Tallying devastating losses and rapid Ukrainian gains more than 200 days into its wider war on Ukraine, the Kremlin on Tuesday hinted it could take a step that would be a profound shift in its posture: a nationwide general mobilization, one that could rope into wartime service potentially millions of Russians.
But this mobilization, if it goes into effect—and to be clear, that’s a big if—almost certainly would fail to reverse Russia’s faltering fortunes in Ukraine. Indeed, a mobilization very well could accelerate Russia’s defeat.
“Mobilization in Russia doesn’t solve them anything,” tweeted Mike Martin, a fellow at the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London.
The main hint of mobilization came in the form of a draft bill that appeared in the Duma, Russia’s rubber-stamp legislature, on Tuesday. Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t signed off on the proposed legislation. A speech Putin was supposed to make Tuesday got delayed to Wednesday.
Mobilization could make military service compulsory for millions of Russians who, at present, easily can avoid the armed forces’ twice-a-year draft. In theory, mobilization could swell the Russian army’s ranks by millions.
In practice, those throngs of new troops would lack instructors to train them, units to absorb them, commanders to lead them, noncommissioned officers to mentor them and equipment to give them useful combat power.
The main effects of mobilization would be to clog up the army’s fragile home garrisons, undermine the legitimacy of Putin and his regime, deplete the federal treasury and—in the best case—feed into Ukraine a lot of untrained, under-equipped and poorly led men who, more likely that not, quickly would surrender, desert or die.
Even a successful mobilization would be too late. “It takes months and months to turn civilians into soldiers,” Martin explained. “Russia needs soldiers yesterday, not in six months.”
In fact, the Russian army no longer is training new recruits to a useful standard before sending them to the front. This summer, as the Kremlin first began attempting to form new units in order to replace some of the estimated 50,000 casualties Russia then had suffered in Ukraine, trainees were getting as little as 30 days of training before deploying.
Months later, the army is even more desperate for fresh troops. Its casualties—dead and wounded—now could exceed 80,000. The Wagner Group, a mercenary firm that represents the last unequivocally effective fighting force on the Russian side in Ukraine, recently drew volunteers from Russian prisons and gave them only a few days of training before deploying them.
Predictably, some of those untrained ex-convicts promptly surrendered to the Ukrainians. Now imagine a young Russian, who never even wanted to fight, showing up at the front with even less training. “Cannon meat,” is how Mark Hertling, a retired U.S. Army general, described this hypothetical recruit.
This lack of training isn’t strictly a choice. The Russian army months ago raided its training base—instructors and garrison troops—in order to form a few front-line battalions. Those battalions, if they’re still intact, are busy trying and mostly failing to hold back twin Ukrainian counteroffensives in southern and eastern Ukraine.
All that is to say, right now the Russian army couldn’t train millions of new recruits even if it wanted to. Nor could it equip or lead them. The mass-mobilization infrastructure that the Soviet Union built during the Cold War no longer exists.
“In order to execute [mobilization] in case of the war, you need to maintain massive excessive capacities in … peacetime,” tweeted Kamil Galeev, an independent expert on Russian politics. “And the Soviet Union did. One reason why [the] Soviet army was so horribly excessive is that it maintained enormous excessive capacities just in case of mobilization.”
But the army sold off all that excess capacity during the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. “There are no excessive schools and grounds to train … new recruits. There are no excessive lodgings to quarter them. There are no excessive officers to lead them.”
And after losing 2,000 tanks and thousands of other armored vehicles in the first seven months of the war, the army no longer can arm new troops—at least, not with reasonably modern weapons. Those ancient T-62 tanks the Russians pulled out of storage this summer were just a preview of the technological regression to come.
“That doesn’t mean Putin won’t declare mobilization,” Galeev mused. “That just means it would be really stupid for him to do so.” While clogging the army’s depleted training bases with unwilling draftees wouldn’t produce useful combat power, it almost certainly would inspire fierce resistance in a populace that, so far, the Kremlin has managed to insulate against the worst effects of a losing war.
In that sense, the Ukrainians almost should hope for Putin to start drafting millions. A mobilization, more than any single battlefield success by Ukraine, might hasten the end of Putin’s rule … and the end of the war, too.
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