September 25, 2022

Institute for the Study of War: Putin’s order to mobilize large numbers of Russians for war in Ukraine is unlikely to succeed

Institute for the Study of War

This campaign assessment special edition focuses on Russian military mobilization efforts. Significant inflections ISW would normally cover in its regular sections will be summarized briefly today and addressed in more detail tomorrow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to overcome fundamental structural challenges in attempting to mobilize large numbers of Russians to continue his war in Ukraine. The “partial mobilization” he ordered on September 21 will generate additional forces but inefficiently and with high domestic social and political costs. The forces generated by this “partial mobilization,” critically, are very unlikely to add substantially to the Russian military’s net combat power in 2022. Putin will have to fix basic flaws in the Russian military personnel and equipment systems if mobilization is to have any significant impact even in the longer term. His actions thus far suggest that he is far more concerned with rushing bodies to the battlefield than with addressing these fundamental flaws.

The Russian Armed Forces have not been setting conditions for an effective large-scale mobilization since at least 2008 and have not been building the kind of reserve force needed for a snap mobilization intended to produce immediate effects on the battlefield. There are no rapid solutions to these problems.

The problems Putin confronts stem in part from long-standing unresolved tensions in the Russian approach to generating military manpower. Russian and Soviet military manpower policies from 1874 through 2008 were designed to support the full mass mobilization of the entire Russian and Soviet populations for full-scale war. Universal conscription and a minimum two-year service obligation was intended to ensure that virtually all military-age males received sufficient training and experience in combat specialties that they could be recalled to active service after serving their terms and rapidly go to war as effective soldiers. Most Russian and Soviet combat units were kept in a “cadre” status in peacetime—they retained a nearly full complement of officers and many non-commissioned officers, along with a small number of soldiers. Russian and Soviet doctrine and strategy required large-scale reserve mobilization to fill out these cadre units in wartime. This cadre-and-reserve approach to military manpower was common among continental European powers from the end of the 19th century through the Cold War.

The Russian military tried to move to an all-volunteer basis amid the 2008 financial crisis and failed to make the transition fully. The end of the Cold War and the demonstration in the 1991 Gulf War of the virtues of an all-volunteer military led many states to transition away from conscription models. The Russian military remained committed to the cadre-and-reserve model until 2008, when Putin directed his newly appointed Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov to move the Russian military to a professional model and reform it to save costs following the 2008 financial crisis.[1] One such cost-cutting measure reduced the term of mandatory conscript service to 18 months in 2007 and then to one year in 2008.

The Russian military ended up with a hybrid model blending conscript and professional soldiers. Professional militaries are expensive because the state must offer prospective voluntary recruits far higher salaries and benefits than it gives to conscripts, who have no choice but to serve. Serdyukov quickly found that the Russian defense budget could not afford to offer enticements sufficient to overcome the centuries-old Russian resistance to military service. The Russian military thus became a mix of volunteer professional soldiers, whom the Russians call kontraktniki, and one-year conscripts.

The reduction in the mandatory term of service for conscripts made Russia’s reserves less combat ready. Conscripts normally reach a bare minimum of military competence within a year—the lost second year is the period in which a cadre-and-reserve military would normally bring its conscripts to a meaningful level of combat capability. The shift to a one-year term of mandatory military service in 2008 means that the last classes of Russian men who served two-year terms are now in their early 30s. Younger men in the prime age brackets for being recalled to fight served only the abbreviated one-year period.

The prioritization of building a professional force and the de-prioritization of conscript service likely translated into an erosion of the bureaucratic structures required for mobilization. Mobilization is always a bureaucratically challenging undertaking. It requires local officials throughout the entire country to perform well a task they may never conduct and rehearse rarely, if at all. Maintaining the bureaucratic infrastructure required to conduct a large-scale reserve call-up requires considerable attention from senior leadership—attention it likely did not receive in Russia over the last 15 years or so.

Putin has already conducted at least four attempts at mobilization in the last year, likely draining the pool of available combat-ready (and willing) reservists ahead of the “partial mobilization.”

  • The Russian military launched an initiative called the Russian Combat Army Reserve (the Russian acronym is BARS) in fall 2021 with the aim of recruiting 100,000 volunteers into an organization that would train them and keep them combat-capable while still in the reserves.[2] This effort largely failed, generating only a fraction of its target by the time of the Russian invasion in February 2022.
  • The Russian Armed Forces conducted an involuntary mobilization of part of its regular reserve in preparation for the invasion and in parallel with the BARS effort. Details about the pre-invasion call-up are scarce, but Western officials reported that the Russian military had recalled “tens of thousands” of reservists to fill out units before rolling into Ukraine.[3]
  • A third, smaller mobilization wave followed the invasion itself, as reports emerged of thousands of reservists being called up to make good Russian losses in early March 2022.[4]
  • Putin launched a fourth effort at mobilizing his population for war in June 2022, accelerated in July, with a call for the formation of “volunteer battalions.”[5] This undertaking was an ad hoc attempt at crypto mobilization. The Kremlin directed all of Russia’s “federal subjects” (administrative units at the province level on the whole) to generate at least one volunteer battalion each and to pay enlistment and combat bonuses out of their own budgets. This effort has generated a number of volunteer battalions, some of which have fought in Ukraine, albeit poorly.

(For full report:

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