More Russian soldiers will not fix Russia’s command structure.


Faced with setbacks on the battlefield, Russian President Vladimir Putin this week ordered the partial mobilization of 300,000 troops. Most analysts see it as a move to offer respite to its exhausted military – as well as appease critics in Russia who believe the invasion has moved too slowly in Ukraine.

But the announcement of the mobilization may be a sign of weakness, not strength. A brilliantly executed Ukrainian counteroffensive near Kharkiv recaptured nearly 6,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian land, liberating dozens of villages while inflicting heavy casualties on a demoralized Russian army.

Six months into the war, an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 Russian soldiers are dead, wounded or deserted. Some 6,200 military vehicles, among the most sophisticated in Russia, were destroyed or abandoned. Deserters and refuseniks now make up around 20-40% of some front line units.

Will Russia’s partial mobilization succeed in stemming the tide and increasing Russian military effectiveness? My research on the sources of military effectiveness suggests this is unlikely.

The devil is in the details

It all depends on the extent and speed with which the mobilization campaign unfolds. Russian history offers few precedents, with only two mass mobilization campaigns, during World War I and World War II. The formidable Soviet-era system of mass mobilization has atrophied over the past decade – instead, the Kremlin has sought to staff Russia’s wars with a mix of contract soldiers, conscripts to short service, mercenaries and local allies.

Historically, the Russian military trains its soldiers within their original units, but many defeated units may be ill-equipped to train replacements. public protests, dodge drafts and the outright leak suggest that the hoped-for surge of 300,000 troops could be more than a trickle.

Why mobilizing Russia could reduce the risk of nuclear war – for now

These new soldiers might not help much on the battlefield

In the short term, the new measures could help Russia consolidate its new position on the battlefield. More importantly, inside this partial mobilization was an order suspending all short-term service contracts.

Seeking to fill the gaps in its manpower, the Russian army turned to short-term soldiers who signed lucrative contracts for 4 to 6 months of service. Now these soldiers can no longer leave the service when their contract expires – or refuse to deploy to their units.

If next week’s hastily scheduled referendums take place in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts, Russia will likely claim it can legally deploy Russian conscripts to those disputed Ukrainian territories. Once winter sets in, crippled units can be withdrawn, allowing them to rest and replenish their ranks (Russia typically leaves units in place until 50-60% of their original strength is lost).

But newly mobilized soldiers are likely to be poorly trained, with their previous combat experience a distant memory. A high death rate among Russian army officers, partly due to the deliberate targeting of Ukraine, has left Putin’s army without enough trainers.

In the race to master and implement the lessons of this war, the Ukrainians have taken the lead very high. This means that Russian troops will face skilled Ukrainian forces that have mastered the principles of decentralized warfare through small, highly motivated and independent units.

Russia also does not have the necessary stocks of equipment to compensate for its losses. Old tanks cannibalized from Soviet-era stocks are already on the front line; in many cases the reservoirs are much older than their operators. If the best-equipped and trained Russian forces couldn’t capture Kyiv or hold Kharkiv, it’s unclear why this second wave would fare better.

Putin just called young men to war. He’s taking a big risk.

Will the mobilization make Russia’s military problems worse?

A partial mobilization risks exacerbating the structural problems inherent in the Russian army, as well as military morale. The war highlighted the importance of combat motivation and the huge disparity between Russian and Ukrainian will to fight. Contracted soldiers are likely to resent being forced to fight past their contract end date, further damaging morale. Uncertain of the purpose of the war and eager to avoid harm, newly enlisted soldiers are likely to be motivated more by survival than nationalism.

A wave of new soldiers does little to fix Russia’s command structure. Less military than a collection of warring tribes, the Russian military in Ukraine now comprises at least nine different organizations, including prisoner battalions, pro-Russian Chechens, local militias, the National Guard, army units regular force and paramilitaries of the Wagner group.

Without unraveling the lines of authority, the infusion of additional soldiers seems very likely to intensify bickering between commands for resources – and to worsen problems of coordination and control. Of course, the greater the number of soldiers, the more rapid cascades of desertion and indiscipline can tear through the ranks. Russian commanders might find it necessary to divert incoming soldiers to the task of surveilling other soldiers, a devouring dynamic that would undermine Russia’s military objectives in Ukraine.

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Putin’s decision is also a political bet

Putin’s partial mobilization is also politically risky. The “partial” nature of the mobilization risks provoking the ire of his nationalist supporters, who could portray him as inept. Meanwhile, any mobilization risks increasing opposition from those who have so far remained relatively silent on the war.

Should Putin be worried? Russian leaders are rarely overthrown after a military defeat. Indeed, since 1800, Russia has lost 17 of the 49 conventional wars it has fought, but domestic opponents have toppled only two leaders.

But these currents of opposition deserve to be watched, especially if Putin decides to broaden the social base of the mobilized soldiers. To this day, the war has been fought on the backs of non-Russians and poor Russians in areas far from the bright lights of Moscow and St. Petersburg. A decision to change regional quotas and take advantage of a more representative sample of Russian citizens could provoke the backlash that Putin has been keen to avoid.

It’s also possible that the specter of a rebuilt Russian military will prompt Ukrainian leaders to redouble their efforts to seize additional territory now, before the window for offensive operations closes. And Putin’s renewed commitment and nuclear threats could encourage Western allies to supply advanced weapons to Ukraine.

It is therefore unlikely that a partial mobilization will bring Russia any real victory. But it will almost certainly prolong the war, allowing Russia to hang on to the fight while crushing Ukrainian forces. The cost of Putin’s decree will be increased bloodshed and destruction in the weeks and months to come.

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Jason Lyall (@jaylyall_red5) is the James Wright Professor of Transnational Studies at Dartmouth College and author of Divided Armies: Inequalities and Battlefield Performance in Modern Warfare (Princeton University Press, 2020).

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