Main Image Credit From storage to the frontline. What Russia's mobilisation might mean. A Russian T-80. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo
Russia has failed to choose any one reserve system following the end of the Cold War, which will impact the efficacy of its mobilised forces. However, the mobilisation indicates a willingness to continue the war and challenge Western states.
President Vladimir Putin announced the long-awaited mobilisation of Russian society to fight the war in Ukraine on 21 September. His speech, and the decree released at the same time, set in motion a series of actions across Russia’s military, and notionally its economy too, to prepare the country for war. However, there is a lot to understand about Russia’s system of mobilisation and how it has changed in the past 30 years.
The specific conditions set forth in Putin’s decree cover those with former military experience, especially in desired areas such as drivers, gunners and artillerymen. It established clear grounds for those that would not be involved in the mobilisation, as well as the vague promise of quotas per region. It is worth noting that the decree is likely to disproportionately affect Russia’s poorer regions. The Russian armed forces are seen as one of the primary careers for young men from Dagestan, for example. This means that there will be more people in Dagestan liable for mobilisation than will be the case in other more affluent areas of Russia.
A Soviet Hangover
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union acknowledged the importance of massed forces in a potential clash with NATO. It understood that without significant reserves of manpower and equipment, it would be unlikely to win in a prolonged conflict with the West. Because of this, the Soviet Union invested vast resources in a mass mobilisation system.
It is likely that the Russian armed forces will be able to ameliorate some of their major shortcomings through tactics, techniques and procedures, and the use of artillery
However, many of the cadres responsible for maintaining the equipment and knowledge were disbanded after 2008, leading to a loss of equipment and capability. In their place, the Russian armed forces began experimenting with an operational reserve, which initially set out to maintain some form of mass reserve and a smaller operational reserve that could be used more regularly.
A decree was signed in 2014 announcing the formation of a voluntary military reserve. It was essentially re-announcing decrees issued in 2012 and 2013 but did lead to a small reserve system being explored experimentally in several regions. From 2016, reservists started participating in all major Russian exercises, although their role in those exercises is not clear. By 2018, Izvestia was reporting on the ‘full-scale formation of a mobilisation reserve’. Former service personnel were able to sign a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defence. In return they would receive a small salary, and be required to attend monthly classes along with annual exercises lasting 20–30 days. For comparison, the reserves encompassed by Putin’s mobilisation order are most likely part of the inactive mobilisation reserve, otherwise known as the ‘mobilisation human resource’. The voluntary reservists could be called up at any time, whether it be to alleviate a shortage of personnel in military units, for a ‘special or threatened period’, or in the event of major exercises and emergencies. The reserves were allocated to a Mobilisation Deployment Support Centre, which featured in exercises in 2019.
By 2021, the Russian armed forces and Russian news outlets were referring to the Special Combat Army Reserve (BARS), which carried many characteristics of the 2018 reserve system, indicating an element of continuity between 2015 and the BARS. Zvezda Weekly confidently proclaimed in September 2021 that 38,000 BARS reservists would be recruited in the Southern Military District (SMD) alone, although it was expected to take three years for the reserve to be completed. Nonetheless, the SMD commander, General Aleksandr Dvornikov, proudly reported the participation of BARS reservists in battalion- and regimental-level tactical exercises alongside regular forces that year, as well as the training of 30,000 reservists. Dvornikov appears to have been keen on employing modern military practices with the units under his command, which may in part explain why the SMD units have performed better than those from Russia’s other districts.
The financial rewards are understood to be a key form of motivation for many reservists, which are referred to as partisans by regular Russian soldiers and civilians – a reference to the Second World War reservists, who were prone to behaving more like partisans than soldiers. It is possible that the rushed effort to establish the BARS in the SMD and Central Military District (CMD) was actually in preparation for the war in Ukraine as there were exercises announced in Siberia in January, and others in the SMD at around the same time. The Russian Ministry of Defence said that 9,000 BARS contracts had been signed with citizens in the CMD. However, one Telegram account and other sources following troop deployments indicate that BARS personnel have already deployed to Ukraine; it is therefore difficult to assess whether Dvornikov’s efforts in 2021 will yield any significant contribution to the Russian armed forces at present.
Training is an enormous challenge for any military; however, it is difficult to assess how the Russian system will cope with the sudden influx of up to the 300,000 personnel promised by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. In theory, Russia maintains 11 higher education facilities responsible for training officers in frontline combat roles. Officers are very important to the Russian military system as they provide not only leadership but most training for the recruits and other ranks under their command. It is not clear how well staffed the officer training facilities are, but the Moscow Higher Combined Arms School indicates that it can support four battalions of officer cadets. Nonetheless, some instructors have reportedly been taken to form the command structures of new units already fighting in Ukraine. Because of this, the quantity of instructors left at Russia’s universities is unlikely to be sufficient to properly support a mass mobilisation.
Russia’s technological reserve has deteriorated significantly since 1991
There is, however, an alternative route for the training of mobilised reservists, which we call the Chechnya Model. For deployment to Chechnya, Russian forces realised that a much higher level of experience was required to fully utilise the effects of modern weaponry. As a result, pre-deployment training focused significant effort on improving weapon skills and knowledge. The second element was conducted in Chechnya by arriving units, who received specific training on the style of combat encountered at the time before conducting some live-fire drills. Typically, critical roles for combat, such as machine gunners and RPG operators, were assigned to those with the most experience, whereas those newly arrived in the combat zone became riflemen. It follows that the training model pursued for Russia’s mobilised forces might assume a number of these characteristics – the forces might not be optimal or as capable as their Ukrainian counterparts, but it is likely that the Russian armed forces will be able to ameliorate some of their major shortcomings through tactics, techniques and procedures, and the use of artillery.
My Grandfather’s Tank
Russia’s technological reserve has deteriorated significantly since 1991. It is now possible to observe vast tank graveyards using the satellite feature on Google Maps. It is therefore unhelpful to consider the total number of tanks and armoured vehicles produced by the Soviet Union as an indicator of Russian stocks. Nonetheless, it is possible to draw some assessments from what is known about Russia’s maintenance facilities and procedures. In 2018, Russia maintained 40 bases ‘for the storage and repair of military equipment [BHiRVT]’, 14 of them for motorised rifle regiments. Each BHiRVT stores and maintains all the equipment necessary to equip a complete formation – such as a motorised rifle regiment. Reserves were notionally required to report to these bases in times of mobilisation, but one Russian defence expert noted in 2018 that few had been maintained with the adequate number of staff. Nonetheless, they may remain a significant reserve of equipment; there were as many as 400 towed guns at the 591st artillery warehouse in the Novgorod Region in 2018. By 2020, there were at least four tank storage bases, which provided shelter for legacy tank designs such as the T-55, T-62, T-64 and T-80. The number of tanks held at these sites is not known but could extend into the thousands. However, some – such as the T-64s – have been removed from storage to equip the separatist forces in Ukraine as well as allies in Syria and elsewhere.
However, it is possible, and even likely, that Russia maintains sufficient reserves of equipment to arm large quantities of new units. Alexander Golts and Michael Kofman have suggested that the ground forces would require 60 reserve brigades to be mobilised to reach their wartime strength. It is unlikely that the 40 BHiRVT bases mentioned by Izvestia would meet this need. Irrespective of the number of brigades mobilised, some will be operating tanks that entered service when their grandfathers were conscripts, but this may not be the case across the entirety of the mobilised forces.
Storage conditions also vary, and the Russian Ministry of Defence differentiates between four different types of storage: (1) Light – a heated room; (2) Medium – a closed unheated room; (3) Hard – outside, under a canopy; and (4) Very hard – in the open air or under a canopy in a maritime environment. Within this framework there is long- and short-term storage. Short-term is for high-readiness units with the equipment held in a state where it could be made ready to fight within hours. This includes regular maintenance of batteries and spare parts, convenient placement of weapon sights and even ammunition. Long-term storage requires periodic maintenance and repair that is supposed to be carried out by the manufacturer and the Russian armed forces. Removing equipment from long-term storage occurs in stages; the vehicles are depressurised and ‘depreserved’ before they are checked to ensure that they function as intended. This check can be carried out at the storage site or at the place of deployment.
The artillery available to the mobilised Russian forces is likely to make the greatest difference to their contribution. Russia has been able to make its advances thanks in large part to its use of massed artillery barrages that Ukraine has struggled to answer until recently. Tank combat does occur in Ukraine, and in those cases where it does, Ukraine’s T-64s would likely outmatch T-62s and T-55s, as well as any older T-72s. However, in those cases where Ukrainian infantry might face T-62s or other armoured fighting vehicles, without their own armour, or anti-armour weapons, they will be at a distinct disadvantage.
How Long Will It Take?
The high-readiness section of Russia’s reserve system has been exploited to generate the initial force that invaded Ukraine; this force is therefore unlikely to provide a rapid change to the war. The massed mobilisation will take some time, although it is unlikely that the Russian armed forces will be allowed the months that they would require to turn this force into something truly useful. Instead, Russia’s history of rushing forces into combat is likely to gain a new grizzly chapter as former servicemen are pushed into Ukraine in the coming weeks.
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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The Russia Military Report is a series of Commentaries examining the Russian military and its capabilities. The series will include inputs from RUSI analysts as well as guest authors to provide an appraisal of Russia’s military through the lens of its organisation and institutional attitudes, its technical capabilities and its military thought.