26.12.22 Analytics

The Forever War

The proposed military reforms will see the country transition to a state of permanent mobilisation

Re: Russia
The mobilisation in the autumn failed either to provoke widespread resistance or weaken public support for the war, and as such convinced the Kremlin that the further militarisation of both the state and Russian society is possible. The military reforms, announced by Defence Minister Shoigu and backed by Putin, essentially abandon the decade-old post-Soviet idea of demilitarisation, and alter the country’s military doctrine. Shoigu and Putin want the country to return to the model of a belligerent state, adopting the Soviet principle of building extensive military capacity, ao that the army’s quantity may compensate for its quality.

The relative success of the ‘partial mobilisation’ carried out in the autumn has convinced the Kremlin that Russian society can be militarised even further. According to numerous sources, from early summer until September, Vladimir Putin had been hesitant to announce mobilisation. The move was seen as a potential catalyst that might undermine public support for the war in Ukraine. The ‘partial mobilisation’, announced in autumn, sent shockwaves through society, but as its active phase came to a conclusion, so too did the public sentiment return to the status quo. Ultimately, people’s opinion about the war remained the same. The protests by the wives and mothers of those who had been mobilised were suppressed and neutralised. Instead, the idea that participating in the war is a ‘male’ duty and obligation began to be accepted in certain social circles as a necessary byproduct of wartime. Thus, one unexpected result of mobilisation has been the militarisation of public consciousness.  

It is this social process that has helped shape the necessary conditions for the military reforms announced last week. This marked the end of the general trend towards demilitarisation, which had for decades been the dominant feature of post-Soviet Russia’s military doctrine. During this period, the number of military personnel fell from around 2 million servicemen in the first half of the 1990s to 1 million in the 2000-2010s; the length of mandatory military service decreased from two years to one. The official doctrine of this period included the transition to a predominantly professional army, with an emphasis placed on the creation of mobile and effective rapid reaction forces. This liberal strategy was designed to reduce the pressure of defence spending on the economy in order to maximise its growth potential.

The war in Ukraine has revealed the contract army model to be unsuitable for conducting large-scale military operations and fighting a protracted, conventional war. However, this idea does not necessarily contradict the ideology of post-Soviet Russia, or its military doctrine, as post-Soviet Russia had not had any significant territorial disputes with its neighbours and thus had not needed to wage a protracted war. At the same time, the country’s huge nuclear arsenal was seen as a core component of its defence capabilities. 

Although a territorial dispute arose with the annexation of Crimea, this did not directly change Russia’s military strategies. The new military doctrine, signed in December 2014, reflected what was happening in Crimea and Donbass at the time, albeit in a rather strange way. The list of the main ‘external military dangers’ (which was almost identical to those of the 2010 doctrine) was supplemented with paragraph ‘n’, adding ‘the establishment of regimes in states adjacent to the Russian Federation, including as a result of the overthrow of the state’s legitimate authorities, whose policies threaten the interests of the Russian Federation.’

The number of servicemen of the armed forces of the Russian Federation, declared in presidential decrees, 1994–2023, thousand people

The army and conscription reforms, announced by Minister of Defense Shoigu, institutionalise the change of direction that Russia's state military ideology has taken. A key area of the reforms is an increase of armed forces personnel to 1.5 million people. As a result, the proportion of servicemen within the population will increase sharply, amounting to more than 1% of the total population of Russia (or more than 2% of the working-age population). This totals more than 4% of working-age men. According to the annual review from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the number of armed forces personnel in China is 2.035 million people, and its population is ten times larger than that of Russia (so 0.012% of China’s total population). In India that number stands at 1.46 million, with a population approximately the same as that of China (0,1%). In the USA, the number of military personnel stands at 1.395 million, and its population at 336 million people, or 2.3 times the population of Russia (0.4%). It is only in North Korea that the army (1.3 million people) comprises 4.9% of the population. In South Korea, which is technically still at war with North Korea, the size of the army relative to its population is approximately that envisaged by Minister Shoigu for Russia.

The largest armies in the world: the share of military personnel in the population of the country, 2022,%

The 1.5-fold increase in the number of servicemen announced in the reforms can only be explained by a fundamental change in the tasks of the armed forces. Moreover, alongside the presence of a powerful nuclear defence shield, the target army size cannot be explained by defensive tasks alone. In fact, a sharp increase in the number of military personnel reflects the adoption of a new state military doctrine, even though it has not yet been publicly announced. It is evident that Shoigu is proposing the formation of an army of a belligerent state. As Russia has not suffered from any enemy attacks, the drastic change in the number of military personnel reflects the emergence of new tasks in the military doctrine: moving deep into enemy territory with a stretched front line and then maintaining control over the occupied territories.

The militarisation of public life is also reflected in the draft reforms. The draft age has been raised from 18–27 years to 21–30 years, a process which can be seen as the result of a transformation within the compulsory military service institute. Prior to the reforms, the institute was of a preemptive nature (similar to extended military training) and it was mainly young men who had just graduated from school who were subject to conscription. The more ‘mature’ conscripts are more suited for direct combat. The age shift also reduces the proportion of conscripts receiving study deferrals.

In the future, it is highly likely that the parameters of this reform will be supplemented by an extension of the length of conscription service. The Kremlin’s usual preparatory campaign for these types of situations has already begun in the media — namely, hypothetical discussions in the Duma and the Federation Council, denials, redirection of responsibility, officials stating ‘their own opinions,’ etc. There is also a telltale discrepancy in the numbers:  in order to reach the proposed size of 1.5 million military personnel, the Russian army needs to be increased by about 490 thousand people, however, thus far only an increase in the number of contracted soldiers has been announced ( this would increase the number by 290 thousand personnel). 

It is important to note that the military reforms are taking place alongside Putin's decree on ‘partial mobilisation’, which is still in effect. The decree does not set any time limits for the duration of ‘partial mobilisation,’ and the Kremlin’s refusal to void the decree means (as lawyers have explained a number of times) that the wartime regime that it has established will become permanent and as such anyone liable for military service may be called up.

Taking this into account, rumours and fears concerning the second wave of mobilisation seem to be unfounded. There is no need for a new mobilisation campaign, which would likely be similar to the first one carried out in the autumn, which was fraught with social tension and growing protest. Instead, it is possible to maintain an influx of manpower into the troops under the guise of ‘additional recruitment’, which can be distributed over time as those mobilised earlier are ‘retired’. And in order to normalise this process, a unified database of military records is hastily being created. As the autumn campaign demonstrated, citizens do not dare to protest against mobilisation as such, instead channelling their dissatisfaction towards its ‘excesses’ (i.e. cases where citizens were incorrectly mobilised, it may be that they were not fit for military service or that they had a deferment). The database will allow for a state of permanent mobilisation, and will hope to avoid any scandals along the way. It can be assumed that the regime of ‘creeping mobilisation’ will remain in place until ‘Shoigu’s plans’ to increase the size of the army have been implemented.

Other aspects of Shoigu's proposed reforms appear to be the final dismantling of Defence Minister Serdyukov’s reforms, which were carried out between the 2000s and 2010s and were aimed at eradicating the Soviet legacy and bringing the Russian army up to modern standards. In this sense, the reforms look like a return to the Soviet principles of military development. These extensive principles (quantity instead of quality) will also require a return to similar practices in the production of armaments and military equipment, which is also intended to compensate for the army’s technological backwardness.