The Perils of Russian mobilisation

The unexpected military defeat in the Kharkiv oblast and major reversals in the Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kherson oblasts has forced Vladimir Putin to announce a ‘partial mobilisation’ on September the 21st. Following on the heels of rather conciliatory messages in front of President Xi of China and Prime Minister Modi of India at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, this underlined a fundamental contradiction between the Russian Federation’s foreign and domestic posture.

The apparently tough and resolute posture of the annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts was followed with the more practical necessity of reinforcing personnel in the actual theatre of war where the momentum was with his adversaries. This annexation torpedoed all previous diplomatic efforts, making Putin an extremely toxic leader even for his closest allies, with Russia’s immediate neighbours actively looking for new allies to hedge against Russian revanchism. This makes an overwhelming military victory an absolute necessity for the Kremlin, with a successful mobilisation now its sine qua non. Yet, even as mobilisation was announced, p.7 of Putin’s decree with the actual number to be mobilised was kept secret out of fear of public backlash inside Russia itself. Despite the Ministry of Defence’s official figure of 300,000, some sources from the Kremlin indicated that the secret number to be targeted for mobilisation was closer to one million.

To make effective military use of the mobilised you need to send them the summons and later have them come to the recruiting station. Then they need a medical check-up and to be assigned to a particular military unit. After that, you send them to a training centre, supply them with ammunition and arms, and only then can you get them to the front. And Russia has to do all this at a time when most active, healthy young men who might have been better conscripted, have left the country. The Russian edition of Forbes on October the 4th put the exodus at 700,000 draft-eligible men. As a result, the military has had to scrape the bottom of the barrel, even drawing upon the elderly and frail. With officials having admitted to five deaths already as a result of the mobilisation, this raises a question mark on their combat effectiveness.

At face value, three hundred thousand mobilised reservists is a good number. But unless they are related to specific combat units, it remains just a number. In addition, the objective is not only to create new combat units but to deploy the mobilised for urgent military needs like plugging the hole of some sixty to ninety thousand dead and wounded personnel. Despite Putin’s public announcements the first thirty to forty thousand people had to go to Ukraine to fight as soon as possible, which meant they had no time for any military training. There was also a lack of proper ammunition and arms at a time when Russian logistics were under considerable strain. Besides Kalashnikovs, one needs to supply the reservists with military equipment that allows mobility in trying weather conditions. Also, sending combat-effective tanks, armoured vehicles, and artillery units makes its own demands on delivery and training time.

The Russian army’s mobilisation plan is shaped by the legacy of the Soviet days. As of 1990, the total Soviet Army amounted to 4 million people, with more than 1 million stationed in Ukraine (with mobilisation depots) and about 700,000 stationed in other former Soviet republics. The Russian Federation inherited mobilisation resources for an army of about 2.2 million people: even if half of it was stolen and sold in the 90s with some replenishment under Putin, in theory there ought to be enough to equip 300,000 people. This might, however, take a lot more time than expected. But the second wave has real risks of receiving Mosin rifles from the WWII period and outdated Soviet military outfits when they are sent to Ukraine. Contrast this with the highly motivated Ukrainian defenders armed to the teeth with superior Western kit and trained to meet NATO’s latest standards, and one can see how an ineptly run mobilisation programme can end up being a catastrophe in the actual theatre of war.

In addition to military logistics, mobilisation also has economic consequences. You need to pay soldiers, whose salaries will further strain Russia’s public finances. An enlisted private is entitled to a salary of US$600 in today currency; a sergeant, $800; a lieutenant, $1100; and a battalion commander, $1300. The Russian military salary system is complicated, allowing about 20 additional payments (for the length of service from 10 to 40%, for military qualification rank from 5 to 30%, for special achievements up to 200%, etc.). Those at war will be entitled to additional payments of $50 daily for being in a war zone, active advancement, and others. The total amount payable equals almost $3400 per person monthly, plus additional payments from Russian regional authorities in the ‘annexed territories.’ An army of three hundred thousand additional soldiers and officers will require about $1.5 billion of monthly direct payments. Additional spending for armament, food and fuel for the new army will overextend the Russian current account balance, which is already in deficit by around 0.9% of the Russian GDP according to the Russian Minister of Finance.

In addition, there are indirect, second-order economic ramifications. The most obvious being the depletion of qualified personnel in practically every sphere of the Russian economy. Many people left the country and many others joined the army, which drained teachers, doctors, engineers, and IT professionals, severely undermining education, healthcare, and manufacturing. The demographic consequences this has for an aging population are compounded by a suboptimal supply of skilled workers in the service sector and knowledge industries which make Russia even more dependent in the medium to long term on the export of commodities. Even for that, deskilling every node of the mine-to-market supply chain can have tangible scarring effects.

As in any political federation, the relationship between the core and the periphery is a delicately balanced dynamic equilibrium. At the regional level, the recent mobilisation drives have exacerbated extant fault lines, creating for regional governors the decisional space to postpone risky personnel decisions with a view to keeping opposition elites out of power. Local-level zero-sum politics are prioritised with mobilisation as a convenient alibi. It is also possible that new territorial agglomerations will be created around the biggest manufacturers (oil and gas and the agricultural sector of the Russian South predominantly, as they also fund the Russian mobilisation effort).

The Kremlin’s efforts to ramp up mobilisation will lead to the formation of the following power groups, each wielding significant influence: ‘the Donbas group’, a combination of Wagner, Donetsk, and Luhansk warlord armies and war veterans; ‘regionals’, that is, regional elites buttressed with the support of regional battalions; and the ‘army group’ of core military personnel. This will have a serious implications for internal tactical agenda-setting as well as overall war strategy. The role of the individual regions will increase, creating possible strategic conglomerations such as the Ural, Siberia, Chechen, Krasnodar, and other regiments.

Since its inception, the tsarist and Soviet empires had a less than perfect relationship with the ethnic groups composing the Russian empire. Centrifugal, fissiparous tendencies organising themselves on ethnonationalist lines are never too far below the surface. Such tendencies collapsed the Soviet Union, with Ukraine’s decision to secede- in particular- serving as its death knell. Putin’s call to create regional battalions might encourage similar campaigns for regional independence. The disparate efforts of regional authorities to finance the people mobilised locally underscores inequality among different regions and rekindles old grievances against Moscow, with reservists from rich regions boasting better equipment and thus, higher chances of survival vis-à-vis their compatriots from poorer regions. Already, the mobilised from Irkutsk have begun to chant that ‘Siberia is a force!’, with conscious echoes of ‘Akhmad is a force!’, a similar battle cry heard from separatist Chechens. In the sidelines, Russia faces a potential political problem as railroad and air logistic patterns demand these first reservists to be sent to Ukraine not just from the Far East or Siberia but from Russian European regions. And this is something that Putin tried to avoid before. Given the intensity of anti-regime feeling in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the long-run consequences of this could be difficult for him or any of his potential successors from the siloviki to control.

Mobilisation began at the end of September. The new commander-in-chief for the Ukrainian operation Sergei Surovikin joined two weeks later and began with a deliberate campaign of state terror targeting Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure far from the actual theatres of Donbas and Kherson. This is similar to Hitler’s V1 and V2 ‘revenge weapons’ intended to terrorise the British populace that had precisely the opposite effect, partly because it wasted valuable munitions on non-military targets and left the Royal Air Force untouched. Putin clearly wants not only to defend the recently acquired territories but to advance and take more Ukrainian territories in wintertime. His gamble is also based on the calculation that when the West cuts down the weapons’ support (according to military experts, it may stop in 6 months), Russia will be able to finish the war successfully. But with an economy in a tailspin, increasing social tension, constantly escalating sanctions responding to ever more rash provocations from Moscow, lightning advances by a nimble, well-equipped, and tactically brilliant Ukrainian army, and low-quality decision-making processes both in economic and military fields point in precisely the opposite direction. Moscow seems set to suffer its greatest military defeat since the Russo-Japanese war more than a century ago, with grave implications for the regime as well as the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

Putin’s escalation approach has two options left. He will have to escalate again to a tactical nuclear strike, which he tries to avoid, as his idea of the war was to improve his state in the world, not to lose it. A tactical nuclear strike would isolate him completely and leave even India and China with no option but to publicly denounce the regime and severely reduce, if not abolish, trade with Russia. Failing that, he can also declare a state of war, which will allow him to mobilise people and the military-industrial complex- creating an expansionary war economy. But this move will dramatically worsen internal tensions in Russian society and among the elites. This could possibly result in a dramatic change in the Russian power structure, which, as Tsar Nicholas II and Stalin can testify from beyond the grave, does not end well even for the most powerful occupants of the Kremlin.

This political zugzwang promises nothing but a gloomy future for Russia, with the announced mobilisation just bringing it closer.

Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin
Vitaly Charushin is a Russian pro-democracy activist and member of Advisory Board of Creative Cluster, a French-tech ecosystem partner. He has previously worked at the National Democratic Institute in Moscow.