, but much of that training cadre has been sent to Ukraine or become casualties.
However, the Ukrainians are not well-trained either. At the beginning of the war, Ukraine created many new units in its territorial army and provided them with only rudimentary military skills. Reports indicate that personnel may have received two or three weeks of training. The troops have gained some skills from six months of combat, but these focus mainly on survival. NATO is training thousands of Ukrainian troops, with some undergoing basic training in United Kingdom and others receiving specialized training at bases throughout Europe, but these troops are a minority. The average level of Ukrainian training is still very low. By way of comparison, the U.S. Marine Corps gives new recruits 22 weeks of training before sending them into combat. Both sides are far below that level. So Russian training will be inadequate and not up to U.S. standards, but the Russians are fighting poorly trained, though highly motivated Ukrainian forces, not the United States.
Equipment May Be Less of a Challenge
Although the Russians will certainly have some equipment problems, that is unlikely to be a major constraint. The problem with the Russian forces to date has been overequipping, not underequipping. As Michael Kofman and Rob Lee documented, the Russians maintained their units with a full set of equipment but only a partial complement of personnel. That is one reason for the high losses―not enough infantry to protect all the vehicles. The Russians, like the Soviets before them, never throw anything away, so they have lots of equipment in storage. This would not be top-of-the-line equipment, but it faces Ukrainian forces that are still armed mainly with Soviet-era equipment.
Further, if most mobilize personnel fill the gaps in existing units, then equipment problems ease. These personnel will fall in on equipment that these units already have.
Logistics has been a problem, but that seems to have eased. In the early days, Russian logistic support was abysmal, causing troops to go hungry and vehicles to be abandoned. Like many militaries, the Russians were not ready for the logistical demands of war, which are much different from the experience of peacetime exercises. However, Russian troops today do not seem to be going hungry, and the fact that the Russians fire thousands of artillery shells every day indicates a logistics system that is operating adequately.
The Purpose of Mobilization Is Ultimately Political Rather than Victory on the Battlefield
It is unlikely that the Russian generals believe this mobilization will shift the initiative and allow Russia to launch major attacks. Ukrainian forces are getting too powerful with foreign equipment and training. Rather, the strategy is likely to hold on to what Russia has already captured and push the war into the winter. Putin aims to put the European populations under enough stress from the cold, inflation, and high energy prices that they demand an end to the war. Survey data indicates that the European populations support Ukraine in its fight for democracy but are ambivalent about providing weapons and becoming involved. (The Baltic countries and Poland are an exception, being on the front line and much more concerned about Russian intentions.) Thus, Europeans might force their governments to push for a cease-fire and negotiations.
The Wild Card Is Political Opposition
Domestic opposition arose at the beginning of the war, with antiwar demonstrations in many cities. However, the Russian security forces successfully suppressed these demonstrations. The government-controlled media dominated the information space, convincing most Russians that the war was defensive and intended to suppress a neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine. Overall, the war seems to be popular with the average Russian. However, mobilization involves more Russian families in the war and has induced fears among many men that they might be called up. Opposition seems to be widespread. However, it remains to be seen whether this opposition will have an operational effect on the war or if it will peter out as earlier antiwar efforts did.
What to Watch for
Several indicators are worth monitoring to see how this mobilization plays out. First, does domestic opposition interfere with the mobilization? From a military point of view, the key question is whether such opposition significantly reduces the number of personnel available for mobilization. Can Russian forces hold out until the mobilized personnel start arriving? Although the front lines seem to have stabilized, the Russian position is fragile. It could crack in the weeks before mobilized personnel arrive. Can Russia train and equip these forces? Although the standards do not need to rise to the U.S. expectations, they do need to achieve a minimum level for personnel to be effective. Finally, does Russian morale maintain at least a minimum level? Russian morale has not been high, but the Russians keep fighting. A thousand years of history indicate that the Russians can continue fighting in conditions other nations might not tolerate.
Mark F. Cancian is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.