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Special psychological operation: Are rumors of a new wave of mobilization in Russia justified?

The Russian authorities and pro-Kremlin experts have been actively hinting at an attempt at a new major offensive in Ukraine: this follows, for example, from Vladimir Putin's initiative to create a so-called “sanitary zone” on the border with Belgorod Region.

The Russian president also signed a decree that re-established the Soviet-era Leningrad Military District, with the new body taking over most of the territory previously under Russia's Northern Fleet — close to new NATO member Finland and the Baltic states. After that, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the formation of two new combined arms armies in late March, adding that other units and subdivisions would also be created. In early April, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed that, according to information from the Ukrainian special services, Russia would sign an order to mobilize 300,000 people by June 1.

Meanwhile, Russian government officials have repeatedly rejected the possibility of a new wave of mobilization. On April 9, the head of the State Duma Defense Committee Andrei Kartapolov said that “there will be no mobilization in May” and called it “a stage that has passed.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also denied the possibility, as did Viktor Bondarev, first deputy chairman of the Defense Committee of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament.

Does Russia have enough soldiers?

The Russian authorities have repeatedly explained the lack of need for a second wave of mobilization by the fact that the ranks of the Russian army in 2023-2024 are actively replenished by contract soldiers. In 2023, as Shoigu claimed in his report to Putin, 540,000 people were enlisted for contract service, which made it possible to create two reserve armies and six new divisions. Back in December 2023, however, the Russian Defense Minister spoke only of 490,000 contracted service members.

In early April, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that since the beginning of 2024, the Russian Armed Forces have added 100 thousand contract servicemen to their ranks. The ministry called it an “increase in the number of those willing” to sign a contract, but if one believes Shoigu's data for 2023 and simply compares the numbers, it is easy to calculate that the rate of contract recruitment has fallen. But this assumes a level of trust in the data coming out of the Russian Defense Ministry as a whole.

Military expert Pavel Luzin, in a conversation with The Insider, called the data “lies” and pointed out that the Defense Ministry was simply “counting the number of signatures for new contracts”:

“Yes, there may be that many, but this is not the number of new [soldiers]. Of these, 150-200 thousand are people who re-signed — soldiers who ran out of contracts and were forced to sign new ones. These are also ex-convicts who survived 2023. Now they already want to offer those under [criminal] investigation to sign contracts instead of going through the procedure of accusation, trial, getting sentenced, and so on.”

The only notable results of the Russian offensive in the Donetsk Region so far are Ukraine’s loss of Avdiivka and the Russian Armed Forces' advance towards Chasiv Yar. Despite the fact that the Ukrainian military is experiencing great difficulties with personnel and, most importantly, with military equipment and ammunition, as the U.S. House of Representatives — until yesterday — delayed voting on a $60 billion military aid package for six months, there is no talk of an imminent breakthrough of the Russian front. This is partly due to Russia's tactics of frontal attacks without proper artillery and intelligence support, and partly due to the Ukrainians' effective use of FPV drones and little artillery ammunition.

In an interview with The Insider, defense analyst Michael Kofman, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that the contract servicemen recruited into the Russian military will be sufficient to fight at the current intensity, despite the fact that the Russian Armed Forces suffered significant losses at Avdiivka and continue to do so as they attempt to continue their offensive.

At the same time, he noted that Moscow appeared to have no intention to mobilize — mainly because Russia lacks the equipment for several hundred thousand new recruits.

An offensive without mobilization is impossible

If Russia really wants to try to take Kharkiv or any other larger-scale offensive military operation in the near future, mobilization is necessary. Dara Massicot, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former lead Pentagon analyst on Russia, told The Insider:

“The requirement for mobilization depends on if the Kremlin chooses to expand its war aims. For the last 18 months, the Kremlin has preferred to use volunteers for its war effort. Its current objectives are focusing on Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, and if they get those objectives and stop for a while to regenerate, it seems unlikely they will need another large wave.
If the Russians elect to open up another front, for example, the Kharkiv region, they could take time to build such a force through volunteer means, or if impatient, call another mobilization. Much of their progress and loss rates are contingent on whether the Ukrainians are supplied with weapons, manpower, and have entrenched, and to what degree.”

Massicot estimates that the Russian Defense Ministry will only be able to recruit enough contract servicemen for the Kharkiv operation by 2025:

“Russia would struggle to occupy a large city like Kharkiv, and in 2022, they did not attempt to do this. The Russian military could generate this force slowly over time through volunteer means and it may take them well in to 2025 for that. Right now most troops and most refurbished equipment are being sent into Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia in occupied Ukraine. Mobilization would get the force in quicker, but would come with political risks that at least for now the Kremlin has chosen not to risk.”

Pavel Luzin draws attention to the fact that the rumors about preparations to seize Kharkiv are based on sources from the Defense Ministry and the Russian presidential administration. He believes that the information is spread through the media in the Kremlin's interests and has nothing to do with the Russian leadership’s actual desire to conduct such an operation.

Why was the “Leningrad Front” really created?

Having said the above, the question remains about the staffing of the re-established Leningrad Military District. It was disbanded in 2010 and was the smallest in Russia at the time. Its ground forces consisted of three separate motorized rifle brigades, and there was no combined arms on its territory. It was itself demilitarized in 1990 under the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which Russia suspended in 2007.

Sergei Shoigu explained the re-establishment of the Leningrad Military District by “the build-up of NATO's military potential near Russia's borders,” as well as the expansion of the alliance to include Finland and Sweden. The fact that the Kremlin isn’t bluffing and is seriously considering the option of a NATO attack in northwestern Russia can be indirectly confirmed by the St. Petersburg Interior Ministry’s drills three years before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In 2019, police officers practiced a hypothetical response to an attack by NATO troops in the areas bordering the Leningrad Region. According to the legend of the exercise, St. Petersburg traffic cops were the first to meet the NATO’s motorized infantry.

Pavel Luzin is critical of the possibility of creating new combined armies in this region:

“Since December 1, 2023, the maximum authorized strength of the Russian Armed Forces has gone up by 170,000 people. Most likely, the Ministry of Defense will try to create some formations for [that]. So they will create 14 motorized rifle divisions, 16 motorized rifle brigades, and two combined arms armies. It should not be thought that they are actually creating new armies. There will only be new generals on paper.
Some forces will be transferred from the Central Military District, others [will come] from the Eastern Military District. Some motorized rifle brigades in the Northern Fleet — or elsewhere — will be renamed divisions, because brigades are led by colonels, while divisions are led by generals. This will be achieved by reallocating existing resources — not by suddenly creating an army out of nothing.
Additional funds will be allocated for these 170,000 [soldiers]. In general, this whole story about increasing the maximum authorized strength of the armed forces to 1.5 million people by 2027 is primarily about money. The Defense Ministry is trying to secure increased military budgets for the long term.
There is another issue that we always miss, and that is conscripts. There are already plans to recruit 150,000 conscripts in this draft, which is higher than the typical 135,000 conscripts that will be available until 2023. And they will also try to make contract soldiers out of them. It is possible that the fall draft will be even bigger. Conscripts are also a military force, and by law they can easily be sent to war. This is the kind of maneuvering they will resort to.”

However, this is true only if the Defense Ministry is only really interested in lining its pockets with the allocated budget. If the ministry wants to take the matter seriously, then, as Tor Bukkvoll, a Senior Research Fellow at FFI, the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, told The Insider, mobilization to staff the Leningrad Military District will not be avoided:

“I must admit that Russia has been better at replacing their losses of personnel in this war than I thought they would be. Still, Shoigu’s plans seem too ambitious to avoid mobilization. As long as the war continues, Russia will need a lot of people to replace losses in Ukraine and build up large new units at the same time.”

But the experts agree on one thing: creating effective military formations assumes that they are well-equipped, trained and supplied. At the same time, the Russian Army receives military equipment to replace what has been decommissioned mainly from warehouses — the old equipment is modernized and repaired, rather than produced from scratch. The issue of command personnel is also pressing, according to Pavel Luzin:

“Who will command these new servicemen? We see huge inflows and spillovers between the branches of the armed forces. There are captain-lieutenants from the navy ending up in motorized rifle divisions. Yes, the Russian army has recovered in numbers, but not in quality. The worst officers in the Russian army are now in command.”

This can lead one to conclude that from a practical point of view, mobilization will not lead to qualitative changes in the Russian Armed Forces, and will bring with it a number of problems, both material and political. However, it can be carried out if there is political will on the part of the Russian leadership, which is not always inclined to make decisions that seem rational to most experts.

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