Putin’s Mobilization Mess Was Years in the Making

Russia can’t recruit, train, equip, or supply new troops. So what’s the plan?

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Police officers detain a person in Moscow on September 21, 2022, following calls to protest against partial mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin.
Police officers detain a person in Moscow on September 21, 2022, following calls to protest against partial mobilization announced by President Vladimir Putin.
Police officers detain a person in Moscow on Sept. 21, following calls to protest against a "partial mobilization" announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Almost everywhere one looks, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization” is creating a mess. At Russia’s border with Georgia, a country which the Kremlin invaded in 2008 amid flirtations with NATO, a traffic jam of men fleeing military service stretched nearly 16 miles. And Ukraine has egged it on, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urging Russian troops to surrender and the Ukrainian military even turning the procession of fleeing Russians into an internet meme.

But the patchy mobilization, Russia’s largest since World War II, won’t solve Russia’s problems on the battlefield, experts said. And it’s an indictment of efforts to reform the flagging Russian military for years, since the administration of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, that has left Russia with a force that can’t recruit, can’t train, and can’t equip itself—and has few prospects for a change in its fortunes in Ukraine.

For years after the fall of the Soviet Union, successive Russian leaders pledged to cut the bloated Soviet-era military, which topped out at 5,000,000 conscript troops at the height of the Cold War, to a leaner, more modern, and better paid force. But military experts see the piecemeal mobilization as a thumbs-down referendum on the Kremlin’s decades-long effort to reform the Russian military.

Almost everywhere one looks, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization” is creating a mess. At Russia’s border with Georgia, a country which the Kremlin invaded in 2008 amid flirtations with NATO, a traffic jam of men fleeing military service stretched nearly 16 miles. And Ukraine has egged it on, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urging Russian troops to surrender and the Ukrainian military even turning the procession of fleeing Russians into an internet meme.

But the patchy mobilization, Russia’s largest since World War II, won’t solve Russia’s problems on the battlefield, experts said. And it’s an indictment of efforts to reform the flagging Russian military for years, since the administration of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, that has left Russia with a force that can’t recruit, can’t train, and can’t equip itself—and has few prospects for a change in its fortunes in Ukraine.

For years after the fall of the Soviet Union, successive Russian leaders pledged to cut the bloated Soviet-era military, which topped out at 5,000,000 conscript troops at the height of the Cold War, to a leaner, more modern, and better paid force. But military experts see the piecemeal mobilization as a thumbs-down referendum on the Kremlin’s decades-long effort to reform the Russian military.

“It’s a complete disaster for them, and lucky for us,” said James Foggo, a retired admiral who commanded the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet, responsible for Europe and Africa, and who now leads the Center for Maritime Strategy at the Navy League of the United States. “They’re not 10 feet tall. The partial mobilization measure is an admission of failure in my mind. And I don’t think they’ll ever get there, because as you can see, they’re leaving in droves and none of these young people want to fight.”

And Putin’s partial mobilization effort has also caused chaos across Russia’s vast expanse, revealing a broad-based lack of preparedness. The Kremlin has called on local Russian governments to carry much of the financial load of getting new troops ready, while the lack of training grounds has forced some new service members to train in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. The Kremlin has ramped up prosecutions of men trying to flee military service, while state agencies and police services have scrambled to try to protect their own from the mobilization order.

While the Russian army quickly took hold in Georgia after it invaded in 2008, the lightning campaign revealed deep-rooted failings, including a bloated command structure and a military manned by small groups of active-duty troops that would be fleshed out by conscripts. The Kremlin proposed sweeping new military reforms, emphasizing procurement over manpower, to have a military that could respond to immediate crises. The Kremlin believed that it was wasting resources on mass mobilization it could better use on keeping active-duty troops more ready to fight.

“It was expensive to maintain a permanent raised military and a cadre-style type military,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program and a former U.S. Marine Corps officer. “You have to have equipment to man all of that, you have to have more officers to man all of that, and if you’re doing it right, you probably have to call up the mobilized reservists every once in a while to see that they could do their jobs.”

The period of reform, which lasted about five years until just after Putin formally retook power as Russia’s president in May 2012, also saw Russia’s ground forces start to reorganize into the battalion tactical groups of up to 4,500 soldiers that arrayed themselves on Ukraine’s border over the past two years, in an effort to reduce layers of management and downsize. In all, the Russian military cut down from 1,890 to 172 large units, according to a U.S. Army study conducted in 2016.

The 2009 reforms also led the Russian defense ministry to dismiss 60,000 junior officers from active service in a cost-cutting measure, giving them the option to rejoin the military on a reserve status as contract troops, with contract warrant officers, sergeants, and soldiers reaching 300,000 people by 2015. But Russia never finished delivering on a reserve system large enough for mass mobilization as it fought smaller conflicts in countries such as Syria where the Kremlin could flex its advanced capabilities and train generations of officers—many of whom are now fighting in Ukraine—but where conscripts weren’t needed.

“They were very thin,” said one former U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The Russians have always had a major manpower problem. They don’t have enough people on it. So I think the Ukrainians saw an opportunity.”

That challenge has also been compounded by Russia’s longstanding practice of replacing depleted units wholesale, not individual troops as Western armies do. Russia’s elite 1st Guards Tank Army, one of the units the Kremlin would rely on in a potential war against NATO’s front line, unable to field replacements, was left incomplete and was forced to flee from a Ukrainian drive on Kharkiv in mid-September. In some cases, manpower shortages are leaving officers as junior as first lieutenants, who should be commanding platoons, commanding formations as large as a battalion, experts said.

And the Kremlin set a long-term goal of converting its maneuver units into battalion tactical groups, cutting the need for conscripts. With the Russian military already sending trainers forward and depleting the few training centers in the field, they are still forced to lean heavily on the limited numbers of elite troops that have been badly beaten up.

“If you’re going to do a really short operation, bring the people with the most experience and the best equipment to form units out of your peacetime formations that you can then employ on the battlefield,” said Jack Watling, a senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. “The theory is nice. In a warfighting situation, what you’re actually doing, is you are taking your most experienced troops, putting them in the first echelon so that if things go wrong, they are the ones that die.”

Worse yet, the Russian military had built units that didn’t exercise together, leaving officers in the dark about their abilities and making them more likely to be ineffective if they take casualties, and are manned by smaller staffs than their Western counterparts. Lee said cadets are even training some of the mobilized men.

“It’s debatable whether or not it’s going to have much of an impact on the battlefield,” Admiral Tony Radakin, Britain’s chief of defense staff, told reporters in New York last week. “When you see the way that Ukraine is fighting and adopting Western weapons and the momentum that it has, and the sophistication and the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian armed forces versus an untrained conscript force that is being bribed or compelled to fight in the first place.”

In lieu of hordes of trained reserves that were available to the Soviet Union, the Kremlin has leaned on the paramilitary Wagner Group and even breaking loose prisoners in a desperate attempt to conquer a country the size of the U.S. state of Texas.

Yet the structure of the modern Russian military is also very much shaped by the two Chechen wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, which saw the Kremlin take hold of the majority-Muslim mountain territory amid heavy casualties. The Russian public was left with little appetite for fighting costly ground wars on Russia’s periphery, even if it meant sapping the military’s muscle from the height of the Soviet years. And ever the KGB man, Putin also put the troops in subordinate roles to the Russian heirs of Soviet spy agencies.

“The social contract after Chechnya that Putin established with the Russian population was very much fought in which conscripts would not be used unless it was a war of national survival,” said Watling. “The aim of the military was to conduct short wars and essentially to be a strategic messaging tool, a tool for projection of support to allies for foreign policy, and perhaps most importantly, a tool that the special services could apply.”

Russia’s preparation for a short war—rather than a long one—has been compounded by losses on the battlefield and superior Ukrainian recruitment. And they are losses that Russia can’t replace.

“Every time they have to withdraw like this, they leave equipment behind, and some soldiers will get killed, because withdrawing, even if you do it well, is very difficult, it’s very dangerous,” Lee said. “Every time Ukraine makes one of these advances, it compounds the problem. Because now they’ve lost territory. Now, politically, it’s a bigger problem.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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