The Russian army has failed to reform for years

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Almost everywhere you look, Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s “partial mobilization” is creating a mess. On the border between Russia and Georgia, a country the Kremlin invaded in 2008 amid flirtations with NATO, a traffic jam of men fleeing military service stretched nearly 16 miles. And Ukraine encouraged it, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urging Russian troops to surrender and the Ukrainian military itself turning the procession of fleeing Russians in an Internet meme.

But the uneven mobilization, Russia’s largest since World War II, will not solve Russia’s problems on the battlefield, experts have said. And it is an indictment of years of waning Russian military reform efforts, 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 himself and has little prospect for his wealth in Ukraine.

For years after the fall of the Soviet Union, successive Russian leaders pledged to reduce the bloated Soviet-era military, which exceeded 5,000,000 conscripts at the height of the Cold War, to a stronger force. leaner, more modern and better paid. But military experts view the piecemeal mobilization as a negative referendum on the Kremlin’s decades-long effort to reform the Russian military.

Almost everywhere you look, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization” is creating a mess. On the border between Russia and Georgia, a country the Kremlin invaded in 2008 amid flirtations with NATO, a traffic jam of men fleeing military service stretched nearly 16 miles. And Ukraine encouraged it, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urging Russian troops to surrender and the Ukrainian military itself turning the procession of fleeing Russians in an Internet meme.

But the uneven mobilization, Russia’s largest since World War II, will not solve Russia’s problems on the battlefield, experts have said. And it is an indictment of years of waning Russian military reform efforts, 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 himself and has little prospect for his wealth in Ukraine.

For years after the fall of the Soviet Union, successive Russian leaders pledged to reduce the bloated Soviet-era military, which exceeded 5,000,000 conscripts at the height of the Cold War, to a stronger force. leaner, more modern and better paid. But military experts view the piecemeal mobilization as a negative referendum on the Kremlin’s decades-long effort to reform the Russian military.

“It’s a complete disaster for them, and a chance for us,” said James Foggo, a retired admiral who commanded the US Navy’s 6th Fleet, responsible for Europe and Africa, and who now directs the Maritime Strategy Center of 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 youngsters want to fight.

And Putin’s partial mobilization effort has also caused chaos across the vast expanse of Russia, revealing a widespread lack of preparedness. The Kremlin has called on Russian local governments to bear much of the financial burden of preparing new troops, while a lack of training grounds has forced some new servicemen to train in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia. The Kremlin has stepped up prosecutions of men trying to flee military service, while state agencies and police departments have worked to protect their own against the call-up order.

As the Russian military quickly moved into Georgia after its 2008 invasion, the blitz revealed deep-seated failings, including a bloated command structure and an army made up of small groups of active-duty troops that would be fleshed out. by conscripts. The Kremlin has proposed sweeping new military reforms, emphasizing supply rather than manpower, to have an army capable of responding to immediate crises. The Kremlin believed it was wasting resources on mass mobilization that it could better use to keep active-duty troops more ready to fight.

“It was expensive to maintain a standing army and a cadre-type army,” said Rob Lee, a senior fellow with the Eurasia program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former US Marine Corps officer. “You have to have equipment to handle all of this, you have to have more officers to handle all of this, and if you do it right you probably have to call in the mobilized reservists from time to time to see that they could do their work.

The reform period, which lasted around five years until Putin formally regained power as Russia’s president in May 2012, also saw the Russian ground forces begin to reorganize into battalion tactical groups of up to up to 4,500 soldiers who deployed on the Ukrainian border. past two years, with the aim of reducing management levels and reducing headcount. In total, the Russian army has shrunk from 1,890 to 172 major units, according to a US Army study conducted in 2016.

The 2009 reforms also led the Russian Ministry of Defense to lay off 60,000 junior officers from active duty as part of a cost-cutting measure, giving them the opportunity to join the army with reserve status as only contract troops, with non-commissioned officers, sergeants and contract soldiers reaching 300,000 by 2015. But Russia never finished building a reserve system large enough for mass mobilization while she fought smaller conflicts in countries like 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 were not needed.

“They were very skinny,” said a former US official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The Russians have always had a big labor problem. They don’t have enough people on it. So I think the Ukrainians saw an opportunity.

This challenge has also been compounded by Russia’s long-standing practice of replacing depleted units en bloc, 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 the war on the NATO front line, unable to replace replacements, was left incomplete and forced to flee a Ukrainian campaign on Kharkiv in mid-September. In some cases, manpower shortages leave officers as junior as first lieutenants expected to command platoons, commanding formations as large as a battalion, experts said.

And the Kremlin has set itself the long-term goal of converting its maneuver units into battalion tactical groups, thereby reducing the need for conscripts. While the Russian military is already sending in trainers and exhausting the few training centers in the field, it is still forced to rely heavily on the limited number of hard-fought elite troops.

“If you’re going to do a very short operation, bring in the most experienced and well-equipped people to form units out of your peacetime formations which you can then employ on the battlefield,” said Jack Watling, principal researcher. for Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. “The theory is nice. In a combat situation, what you’re really doing is taking your most experienced troops, putting them in the front echelon, so that if things go wrong, they’re the ones who die.

Worse still, the Russian military had built units that did not train together, leaving officers in the dark about their abilities and making them more likely to be ineffective if they suffered casualties, and were manned with smaller staffs than their Western counterparts. Lee said the cadets are even training some of the mobilized men.

“It’s debatable whether or not this will have a big 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 Ukraine fights and adopts western weapons and the momentum it has, and the sophistication and fighting spirit of the Ukrainian Armed Forces compared to an untrained conscript force that is bribed or compelled to fight in the first place.”

Instead of the hordes of trained reservists that were at the disposal of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin relied on the paramilitary group Wagner and even released prisoners in a desperate attempt to conquer a state-sized country. Texas American.

Yet the structure of the modern Russian military is also heavily marked by the two Chechen wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, which saw the Kremlin seize the predominantly Muslim mountainous territory amid heavy casualties. The Russian public had little appetite for fighting costly ground wars on Russia’s periphery, even if it meant sapping the muscles of the military during the height of the Soviet years. And ever the KGB man, Putin also placed the troops in subordinate roles to the Russian heirs to the Soviet spy agencies.

“The post-Chechnya social contract that Putin established with the Russian population was a highly contested one in which conscripts would not be used unless it was a war of national survival,” Watling said. “The purpose of the military was to fight short wars and essentially to be a strategic messaging tool, a tool for projecting support to allies for foreign policy, and perhaps most importantly, a tool that the services specials may apply.”

Russia’s readiness for a short – rather than a long – war was compounded by battlefield casualties and superior Ukrainian recruitment. And these are losses that Russia cannot replace.

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


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