Russia’s Mobilization for Ukraine Will Not Save Putin

What happens when the last conventional gambit fails—peace talks, or nuclear escalation?

A torn Russian flag is trampled by Ukrainians in the town of Izium. Image Credit: Gaelle Girbis/Getty Images

In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of new forces that theoretically could dramatically increase Russian combat power in Ukraine. However, theory does not always match reality, and Russia’s miserable reserves organization and reinforcement system cannot be counted on to retrieve the country’s flagging fortune in its misbegotten war.

While the manpower exists, Russia’s lack of an effective training and resupply infrastructure means that conscripts, however many are called up, will be unprepared and ill-equipped for a modern battlefield in Ukraine: not before winter, and probably not even in the spring. The situation is a reflection of the same conditions of neglect, incompetence and hubris that have characterized Russia’s regular forces at the outset of the war.

Backs to the Border

The success of Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive took Russia by surprise, as it did many Western observers and pundits. Since July, Ukraine has made no secret about planned attacks in the south, where Russia held significant territory on the right (western) bank of Dnieper River. Ukrainian forces used new weapons, including the U.S.-supplied HIMARS rocket artillery system, to prepare the battlefield for a campaign to recapture Kherson. Russia reacted with vigorous reinforcement of its position in the region. The Ukrainian attack, when it came, was deliberate and cautious.

While Russia focused on deflecting the expected attack, Ukrainian forces unexpectedly crossed the Donetsk River east of Kharkiv and, breaking through weak opposition, quickly reached Kupyansk on the Oskil River, the major logistics hub of Russian forces in the northeastern region. Thus, preparing for a Ukrainian thrust in the south, Russia found itself in a trap. Russian forces concentrated in the south have essentially been immobilized by Ukrainian artillery and even air attacks, unable to respond to more rapid enemy advances in the east.

In such an unfavorable situation, Putin declared a partial mobilization of reservists and conscripts throughout the Russian Federation. Moreover, Russia’s annexation of four occupied regions it is in the process of being turfed out of means Putin can claim hostile forces are invading Russian lands. And Putin has warned that nuclear weapons might be used to defend its sovereignty. Thus, Russia declares it will amass enough manpower to achieve its goals in Ukraine while keeping outsiders at bay with nuclear threats.

Although Russia has declared its mobilization partial, it is actually a full mobilization for all intents and purposes: It is as far as Putin can go without a formal declaration of war, which he refuses to acknowledge the special military operation has become. The public call for 300,000 reservists may be disregarded. The official call-up is secret, and it is estimated that up to a million reservists could be called up for service.

Organizational Disorder

Reserve armies cannot be willed into being from untrained conscripts and magical thinking; there must be well-established structures in place to call, train and deploy them effectively. In Poland, during Warsaw Pact times, “cadre” units existed that were staffed by only a few active officers while all the other positions were to be filled by reservists called in an emergency.

The Polish armed forces kept records in order to generate “mobilization tickets” for individuals to be called into cadre units with a particular specialty. If somebody had earlier served his mandatory military term in armor, he would be called to an armor unit; if somebody had undergone artillery training, he would be called to artillery; and so on. Mobilization records were periodically updated in accordance with age, health and education changes.

The Russian mobilization program—if the scramble can be dignified with such a term—is a totally different story. People are called without any regard to their health, skills or education. Provisional battalions are formed that do not have any prepared place in an organization; they are just plugged in like Lego pieces to fill gaps.

You can call up a man from civilian life; give him a uniform, helmet and rifle; and call him a soldier. But you cannot make him part of a unit that integrates with a regiment or a brigade—effective field units in modern warfare. Russian reservist battalions are to be sent to the front in Ukraine after a minimum of two to three weeks training to form weak units to hold the line or be expended in senseless assaults more similar to human waves than to modern combined arms warfare. The experience of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s comes to mind: Pushed back on their heels in the surprise invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, revolutionary Iran conscripted tens of thousands of men and sent them forward with little training or equipment. These human wave attacks blunted advances by better-equipped Iraqi forces at tremendous human cost. But the Iranians had something the Russians do not have: morale.

So while Russian conscripts reaching the front lines in Ukraine may be as ill-trained and ill-equipped as Iranian stop-gap infantry, they are certainly not going to be as effective because they are not as fervent and willing to sacrifice themselves for their leader. This is clear from the number of would-be Russian martyrs attempting to flee the country.

Some conscripted Russian recruits are sent to existing units to fill a vacated position but are very prone to becoming casualties. According to a report from the Ukrainian General Staff, one Russian battalion recently lost 520 servicemen, which was more than half of its authorized strength. Mobilized reserves with little adequate training will be used to fill these vacancies. Even U.S. experience with its replacement depot system during World War II shows that such reinforcements are lost at much higher rates than veterans.

There are numerous reports of draft tickets being delivered to chronically ill and disabled Russians. Active university students and defense industry workers have been called, which is outside the scope of Putin’s directive. In some cases, even deceased individuals have been called up—also presumably beyond the president’s jurisdiction.

Numbers Mean Little

You cannot make a soldier after 20 days of training, even if the training is intensive and competently done. You can only teach very basic skills in such a span of time, while learning modern infantry tactics is a full courseload: combined arms operations; warfare in different terrain, weather and daylight conditions; handling various weapons; operating combat vehicles; mine avoidance; patrolling, scouting and battlefield observation; signals and communications procedures; and ambush organization and avoidance—not to mention reacting to enemy contact, enemy equipment identification and, not least, first-aid training.

It is easy for prosperous civilians to overlook the complexities of modern warfare and the time it takes to properly train a soldier for the battlefield. Without the above-mentioned skills, at a minimum, you will have a scared man in a uniform struggling to not shoot himself by accident. Sending such men to the front line means that the great majority of them will become casualties during their first week in the combat area.

Nevertheless, it has been found that some recently captured Russian soldiers have been sent to the front with no training at all a day or two after mobilization. They have been sent as replacements to the existing units, where they are more of a burden than help. Their lack of training often reveals Russian positions to Ukrainian forces, by exposing themselves or firing prematurely, while not bringing any combat power to the squad or platoon where they are posted.

Lack of training in Putin’s mobilization is also a product of inadequate training facilities, which cannot accommodate much more than a regular peacetime draft exercised twice a year. There is a lack of instructors, many of whom have been sent to the front in Ukraine, and not enough training equipment and simulators. All of this reveals a training infrastructure that has been disregarded for years. As we have pointed out in a previous Discourse article, Russia’s regular forces have failed because they were more for show than battlefield effectiveness.

Recruits can be used to cover the enormous personnel loses in existing units, but only in limited roles. They can be used as ordinary riflemen, provided they are not asked to do anything complicated on the battlefield. However, operating more sophisticated weapons, such as anti-tank guided missiles, mortars, crew-served guns and vehicle-mounted weapons is rather out of question.

Russia in bad shape. A Ukrainian soldier stands atop an abandoned Russian tank. Image Credit: Juan Barreto/Getty Images

One school of thought is that after three weeks of primary training, recruits can join units and learn more advanced skills on the job. Learning to parallel park a car on a city street is stressful enough; imagine learning to maneuver a tank. Even in rear areas, ineptly driven trucks and armored vehicles can cause road blockages and traffic jams that are inviting targets for enemy missiles, aircraft, artillery and raiding teams. Early in the war, large amounts of Russian equipment were found abandoned with minor or easily repairable damage to drive systems and gearboxes. One short video posted on Twitter shows an experienced Ukrainian driver recovering an abandoned Russian tank from a trench without any assistance. The Russian driver apparently had lost control and put it into the trench. The inexperienced crew couldn’t get it out and had abandoned it.

And driving a tank is the easy part. The use of a tank’s fire control system is much more complicated and impossible to address in three weeks of overall training. And what about training of replacements for artillerymen, air-defense systems operators, radar and electronic warfare operators, drone operators and combat engineers? Not to mention those who have to maintain all of this equipment.

There are no signs Russia is forming new units with support elements—for example, brigades with infantry, tank, artillery, reconnaissance, engineer, signal, air defense, logistics support and other necessary elements, since the new recruits with minimum training are not suitable to fill many essential military roles. Infantry has no chance unsupported on the modern battlefield. Ukraine is not a guerilla or asymmetric warfare theater; it is as close to an all-arms battlefield as we’ve seen in modern times.

Finally, even if the people mobilized under Putin’s decree could be adequately trained, there is no heavy equipment for them. It may seem strange that Russia is short of tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers given its vast amount of stored equipment. Yet thousands of the most modern, front-line models have already been lost in Ukraine. Replacements taken out of storage have been found to be incomplete, inoperable or hopelessly obsolete.

Russia cannot even find the most basic items in its depots. There is not enough personal equipment for individual soldiers. The recruits have been told to take with them warm clothing, sleeping bags, personal hygienic items, first-aid kits, blankets, etc. They are mostly not issued body armor.

As for its own reserves, Ukraine has been able to mobilize about 700,000 conscripts and volunteers since the war began. The vast majority of these have received intensive training in Ukraine or abroad. They are being trained in the Baltic States, Poland, Germany and the U.K. in large numbers, with others receiving specialist training in other countries, including the U.S.

Impact on the War

It is hard to expect that tens of thousands of untrained infantrymen sent as replacements or organized into ad hoc battalions with little combined arms support would change the battlefield situation other than to make the war longer and more costly for the rest of the world. Ukraine will continue to receive superior arms and training with the help of its NATO backers.

There is almost no prospect of Putin’s current crop of reservists having any military impact on the war for the rest of the year. The winter is likely to be a rather idle period in land combat activities and will be used by both sides to build up their capabilities for renewed operations in the spring.

The spring offers Russia few happy tidings, even if it can train up a force of reservists. Russia has a lot of problems manufacturing new military hardware, even spare parts, since they do not produce any sophisticated solid-state electronic components for any kinds of modern armament.

According to an official Russian statement in October, more than 200,000 recruits have been mobilized to date. It is difficult to say how many of them have been already sent to Ukraine, but there has been no visible impact on the battlefield situation. And no real impact is expected. The Russians will have a lot of untrained and incompetent cannon fodder, which will be easy targets for Ukrainian forces.

More to the point, all of the factors that have made Russian forces so ineffective in the first place will remain. Among the chief problems are the very poor existing command-and-control capabilities at the outset. Adding masses of new conscripts will only increase the command-and-control difficulties, particularly since the new soldiers will not have been trained in these disciplines. Also, the logistics problems evident in the opening stages of the war were only partially solved subsequently, mainly because the front line was moved closer to Russian bases and became more or less static for many weeks. Additional troops to sustain will not improve the situation, especially if they are supposed to move forward.

According to Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder, if Russia cannot command, sustain and equip the roughly 100,000 troops they have in Ukraine, adding 300,000 more troops to the mix is not going to make the situation better: “If you are already having significant challenges and haven’t addressed some of those systemic strategic issues that make any large military force capable, there’s nothing to indicate that it’s going to get any easier by adding more variables to the equation.”

The only real impact Russia can expect from its reservists is a new flow of body bags. The failure of the mobilization in changing the tide of war in Ukraine would further weaken Putin’s position and could lead to a full Ukrainian victory. How far will Putin go to avoid this existential threat to his rule?

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