Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced in September a partial mobilisation of new forces that could, in theory, significantly increase Russian combat power in Ukraine. But theory doesn’t always match reality, and Russia can’t rely on its weak reserves organisation and reinforcement system to turn around the country’s fortunes in its misguided 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 characterised Russia’s regular forces at the outset of the war.
Confronted by the Border
\Many Western observers and pundits, as well as Russia, were caught off guard by the success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive this summer. Since the beginning of July, Ukraine has made no secret of its intentions to launch attacks in the south, where Russian forces control a sizable portion of territory on the right (western) bank of the Dnieper River. New weapons, such as the HIMARS rocket artillery system supplied by the United States, were used by Ukrainian forces as they readied the battlefield for an offensive to retake Kherson. Russia’s response was to bolster its presence in the area significantly. When it came, the Ukrainian assault was methodical and well-planned.
Ukraine surprised Russia by crossing the Donetsk River east of Kharkiv and quickly reached Kupyansk on the Oskil River, the major logistics hub of Russian forces in the northeastern region, while Russia was preoccupied with deflecting the expected attack. Therefore, Russia fell into a trap when it began to prepare for a southern Ukrainian push. As a result of Ukrainian artillery and even air attacks, Russian forces stationed in the south have been rendered largely ineffective and are unable to counter the more rapid enemy advances to the east.
Putin declared a partial mobilisation of reservists and conscripts across the Russian Federation due to the deteriorating security situation. Putin can also claim that Russia is under attack because Russia has annexed four occupied regions it is currently being expelled from. Putin has also implied that nuclear weapons may be used to protect the country’s independence. As a result, Russia has announced that it will amass sufficient forces to carry out its plans in Ukraine while keeping its enemies at bay through the use of nuclear weapons.
Despite Russia’s claims of a “partial mobilisation,” the country has gone as far as it can without officially declaring war, which Putin still refuses to do despite the fact that the special military operation has become just that. It’s possible to ignore the public’s demand for 300,000 reservists. Up to a million reservists could be called up for service, but the official call-up is top secret.
Disruption in the Workplace
Reserve armies cannot be created out of thin air; instead, solid systems must be in place for recruiting, training, and deploying the reserve force. During the Warsaw Pact era in Poland, “cadre” units existed in which only a small number of regular officers served and the rest were to be filled by reservists.
The Polish military kept tabs on people so they could be issued “mobilisation tickets” and called up to serve in specialised cadre units. Individuals who have already fulfilled their military service requirement in the armour branch will be reassigned to the armour branch; similarly, those who have already fulfilled their service requirement in the artillery branch will be reassigned to the artillery branch, and so on. Records were regularly updated to reflect shifts in demographics such as age, health, and level of education.
It’s a different story with the Russian mobilisation programme, if we can even call it that. The health, education, and employment status of the called individuals are irrelevant. Provisional battalions are formed to fill in where needed, but they are not given a permanent home within the organisation.
Any man can be enlisted from the general population and turned into a soldier simply by being issued a uniform, a helmet, and a weapon. However, you cannot incorporate him into a unit that works with a regiment or brigade, which are modern warfare’s most effective field units. With only two or three weeks of training, Russian reservist battalions will be sent to the front in Ukraine to hold the line or be annihilated in pointless assaults reminiscent of human waves rather than modern combined arms warfare. This reminds me of what happened during the Iran-Iraq war in the ’80s: After being caught off guard by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi invasion, revolutionary Iran drafted thousands of men and sent them into battle without proper preparation or supplies. Human wave attacks were extremely costly in terms of lives lost, but they were effective in slowing the progress of superiorly equipped Iraqi forces. However, unlike the Russians, the Iranians had high morale.
Russian conscripts who make it to the front lines in Ukraine may be just as poorly trained and equipped as Iranian stop-gap infantry, but they will be much less effective because they are not as dedicated to their leader and willing to give their lives for him. The number of would-be Russian martyrs who have tried to leave the country is evidence of this.
Some Russian conscripts are assigned to active duty units to fill a position, but they have a high rate of casualties. One Russian battalion recently lost 520 servicemen, which is more than half of its authorised strength, according to a report from the Ukrainian General Staff. In order to fill these openings, the government will call upon reserves that have not been adequately prepared for deployment. 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.
Numerous Russians who are chronically ill or disabled have reportedly received draught tickets in the mail. Putin’s directive did not cover the active recruitment of college students and defence industry employees. Even people who have already passed away have been summoned on occasion, putting them beyond even the president’s power.
The Importance of Numbers
Twenty days of training, no matter how rigorous or well-executed, will not produce a soldier. Modern infantry tactics include 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 organisation and avoidance, all of which are difficult to teach in such a short period of time.
Affluent civilians often fail to appreciate the effort and time required to prepare a soldier for modern warfare. Without the aforementioned abilities, you will have at the very least a frightened man in a uniform trying to avoid shooting himself in the foot. If these men are sent to the front lines, it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of them will be killed within the first week of being in a combat zone.
Some newly captured Russian soldiers, however, have been found to have been deployed to the front only a day or two after mobilisation despite receiving no training whatsoever. They have been sent as replacements to the existing units, where they are more of a burden than help. Due to a lack of preparation, they often endanger the squad or platoon to which they have been assigned by exposing themselves to enemy fire or opening fire before it is safe to do so.
Putin’s mobilization’s lack of training is also the result of inadequate training facilities, which are too small to accommodate anything other than twice-yearly peacetime draught drills. Many teachers have been sent to the front in Ukraine, and there is a dearth of training simulators and tools. This demonstrates a long-ignored foundation for education and training. In a previous article, we discussed how the regular Russian forces were ineffective on the battlefield because of their emphasis on show.
Recruits can help existing units deal with massive personnel losses, but only in specific capacities. If they are not expected to perform any particularly complex tasks while on the battlefield, they can be used as regular riflemen. However, using more complex weapons like guided anti-tank missiles, mortars, crew-served guns, and weapons mounted on vehicles is highly unlikely.
Some people believe that after only three weeks of basic training, newcomers can begin working with actual units and expanding their knowledge and abilities in the field. It’s difficult enough to learn how to parallel park a car on a city street, let alone a tank.
Even in the back areas, enemy missiles, aircraft, artillery, and raiding teams can be drawn to road blockages and traffic jams caused by poorly driven trucks and armoured vehicles. Many pieces of Russian machinery were discovered abandoned early in the war, with only superficial or easily reparable damage to their drive systems and gearboxes. Using only his experience and a shovel, a skilled Ukrainian driver is shown in a short video posted to Twitter pulling a deserted Russian tank out of a trench. It appears that the Russian driver had a moment of inattention and drove the vehicle straight into the trench. The incompetent crew had given up trying to rescue it.
However, operating a tank is a breeze in comparison. The fire control system of a tank is much more complex and cannot be covered in a total of three weeks of training. And what about training of replacements for artillerymen, air-defense systems operators, radar and electronic warfare operators, drone operators and combat engineers? That’s not even considering the people who are responsible for keeping all of this machinery running.
The new recruits with minimal training are not suitable to fill many essential military roles, so Russia shows no signs of forming new units with support elements like brigades with infantry, tanks, artillery, reconnaissance, engineers, signals, air defence, and logistics support. On today’s battlefield, infantry alone can’t win. Ukraine is not a theatre of guerilla or asymmetric warfare; rather, it is as close as we have come to seeing an all-out conventional war in modern times.
Last but not least, there is no heavy equipment for the people who have been mobilised under Putin’s decree, even if they were to receive adequate training. Russia’s shortage of tanks, artillery, and armoured personnel carriers may be puzzling given the country’s vast supply of stored equipment. However, thousands of cutting-edge, modern models have been lost in Ukraine’s conflict. The replacements that were dug out of storage were either missing key parts or were so far out of date that they were useless.
Russia has such a hard time organising its warehouses that it can’t even locate the bare necessities. Soldiers simply do not have access to enough individual equipment. Warm clothing, sleeping bags, personal hygiene items, first aid kits, blankets, etc., have been recommended for the recruits to bring along. Most of the time, they don’t get provided with protective gear.
Since the conflict broke out, Ukraine has been able to recruit and organise roughly 700,000 conscripts and volunteers to serve in its own reserves. Most of them have completed formal training programmes in Ukraine or other countries. Large numbers are receiving their basic education in the Baltic States, Poland, Germany, and the United Kingdom, while others are receiving more specialised education in other countries, including the United States.
It is unlikely that sending tens of thousands of untrained infantrymen as replacements or organising them into ad hoc battalions with little combined arms support would do anything on the battlefield other than extend the conflict and increase the cost to the international community. Ukraine will continue to receive superior arms and training with the help of its NATO backers.
It’s highly unlikely that Putin’s current crop of reservists will have any significant military impact on the war for the rest of the year. Both sides will use the winter to bolster their forces in preparation for a resumption of ground operations in the spring.
Even if Russia manages to train up a reserve force, the season brings few good tidings. Since they don’t make any advanced solid-state electronic components for any kinds of modern armaments, Russia has a lot of trouble manufacturing new military hardware, even spare parts.
According to an official Russian statement in October, more than 200,000 recruits have been mobilised to date. It’s unclear how many have already been dispatched to Ukraine, but their presence has made little observable difference on the battlefield. Additionally, it is not anticipated to have any significant effect. Ukrainian forces will have an easy time picking off the untrained and incompetent Russian cannon fodder.
Most importantly, everything that has rendered Russian forces ineffective up to this point will still be in place. Inadequate initial command and control is a major issue. The lack of training among the newly drafted soldiers will only exacerbate the problems with command and control. While the front moved closer to Russian bases and remained more or less static for many weeks, this did little to alleviate the logistical problems that had plagued the war from the start. More troops to sustain won’t help matters if their mission is to advance.
Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder has stated that sending an additional 300,000 Russian troops to Ukraine will not improve the situation if Russia is unable to effectively lead, supply, and protect the current force of around 100,000. As the author puts it, “there’s nothing to indicate that it’s going to get any easier by adding more variables to the equation” if the organisation is already facing significant difficulties and hasn’t addressed some of the systemic strategic issues that make any large military force capable.
Russia’s reserve forces won’t accomplish much besides bringing home more bodies. In the event that the mobilisation fails to turn the tide of the war in Ukraine, Putin’s position will be further weakened, and the Ukrainians may be able to achieve a complete victory. How far is Vladimir Putin willing to go to protect his throne?