23.09.22 Mobilisation Review

The Special Operation and the Mobilisation: the need to make up for military losses and neutralise the Ukrainian army’s advantage forced the Kremlin into an unpopular and ineffective decision

There were several reasons behind Russia’s decision to announce a partial mobilisation:  needing to compensate for the Russian army’s losses after seven months of hostilities, neutralising the advantages of the Ukrainian army, and being able to defend the occupied territories. The mobilisation happened because Russia lost its firepower advantage, and the voluntary commercial recruitment campaign failed. However, the very ability of the Russian military machine to effectively carry out a mobilisation and then form effective units, taking into account that the decision has proved to be very unpopular among citizens, raises serious doubts. The mobilisation was met with a flurry of negative opinions on social media.

There are about 1 million servicemen in the Russian army according to official sources. In reality, however, the figures are much lower, according to calculations by military expert Pavel Luzin published by the Center for Study of European Policy (CEPA). If there were 770 thousand military personnel in Russia in 2016, then in 2022 that number was between 740 to 780 thousand. At the same time, the number of those who are combat ready is significantly lower than these figures. In August, Shoigu announced that the Russian army had 168 battalion tactical groups (BTGs). Considering that each BTG usually consists of 800-1000 soldiers and officers, the total combat capability of the country's armed forces did not exceed 168 thousand people. These units could also be backed up by the reserve force, whose number is estimated at no more than 100,000 people, Luzin argues. The National Guard, which may also have been present in Ukraine and is the second largest Russian military organisation, does not exceed 60-80 thousand people.

In March, the Pentagon claimed that about 190,000 Russian soldiers had participated in the war with Ukraine. Between 60,000 and 80,000 of them had been killed and wounded, according to estimates by US military and intelligence agencies. Even if the data is not entirely correct, it still constitutes a huge loss for the Russian army, and partial mobilisation will not be able to compensate for these figures, Luzin believes. President Zelensky and Ukrainian Defense Minister Reznikov have put the number of Ukrainian armed forces at 1 million and 700 thousand people, respectively, but this, of course, is an exaggeration of propaganda. However, due to its own successful mobilisation, Ukraine has been making up for its manpower losses much more effectively and most likely has more men fighting than Russia does. At the same time, the Russian army has been unable to use its advantage in artillery firepower to gain a stronghold, nor has it achieved air superiority. This raises the significance of Ukraine’s upper hand in terms of manpower. 

The mobilisation was the result of the need to make up for Russia’s colossal losses during seven months of war, as well as the failure of efforts to build up forces through voluntary mobilisation to protect the occupied Ukrainian territories, experts from the Institute for the Study of War note. However, will Russia be able to carry out its plan? The spring conscription campaign failed; shortly before it ended, Shoigu reported that only 89,000 people had signed up instead of the planned 134,000. Currently, the Kremlin wants 3.5 times more people. This requires significant organisational resources, which the Russian military system lacks. Military registration and enlistment offices are in over their heads, human rights activists interviewed by Novaya Gazeta say. Information coming out about how the mobilisation has been going so far indicates that it is being conducted chaotically. Instead of enlisting people with prior combat experience and military training, registration and enlistment offices have been grabbing anyone they can get their hands on, trying to show that they’re hitting the set targets. 

To add to this, mobilised people need to be equipped and provided with sergeants and officers, not to mention some sort of minimum preparation before being sent to the front. But even if the authorities manage to recruit some of the 300,000 people announced by Shoigu, they will arrive at the front no earlier than in one or two months, right before winter starts and the intensity of the military campaign will decrease.

At the same time, the mobilisation has proved to be unpopular among Russians. Data from telephone surveys commissioned by the Anti-Corruption Foundation shows that half of the respondents (48%) are definitely against the mobilisation, with 29% expressing their support. The Russians’ rejection of the mobilisation is also evidenced by an express analysis of how people on social media reacted to the announcement. 170 thousand posts and stories from the day the mobilisation was announced (September 21) were analysed. The vast majority contained a negative reaction. “There aren’t many people who wrote decisive posts in support of the mobilisation,” notes anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova, the author of the analysis.

Sentiment of highlighted social media post mobilisations published on September 21