Main Image Credit In it for the long run? The risks of Russian mobilisation to Ukraine. Ukrainian soldiers ride in an armoured personnel carrier in the town of Izium, September 2022. Image: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo
Vladimir Putin made a mistake by delaying the decision to mobilise, but it is vital that the West avoids similarly squandering advantage through procrastination and complacency.
Having failed to seize Kyiv and then Donbas, his armies exhausted and losing ground, President Vladimir Putin finally declared mobilisation. This decision has several short-, medium- and long-term implications. To understand them, however, it is necessary to appreciate how long it will take for mobilised personnel to be useful, and thus how long Ukraine has to prepare.
This option was first considered in the Russian government in March. Had Putin made the decision to mobilise in early May, it is likely that new Russian units would now be ready to be pushed into Ukraine, just as Ukraine’s forces are stretched out, consolidating their recent gains. This would have been the most dangerous course of action. But Putin – long known for putting off difficult decisions – instead decided to reinforce his depleted units through recruitment campaigns. This has kept up troop levels, but topping up demoralised units did not improve their combat power.
With many Russian units in Ukraine between 50% and 70% strength, the most immediate effect of mobilisation will be to create a large number of poorly trained replacements to shore up the numbers. On the Kyiv axis in March, Russian forces had a 12:1 force ratio advantage against Ukraine. In Severodonetsk, Russia achieved a 7:1 advantage. Their units were still only able to make progress with massive artillery support. Today, their guns are suppressed because of the threat to their ammunition from GMLRS, and so this immediate topping-up of units will not produce significant offensive capabilities. It will, however, likely help to stabilise defensive lines, increasing the level of resources Kyiv must commit to achieve breakthroughs. Nevertheless, throwing unwilling and under-trained replacements into already-demoralised units at the onset of winter is unlikely to change the direction of fighting on the ground.
Much more dangerous for Ukraine is the prospect of Russia forming new formations out of their mobilised recruits. To take new recruits, turn them into units with a basic level of training, refurbish old equipment and distribute it, and create the command and control for any sort of offensive manoeuvres will take months. It will be hampered by Russia having already deployed many of its instructors for various military specialisms to Ukraine, and the fact that Russian recruits usually complete their training in their units, which are now deployed. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to expect new formations to be formed for February.
For the West, there is a risk that, given Russia’s military position on the ground, mobilisation is met with complacency
Initial formations are likely to be equipped with an assortment of older weaponry. Russian industry is still reeling to service existing fleets. Over time, however, if the Russian government manages its industry competently, it will consolidate its efforts on a limited number of systems and begin to stabilise supply. It is also possible that Iran and China – some equipment from both countries is already in use in Ukraine – may help to equip new formations from the spring. There will be considerable deviation in these new units from Russia’s pre-invasion forces.
The history of infantry-heavy formations conducting offensives against modern, mechanised troops demonstrates that they can deliver results. The best example is China’s driving back US forces in Korea during its initial offensive. There, however, Chinese forces were made up of highly experienced and motivated veterans of the People’s Liberation Army. And they still took massive casualties. The prospects for Russia’s new formations against Ukrainian troops is less promising, so long as Ukraine has the ammunition and reserves to deal with the numbers. Men against metal is usually a poor bet.
To assess Putin’s strategy therefore, it is not likely that the Kremlin is aiming to build a force able to overwhelm the Ukrainian armed forces. Instead, the more likely objective is to stabilise Russian losses and then to protract the conflict beyond 2023. Ukraine is already dependent on Western munitions stocks and financial support. The Kremlin’s theory of victory is likely that mobilisation will sufficiently prolong the war to enable its unconventional campaign of economic warfare, political destabilisation, escalation threats, and influence campaigns in Europe and the US to cause Ukraine’s allies to force Kyiv to negotiate. For China, contemplating a move against Taiwan, the prospect of a long conflict that significantly depletes Western military stocks and finances must seem attractive.
For the West, there is a risk that, given Russia’s military position on the ground, mobilisation is met with complacency. In practice, however, it means that new Ukrainian manoeuvre units must be trained and equipped to counter new Russian formations in the spring. It also means that improving Russian troop levels will force Ukraine to expend more materiel to make progress. There is, therefore, a need to reinforce success now by continuing to expand training and equipping of Ukrainian troops. There is also a need to transition defence industry to be able to sustain production of equipment and ammunition throughout 2023. This is both to meet Ukraine’s needs and to reinforce a deterrence posture against China.
The decision point to make such preparations is now. If those decisions are not taken, Western governments – like Putin – may find that when they come to pull the lever, there is a considerable lag between when the resources are needed and when they become available. The cost for Kyiv of such complacency would be severe. It is also possible that if new waves of Russian recruits, forcibly mobilised, fail to improve Russia’s position on the battlefield, then the political backlash in Russia may provide the best means of compelling Moscow to shift its policy.
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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Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare