‘Partial mobilisation’ of Russian reservists may reveal Putin’s desperation

‘Partial mobilisation’ of Russian reservists may reveal Putin’s desperation

Faced with a series of setbacks in eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilisation” of Russia’s reservist forces on Wednesday. But some analysts say the move will have only a limited impact on the front lines of the conflict. 

In a televised address on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilisation” of Russia’s reservist forces to help boost the war effort in Ukraine.

The mobilisation of these forces will serve to “protect our nation, its sovereignty and territorial integrity” as well as “ensure the security of our people and those in areas that have been liberated”, he said, the latter a reference to occupied areas of Ukraine. 

In his speech, Putin appeared to shift from his previous justification for the invasion – that Russia was merely conducting a “special military operation” in Ukraine – to invoking a more existential threat, namely that Russia is resisting an onslaught from a West whose objective is “to weaken, divide and finally destroy this country“.

Shortly after Putin’s speech his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said that Russia is not at war with Ukraine but with the “collective West”. Shoigu also offered more details on the new plan, specifying that it would involve only 300,000 reservists who have already served in combat.

But some fear this is just the beginning of a broader mobilisation. “The mobilisation order is formulated in the vaguest terms possible, allowing the minister of defence to decide who and how many people will be sent to the front. Sergei Shoigu has capped the number at 300,000, but he can revise this at any moment and mobilise unlimited reservists,” Pavel Chikov, a Russian lawyer and chairman of the Agora International Human Rights Group, wrote on Telegram.

>> ‘Ghost recruits’: Is Putin raising a Potemkin army to boost troop numbers?

The number of Russian reservists that could eventually be called up remains unknown, with estimates varying widely.

“In theory, Russia can mobilise between 2 and 20 million men,” said Nicolo Fasola, a specialist in the Russian military at the University of Bologne. Two million men who have served in the last five years could be considered among those who have seen combat and are thus eligible for mobilisation. In all, Fasola said, 20 million men on the list of reservists are still of an age to serve at the front.

Shoigu said around 25 million people meet the criteria to be mobilised, but that only around 1 percent will be called up.

For now, Fasola said, the discussion of mobilising just 300,000 troops allows the government to maintain the illusion among the Russian population that the invasion remains a “special military operation” that does not yet require total nationwide mobilisation, allowing Putin to stick with his “propaganda message”.

‘More prisoners and more dead’

Putin’s latest move has a public relations goal as well as a strategic one, said Jeff Hawn, an expert on Russian military affairs. “The main target of Putin’s allocution is the West – he wants to show he can up the ante. But by sticking to a ‘partial’ mobilisation, he also tries to mitigate internal backlash,” said Hawn, a consultant for the New Lines Institute think tank. Moreover, Putin want to show the world that he commands an army with enough reservists to continue fighting.

Over the past several weeks, the Ukrainian army has routed Russian forces from the Kharkiv region of northeast Ukraine and has forced them to retreat even from areas of Luhansk in the Donbas.

Mobilising more troops is key if Russia wants to resist the Ukrainian advance, Fasola said. “The addition of 300,000 men is a necessary step. Otherwise the prospect of losing the war was becoming very real.”

But the impact of this mobilisation may be limited, said Hawn, noting that it is really “just making official the unofficial shadow mobilisation” that has been going on for months.

“The largest impact that this partial mobilisation will have is more prisoners and more dead, because this military doctrine doesn’t address the fundamental problem of the Russian army,” Hawn said.

These reservists “will receive only short training sessions and won’t have any prior experience in fighting alongside the men already on the front. And [they] don’t know the commanding officers,” Hawn noted, adding that this will only undermine the cohesion of Russia’s fighting force.

But there is one notable difference with this latest decree: Reservists refusing to head to the front will now face lengthy prison terms of between 10 and 15 years.

Indeed, Putin’s call for Russians to defend the country from the onslaught from the West may be having little effect in whipping up patriotic fervor. Protests against the mobilisation announcement erupted across Russia on Thursday, with more than a hundred people detained, according to local rights groups.

Many Russians were observed trying to leave the country as soon as the tougher penalties for those who refuse to take up arms were announced. As Turkish journalist Ragıp Soylu said on Twitter, “direct flights between Moscow and Istanbul or Yerevan are fully booked”.

Reservists without weapons?

“Russia is sticking with a military doctrine of overwhelming the enemy with numbers,” Fasola said. “Moscow saw it work in Georgia (in 2008) and in Ukraine in 2014 and thought it was still a valid option. But this time seems to be different.”

Moreover, sending more reservists does not address some of the Russian military’s fundamental weaknesses. “This doctrine does not make it possible to compensate for the shortcomings of the Russian army brought to light by this war,” Hawn observed. Facing off against Ukrainians armed with modern Western weapons and officers influenced by NATO strategists, he said the Russians appear ill-equipped and poorly commanded.

Above all, Russia may be facing a problem supplying the necessary materiel. The Russian military sector has been affected by both the war and Western sanctions, Fasola said. Equipping 300,000 new troops will likely involve relying on outdated stockpiles of weapons that may prove ineffective against the technologies Ukraine is now using.

Putin has already said he wants to increase the production of arms. But that takes time, Fasola said.

“I would say that bringing the soldiers to the front might take a month or so,” he estimated. “Much less [time] than producing more weapons – which could lead to an awkward situation for the army, where the soldiers are available but not fully equipped.”

This article was translated from the original in French. 

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