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POLITICS

Mobilize this: How Russia and Ukraine are addressing personnel shortages at the front

As the second year of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine draws to a close, personnel shortages have become an acute issue on both sides of the conflict. Hundreds of thousands of troops have been killed or wounded, while tens of thousands of new recruits are being trained to form new units. However, wary of the potential political costs and apprehensive about taking steps that could threaten social stability on the home front, both Moscow and Kyiv are hesitant to launch any new mass conscription efforts. For now, Russia is making do with contract-based military service, but the competency and motivation of its career troops are low. In Ukraine, volunteers have become so scarce that military recruiters are resorting to raids on fitness clubs and saunas in order to generate manpower.

Content
  • Mobilization efforts of 2014

  • The mobilization of 2022: a cannon fodder conveyor

  • Mobilization in Ukraine, 2023-2024

  • The new wave of mobilization in Russia and Ukraine

RU

Starting from the Levée en masse of the French Revolutionary Wars in the late 18th century, nearly every major international conflict has created the need for mass national conscription. Even during the American invasion of Iraq, which involved only career troops, the U.S. military was forced to mobilize part-time National Guard units for extended tours overseas and to impose a temporary restriction on retirement from active duty service.

And of course, for as long as mobilization has existed, some potential recruits have done their utmost to avoid being dragged into the army. In 1916, when the United Kingdom introduced conscription to replenish its ranks during World War I, 30% of those notified failed to show up at enlistment stations. During the Vietnam War, as many as 30,000 draft-eligible American men decamped to Canada.

The Soviet Union took preparation for a hypothetical mobilization very seriously, putting together “reduced-strength” peacetime units that would be ready to take in new recruits in the event of a war. The system involved storing weapons and equipment for these units at immense military warehouses and teaching mandatory military training courses at civilian colleges to build a pool of reserve officers. However, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the system gradually fell into disrepair: the equipment was poorly maintained and often ended up sold or decommissioned; “reduced-strength” units were made redundant, and military training at colleges was either purely formalistic or canceled. As a result, both sides approached the largest military conflict since World War II with flagrantly inadequate mass conscription capabilities.

Mobilization efforts of 2014

The first to experience the challenge of mass conscription in the Russian-Ukrainian war was Ukraine — in 2014-2015. Following Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March 2014, Russian-backed forces began seizing administrative buildings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine. Resistance from Ukrainian volunteer battalions helped push back the separatists, giving the Ukrainian military time to organize its response. The issues faced by the Armed Forces of Ukraine during the “hottest” phase of the Donbas conflict — from the summer of 2014 up until February of 2015 — were not widely publicized, but it was then that the slur mogilizatsia emerged — a portmanteau combining the Russian word for “mobilization” with mogila — “the grave”.

Despite the ostensibly limited presence of its regular troops in Donbas, the Russian side was struggling with personnel shortages as well. Dorzhi Batomunkuev, a “Buryat tankman” interviewed by Novaya Gazeta after being wounded in action in January 2015, mentions that his battalion tactical group was comprised of fighters from two different brigades and that he himself did not sign his contract until the moment he arrived at Russia’s border with Ukraine.

In the years of the lower-scale conflict — from the winter of 2015 up until February 24, 2022, when Russian forces openly invaded en masse — the Ukrainian military command kept conscription high on its agenda, recreating “reduced-strength” units into the country’s Reserve Corps, which were quickly brought up to full strength at the outbreak of the current full-scale war. But while the numbers of this formation were sufficient for the objective of securing Donbas, they were not large enough to guarantee the security of all of Ukraine.

In an effort to fill this gap in the run-up to February 24, 2022, Ukraine quickly reformed and expanded its Territorial Defense Forces, many of whom were yet to receive combat weapons at the moment Russian troops began crossing the border. Nevertheless, these Ukrainian units played an important part in securing the country’s northern regions in the winter and spring of 2022. They subsequently joined the fighting on other fronts despite still being less well-equipped than regular army units.

Ukrainian Territorial Defense fighters, Kyiv, March 9, 2022
Ukrainian Territorial Defense fighters, Kyiv, March 9, 2022
Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

The mobilization of 2022: a cannon fodder conveyor

In the years leading up to its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin does not appear to have been preoccupied with preparing for a full-scale war (unless exercises that involved pulling Т-62 tanks out of storage count). Instead, the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense appear to have banked on a short and, if not small, victorious war. To that end, they built new divisions (such as the 3rd Motorized Division of the 20th Army at Ukraine's northeastern borders) and entire armies (the 8th Army, set up mostly in the Rostov Region with the sole purpose of going to war with Ukraine). However, the appearance of these new military formations was not actually accompanied by an increase in the number of contract servicemen.

Before the invasion, Russia was not preoccupied with mobilization

To bridge the gap, Russia reduced the number of infantrymen in mechanized units, thus compromising their combat capabilities. However, even these reduced manning tables had plenty of vacancies, meaning that Russian forces were understaffed from the very onset of the full-scale war that Russia itself chose to start. The shortage became still more pronounced with every defeat on the battlefield, and yet the authorities staved off mobilization for as long as they could.

By contrast, the self-declared, Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk “Peoples Republics” launched mass conscription efforts as early as February 23, 2022 — on the eve of the full-scale invasion. When Russian tanks and troops openly crossed the border the next day, the Donbas “army corps” was tasked with the important mission of pinning down Ukraine's eastern grouping and keeping it from reinforcing the troops defending Kyiv and other invaded regions.

Some compared the mobilization in the non-recognized republics to a cannon fodder conveyor. Donbas conscripts barely received any training and were issued Soviet helmets — and sometimes even WWII-era rifles. For the first time since the 1940s, rifle regiments were formed. These infantry units, which had to fight without armored vehicles – if they were lucky enough to have any vehicles at all – sustained heavy losses in the battles of Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk, and other cities and towns in eastern Ukraine.

Mobilized fighters of the “Donetsk People's Republic” with Mosin-Nagant rifles designed in 1891. March 2022
Mobilized fighters of the “Donetsk People's Republic” with Mosin-Nagant rifles designed in 1891. March 2022
Maxim Blinov

In fairness, shortages of armored vehicles caused the Armed Forces of Ukraine to resort to rifle regiments as well, but Ukraine's first mobilization stage (coupled with a massive influx of volunteers in the first few months of the war) was efficient enough to ensure its manpower superiority, at least in the short run. Western partners soon chipped in to help Ukraine prepare its fighters, offering assistance on everything from new weapons training to general military drills. The large-scale reinforcement and expansion of the Armed Forces of Ukraine enabled the Kharkiv and the Kherson offensives to succeed in the fall of 2022.

The groundwork for Ukraine’s advancement had also been laid by the immense scale of losses the Russian army was suffering. In some instances, Russian companies that had numbered 67 troops strong on February 24, 2022, had been reduced to barely more than 20 men. In the first months of the war, the Russian command tried to remedy the situation by setting up volunteer units like BARS and regional battalions named after historic figures, which were later consolidated into the 3rd Army Corps. However, manpower shortages persisted, and in September 2022, Russia announced a “partial” mobilization.

Russian mobilized soldiers standing in formation, Leningrad Region, September 30, 2022
Russian mobilized soldiers standing in formation, Leningrad Region, September 30, 2022
Mikhail Ognev / Fontanka.ru

Despite the modest title, the Russian campaign fully exposed the lack of preparedness for mass national conscription. The Russian armed forces had prior experience stationing and training a limited number of draftees – usually no more than 130,000 per campaign — and the simultaneous enlistment of 300,000 recruits resulted in a shortage of everything, from armored vests to beds and rations. The mobilized and their families complained of inadequate training, and some fighters ended up at the front mere days after enlistment. Nevertheless, the mobilization enabled Russia to stabilize the front and hold off any further major territorial losses even if it came at the cost of enormous loss of life.

Russia's simultaneous enlistment of 300,000 recruits resulted in a shortage of everything, from armored vests to beds and rations

Interestingly, as Ukraine's mobilization evolved into a more permanent state of affairs (although one may argue it also features waves), the Russian government found the nationwide draft so traumatic an experience that it decided to postpone further mobilization efforts for as long as it could, amping up the recruitment of contract servicemen, mercenaries, and inmates instead.

Still, the real volunteer recruitment rate in Russia appears to lag behind the official statistics, as inmates can sometimes be pressured into joining Storm Z units only through the threat of new criminal charges. Consequently, Russia is faced with an increasingly acute need for another mobilization wave, even if the government will likely hold off on announcing one until sometime after the presidential election in March. If the Kremlin does take the step of issuing more mass call-ups, they will risk facing a host of problems, many of which are only too familiar to Ukraine.

Mobilization in Ukraine, 2023-2024

By the second year of the war, the influx of volunteers to Ukrainian enlistment offices (currently known as territorial staffing centers) had dried up. Paradoxical as it may sound, this had to do with the rapid advancement of Ukrainian forces: late in 2022, they succeeded in containing the hostilities to four regions, so the war lost the existential nature it had had in the spring of 2022, when Russian troops were threatening to encircle Kyiv. The popular enthusiasm had also been dampened by stories of soldiers deployed to the front without proper training and examples of outdated Soviet practices resulting in loss of life.

In the meantime, the army's personnel needs only grew. It was not just the losses, which Western intelligence services assessed to be approaching 200,000 killed and injured as of August 2023. The standing strength of Ukraine's Armed Forces continued to grow, reaching 700,000 in 2022, massive growth when compared to the 205,000 troops Ukraine was estimated to have fielded in 2021. More and more units and formations were being set up, including twelve 4,000-strong motorized brigades, all set to be ready in time for the spring 2023 counteroffensive. The ranks needed bolstering, but nationwide mobilization appeared to be losing traction as the war stretched into its second year.

By 2023, Ukraine's mobilization efforts had begun losing traction

Ukrainian social media were brimming (1, 2, 3) with videos of military enlistment officers apprehending men eligible for conscription, sometimes at gunpoint. Yet despite the hardline approach, Ukraine was reported to have missed its mobilization targets.

Corruption has been cited among the reasons for the failure, as Ukrainian law enforcement regularly reports unearthing draft evasion schemes (1, 2, 3), often with military enlistment officers involved right in the middle of them. Opportunities for abuse of power are also ample at the military medical boards that examine all conscripts — unlike in Russia, where mobilizing officers have little regard for conscripts’ health conditions that were previously declared at local enlistment offices.

Ukrainian men reluctant to take up arms are using a variety of legal and illegal means to cross the border. Currently, all adult male citizens save for those exempt from or unfit for military service — and a few other categories like long-haul truck drivers and civilian volunteers — are banned from foreign travel. Yet as of August 31, 2023, an estimated 20,000 Ukrainians had crossed the border illegally to evade conscription. In 2023 alone, border guards detained 11,000 Ukrainian men attempting to escape the country. Stories have even circulated about 20 aspiring Ukrainian draft dodgers drowning in the Tisza at the Romanian-Hungarian border.

Draft dodgers detained after trying to get out of Zakarpattia in an ambulance van, April 2021
Draft dodgers detained after trying to get out of Zakarpattia in an ambulance van, April 2021
State Border Guard Service of Ukraine

Those wishing to leave sometimes get creative. For instance, several men have left the country one after another, posing as companions to one and the same person with a disability, who traveled back and forth aiding in the others’ escape. There was even a man who changed the gender identification in his passport without undergoing gender transition in real life.

In this challenging setting, Ukraine's General Staff has vocalized the need to mobilize another 500,000 troops (though as Commanding General Valerii Zaluzhnyi clarified, this is not the number of fighters that is needed immediately). This should be enough to enable the rotation of troops who have spent more than one full year at a specific sector — as has been the case with the 3rd Assault Brigade outside Bakhmut and the 72nd Motorized Brigade near Vuhledar. According to the Ukrainian president, the costs associated with enlisting this many new fighters will border on $13 billion.

Yet as Zelensky has explained, his current top priority is demobilization, not mobilization. As paradoxical as it may sound, his concern is valid: despite being in a state of war, Ukraine sees regular protests (1, 2, 3) as families of mobilized fighters demand their release from duty. The government hopes to address the mobilization dilemma by passing a meticulously prepared bill, which stipulates, among other things, an immediate demobilization of soldiers drafted for compulsory military service in 2020-2021, along with any servicemen who have served more than 36 months in wartime (which means the earliest demobilizations will not occur before February 2025).

Zelensky’s current top priority is demobilization, not mobilization

Nevertheless, the bill was met with public outrage — though mostly on social media so far, not in public — because it also suggests lowering the mobilization age from 27 to 25 years old, expanding the powers of local governments and police to facilitate enlistment, and depriving draft dodgers of certain rights, such as prohibiting them from obtaining a driver’s license or from accessing public services. Moreover, Ukrainian men who reside abroad and have not been registered at an enlistment office may be denied consular services, including the renewal of their passports. Some countries, such as Estonia, even favor the idea of deporting Ukrainians eligible for mobilization back to their homeland.

In the spirit of a stick-and-carrot approach, Ukrainian authorities have been enlisting volunteers through commercial recruitment agencies tasked with explaining the benefits of contract service and helping recruits choose the desired unit and post that best matches their civilian skill set. This track is positioned as a preferable alternative to mobilization, in which conscripts are assigned to the units that need them the most and are rarely at liberty to choose where they end up or what duties they will perform once they get there.

The new wave of mobilization in Russia and Ukraine

In 2024, Russia has so far been banking on recruiting more contract servicemen, although their competency leaves much to be desired. Those serving near Avdiivka tend to be older men with limited military training and little will to conduct offensive operations.

The Russian command is looking to diversify its sources of manpower. Apart from contract soldiers and inmates, new recruits are also found among guest workers (sometimes by coercion) and by bringing in foreign mercenaries (including nationals of Nepal, Cuba, and Somalia). These sources may have been sufficient to maintain or even increase the Russian army's force size had it not been for Russia’s “cannon-fodder offensive” (more on that in our earlier story) and the movement to bring the mobilized home. Even though Russia’s oppressive political climate has made its citizenry less vocal than their Ukrainian counterparts, the authorities are treating the situation on the Russian homefront with extreme caution. Unlike the Ukrainian government, which tries to offer specific demobilization deadlines (which many families find unacceptable anyway), Russian officials are less accommodating. Under the current plan, Russia’s mobilized soldiers will remain on duty until the war ends.

Relatives of mobilized servicemen protesting in Moscow, Nov. 7, 2023
Relatives of mobilized servicemen protesting in Moscow, Nov. 7, 2023
Way Home / TG

Russia also digitized control over conscription — and for sanctioning draft dodgers — after its first wave of mobilization back in the fall of 2022, much earlier than Ukraine even began considering such a step. Nevertheless, a unified register of persons eligible for conscription and digital summons will not be available until the fall of 2024. , However, the situation on the battlefield may yet compel Russia to launch another wave of mobilization before that date.

If another wave of mobilization is attempted in the near future, authorities will be saddled with the challenge of controlling the outflux of Russians abroad – an even harder task since Russia, unlike Ukraine, has yet to declare martial law and therefore cannot ban travel for entire categories of its population. Corruption will also play its part, of course, all the more so considering that Russian military offices have not been restaffed (Ukraine has made such an attempt, but there is no telling whether it actually contributed to combating corruption).

Another challenge is to arm the potential recruits and provide them with vehicles and equipment. Makeshift armored vehicles have been spotted (1, 2) on both sides of the front, and despite the Russian government's reports on the growth in military production at best the additional output can only cover the losses – and even that scenario is only valid if we are prepared to take the Russian government’s figures at face value.

According to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in 2023 the Russian army received 1,530 tanks, whereas its confirmed losses in less than two years of war have amounted to 2,585 vehicles, of which 2,245 were irretrievably lost (destroyed or captured). The 1,530 newly procured tanks are equivalent to fewer than 50 tank battalions, which is enough for 50 motorized regiments of around 2,000 troops each – that is, some 100,000 mobilized conscripts. Shoigu also mentions 2,518 new infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers, which is enough for 81 motorized battalions or 27 regiments (not accounting for the already sustained losses).


Another factor limiting both sides’ mobilization potential is economic reality. Mobilization inevitably puts a dent in the nation's workforce, which is already in short supply in many Russian regions.

Another important economic indicator is inflation. Increased army payrolls and a surge in defense contracts are pumping money into the economy, but the supply of consumer goods and services struggles to keep pace. It’s worth recalling that the revolutions in both Russia and Germany during World War I were triggered not only by battlefield failures, but also, more importantly, by economic hardship, which the population no longer wished to tolerate.

This is not to say that the two sides’ obstacles to mobilization are of equal importance. Overall, Russia is in much smaller need of mobilization than Ukraine, military expert David Gendelman argues:


“We witnessed mass mobilization in Ukraine early in the war, with almost one million enlisting as volunteers; Russia only mobilized 300,000 men in late 2022. In both cases, despite being a rushed, impromptu process hampered by multiple challenges in terms of logistics, distribution, and training, the mobilization met its objectives. Therefore, a second time would be easier for both Russia and Ukraine, thanks to the lessons learned in the first such experience.
The difference is that Russia does not need mass mobilization at the moment – at least not officially, with up to 500,000 new military service contracts signed in 2023, and up to 1,000 new applications processed daily. Russia has not closed its borders and does not seem to view the exodus of several hundred thousand draft dodgers in 2022 as a problem: apparently, enough men stayed behind.
This presents a stark contrast to Ukraine, which closed its borders in the early days of the war and now intends to mobilize 500,000 soldiers – a sizable share of the population fit for military service – and is considering a bill that is stirring popular debate and amplifying calls for the demobilization of soldiers who have been in the trenches for too long.”

Another military expert, Sergei Auslender, agrees with Gendelman:

“In remote Russian regions, the army is often the only social elevator that can lift one out of poverty. Russia has vast numbers of inmates and draft-age men. The authorities are believed to have the capacity to process up to 1,000 new military recruits a day, which enables the army to make up for the losses – but not deploy a grouping that could become a game-changer in the war or at least maintain the current intensity of fighting in the long run.
Ukraine is faced with a different challenge: two years into the war, the population has grown weary, and no one wants to take up arms. In the beginning, when volunteers were lining up to enlist, Ukraine failed to leverage that momentum. Today, most of those who joined the army early on are dead, wounded, or unable to keep fighting. Meanwhile, there is a shortage of new candidates.
I’ve stumbled across statistics suggesting that up to 1.5 million Ukrainian men eligible for mobilization are abroad, including in the EU. This is a full-on disaster because Ukraine also needs soldiers. No matter how many weapons the West is bringing to the table, it is not tanks that do the fighting but the people inside them. The only way forward for Ukraine is to make military service more appealing, for instance, by increasing the pay. Drafting people by force makes no sense as it will only cause more men to flee to Europe or evade service.

Last but not least, Ukraine is still struggling with ever-so-resilient corruption, which means bribery remains a way to avoid conscription. At some point, Ukraine may face a tangible personnel shortage, and it will be a major pitfall.”

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