Main Image Credit Under pressure: Putin has leaned heavily on his regional governors to implement Russia's mobilisation decree. Image: Council.gov.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
As Russia has sought to address manpower shortages in Ukraine through mass mobilisation, its regional governors have played a crucial role in delivering the numbers required.
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine is not just Putin’s war; it has many enablers and participants. Since 24 February, all high-level officials have been tasked by the Kremlin to use their authority to facilitate the war. This includes high-visibility officials but also more discrete characters such as Russia’s governors. Since 24 February, the governors have been active participants in the war – facilitating, among other things, manpower to the front.
Russia is a federal state with 83 constituent entities, including districts (krais), regions (oblasts) and minority ‘autonomous republics’ (but excluding the occupied regions of Crimea and Sevastopol, and the four Ukrainian districts ’annexed’ in September 2022). In spite of this diversity, Russian governors face similar political constraints. Ever since Putin built his ‘vertical of power’, Russian governors have come under considerable federal control. On key matters, governors are primarily implementers of federal policies. Pleasing the Kremlin – the source of essential rents and career progression – is their primary concern.
But the governors’ ability to successfully carry out the Kremlin’s orders is critical to the success of federal policy, so their importance should not be underestimated. Mobilisation – both in its current and prior ‘stealth’ form – is no different. How are governors implementing the mobilisation decree?
Tapping Russia’s Mobilisation Potential
Russia’s mobilisation potential is large, but harnessing its demographic power is a long-standing challenge. Russia’s population density is one of the lowest in the world, and even European Russia has a lower population density than all European countries other than Finland and Sweden. Yet, even today’s Russia is the ninth most-populated country in the world. The potential is there.
Wartime mobilisation has been a struggle for Russia. Up until the Enlightenment era, in times of war, Russia’s nobility would raise armies and provide resources for their sovereign. This authority gave them leverage in their relationship with the Tsar, which they occasionally used to resist centralisation. This leverage diminished as armies were raised by quotas in increasingly systematic peasant levies, culminating with the unified and universal conscription system of 1874.
Today, Russia’s conscription system continues to rely on quotas assigned to the governors by the Ministry of Defence. Governors have no authority to determine the size of the quota, but they are given a degree of liberty in how to fulfil their share. Their ability to do so has become critical, as the Kremlin did not expect the re-invasion of Ukraine to become a large-scale, prolonged war.
In recent wars, Moscow did not necessarily rely on numbers only, but ultimately faced opponents fielding smaller armies. Now, Russia still has a numerical advantage when it comes to artillery, but has been fighting with fewer soldiers than Ukraine. Going into the autumn, Russia faced a manpower ‘crunch’ that threatened its ability to defend its precariously held Ukrainian territories.
Decreed on 21 September, mobilisation was meant to stall the war and stop the liberation of Ukraine. The Russian government framed mobilisation as ‘partial’, even though the official decree did not use such a label. It also did not suggest that the mobilised would be fewer than one million (the total reserve army of Russia). The figure given on the day of the decree of 300,000 is nowhere to be seen in official documents, either.
There is no certainty about the real numbers mobilised so far. On 31 October, Putin announced that mobilisation had reached a timely conclusion with over 250,000 called up. Unofficial estimates range between 100,000 and 500,000; Western governments put the figure at 400,000. At the time of writing, the mobilisation decree has not ended, which leaves open the possibility of new ‘waves’ happening in the future. Several journalists and Ukrainian intelligence have stated that, in the end, the target figure for mobilisation may be at least one million.
Governors and Mobilisation
Since the start of the full-scale invasion, Russia’s governors have been fulfilling several tasks in support of the war effort. In mid-July, the governors received a directive to cooperate with the local military commissariats on the formation of regional battalions to contribute to a ‘volunteer’ force of 30,000.
Regional governments have been tasked to 'balance' the needs of mobilisation and shelter local businesses and companies from worsening economic conditions
To accomplish this goal, the governors advertised numerous monetary compensations for those joining up, all paid out of the regional budget. Despite these incentives and the war polling as popular across the country, few people enlisted as volunteers at that stage. By September, this ‘stealth’ mobilisation had failed to meet the manpower needs on the front.
Despite these shortcomings, governors received a relative margin of manoeuvre from the federal government, but not out of benign neglect; the federal government has avoided any cadre rotation at the gubernatorial level because of the tasks associated with the war. The governors have used this scope and proceeded with mobilisation on an ad hoc basis. Yet, they have used a similar toolkit to during the summer, including social appeasement, corporate welfare, and forceful recruitment.
As of late October, polls suggested that support for the war remained strong, but mobilisation has been profoundly unpopular. People are afraid to go to war, and all levels of government are aware of this. The federal government has offered several measures to appease the concerns of the mobilised and their families, particularly concerning income. To facilitate the fulfilment of the conscription quotas, governors have also been offering several incentives to draftees.
Generally, the financing of the war has been a murky affair, and the participation of regional budgets only adds to the complexity. Here, different regions have given different bonuses according to their available means. These bonuses are presented as measures of support for the affected population. Some governors offer cash payments at summoning; others offer money to the families of the mobilised; many offer compensation in the case of significant injury or death.
The amounts pledged vary, and they are inconsistently delivered, with many mobilised not seeing all or any of the promised money. In Moscow, governors promise the mobilised a monthly compensation of 50,000 roubles (about £700). In Sakhalin, the regional government pledged a lump sum of 300,000 roubles (about £4,200) paid to the families of the mobilised, as well as several kilograms of fish. In Tuva, the regional government offered as support to the families of the mobilised one live ram. Some regions admit that no additional support is possible due to budgetary limitations.
The full-scale war has created a severe labour shortage for many sectors of the Russian economy. Mobilisation and the hundreds of thousands that have left Russia to evade the draft have put additional strain on the sanctions-battered Russian economy. Regional governments have been tasked to ‘balance’ the needs of mobilisation and shelter local businesses and companies from these economic conditions.
Despite federal leadership on this subject, an ad hoc approach continues. As with the personal incentives, regional corporate welfare varies according to local circumstances, but it has mostly come in the form of compensation for each summoned worker and tax breaks, all afforded from the regional budget and paid at the discretion of local authorities. Other measures have been on the table. For example, the governor of the Kuzbass region proposed to replace mobilised workers with university students during the period of service. These measures have been especially important in those regions where significant arms, air transport and energy industries are located. Other measures some governors have taken to contain the economic fallout from mobilisation include civil servant training in wartime working conditions.
Personal incentives and other forms of spending are the apparently ‘benign’ face of the draft. The less humane side is the forceful delivery of draft notices, and the blurring between civilian and military authority. Two cases are exemplary: Moscow and Buryatia.
In Moscow, both the summer ‘stealth’ draft and the ongoing mobilisation have coercive features. Those looking to obtain Russian citizenship are targeted specifically for military service by the authorities at local migration centres. While still considered ‘volunteers’, blackmailing and coercion into service are common for those recruited in this way. Once mobilisation began, coercion continued as scores of individuals were summoned while being detained by the police for protesting mobilisation.
The government may remunerate the timely and orderly fulfilment of the governors' quotas with a new federal role or other discretionary rewards
In Buryatia, the way in which mobilisation was implemented blurred the line between military and civilian authority entirely, undermining the population’s essential rights. Civil servants and teachers participated in the delivery of draft notices; civilian infrastructure was further exploited as schools were used as temporary mobilisation centres. According to human rights organisations, the authorities summoned up to 5,000 individuals in the 24 hours following the mobilisation decree.
For the governors, their performance during mobilisation is critical because it will shape their career prospects. The federal government may remunerate the timely and orderly fulfilment of their quotas with a new federal role or other discretionary rewards.
Because the target number is hidden, it is impossible to know if the figures available are close to what the Kremlin planned for this mobilisation wave. Some regional governments reported the fulfilment of their quotas as early as late September.
Speed has come at a cost. Mobilisation has been chaotic and plagued by ‘excesses’. The disarray created by mobilisation led many governors and even the Kremlin to recognise the ‘errors’ made along the way. Wrongful summons have been rampant; in Khabarovsk, the governor admitted on 3 October that half of all recruits did not fulfil the criteria for conscription. In many cases, governors were expected to essentially rescue those wrongfully mobilised.
Procurement and living conditions for the mobilised are also the responsibility of the civilian authorities. The lack of supplies has forced some governors to procure clothes and combat equipment for draftees themselves. The failure of appeasement measures has further exacerbated the poor conditions for the mobilised. In Chuvashia, the failure to deliver summoning bonuses resulted in a mutiny on 1 November, which was quelled only by the deployment of OMON and Rosgvardia squadrons.
Mobilisation and its ‘excesses’ have not led governors to oppose the war. However, a few governors have seen mobilisation as an opportunity to gain leverage in their relationship with Moscow. Indeed, some governors have been openly critical of the way mobilisation has proceeded. Other governors have argued that the budgetary burden of mobilisation support necessitates increases in federal transfers to regional coffers. Generally, governors have been looking for new, short-term sources of revenue.
The federal government is also aware of the key role governors play in this area. Putin himself has insisted on the importance of ‘support’ (appeasement) for conscripts and the duty of governors to uphold these measures.
It is too early to tell whether mobilisation will change the balance of power between the governors and the federal government, but at a minimum we can expect some to gain and some to lose from the current juncture. Loyalty to Putin has been the key parameter for career progression in Russia, and the current situation is unlikely to change that.
This article is part of the Russia Military Report series.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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