Images of drunken conscripts brawling and staggering as they depart for the Russian army suggest Vladimir Putin could have difficulty in creating effective fighting forces for his war in Ukraine through his “partial” mobilisation.
Ukrainian and western officials and analysts dismiss Russia’s short-term ability to mould often reluctant recruits — whose previous military experience is brief, decades-old or non-existent — into a new offensive capability.
But Russia could send its new conscripts after a cursory few weeks of training to bolster defensive positions in southern and eastern Ukraine.
The strategy would, in turn, require Ukraine to use more manpower and weaponry in its efforts to retake territory and drag out the conflict.
“Of course it is bad news for us,” said a member of Ukraine’s territorial defence forces. “Even if they [Russian conscripts] don’t have motivation, they’ll have a gun.”
Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu has said Moscow is seeking to mobilise 300,000 men out of an eligible total of 25mn but analysts say the broad criteria in the order mean the eventual number could be much higher.
These servicemen would give a significant boost to the Russian troops remaining on the front line. Moscow deployed 180,000 men at the start of its military campaign in February and is estimated to have since suffered about 80,000 deaths and injuries, according to the US. Ukraine, which has declared full mobilisation, has a total number of troops between 700,000 and 1mn.
Kyiv expects the new Russian servicemen to appear on the front lines within six weeks.
“At the first stage, probably within a month-and-a-half, the enemy plans to complete the full complement of its units and military units involved in hostilities on the territory of Ukraine,” said Brigadier General Oleksiy Gromov, a member of Ukraine’s general staff. Russia was also likely to send conscripts to its border to free up regular army troops previously assigned there, he said.
In a second stage, Russia would seek to create new “combined military formations” accompanied by artillery and missile units, he predicted, adding however that a lack of military specialists meant this process would take “a long time”.
“One option might be to use them as infantry to stabilise broken units at the front lines, where they will not be very capable,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation, a US think-tank.
“Another option could be assigning this first wave of mobilised troops to less complex tasks away from the front lines in the occupied territories to free up other Russian forces for combat — such tasks could include logistical support ie drivers or ordinance handlers, or manning checkpoints.”
Russia would be torn between rushing untrained and unprepared conscripts to the front line to prop up its forces or using time and equipment to run training camps, said a senior western official.
“Very low-quality reinforcements soon or a better-trained force later,” said the official, adding that Russia probably also lacked combat veterans it could spare to adequately train the new recruits.
Russia has no sizeable standing reserve in the western sense of regularly trained forces assigned to units, with commanding officers, support and logistics. Last year it launched an initiative to create one, but its manpower problems in Ukraine suggest it made little headway.
“Mobilisation needs specific military units that are aimed at deployment during the mobilisation and there are no such units in Russia or almost none,” said Pavel Luzin, an expert on the Russian military.
It also lacks training facilities and many of its training personnel are thought to have been assigned to combat operations.
“The most trained part of the reserve has probably already been consumed in Ukraine, so the remaining parts have a poor combat readiness and probably no combat experience,” said Dimitri Minic, an expert on Russian defence at the French Institute of International Relations.
“The last five years of conscripts will be mobilised in priority, but we noticed that in peripheral regions in Russia, the provisions of the partial mobilisation measure — relevant combat experience and military training — were not respected at all.”
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defence minister, said Russia’s mobilisation was unlikely to “significantly change” the situation on the ground, because new conscripts would need a lot of training to be effective and, besides a lack of manpower, Russia had problems with its “doctrine, organisation, leadership and weapons”.
Ukraine’s armed forces may try to step up counter-offensive operations this autumn before Moscow can reinforce its defensive lines.
But Kyiv may eventually have to increase its own mobilisation to maintain its manpower advantage, said a European diplomat. The government had recently extended the ban on leaving the country for men of military age to Ukrainians studying in universities abroad, the diplomat noted.
Russia’s goal was probably not to assemble an attacking force to overwhelm the Ukrainian military, said Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute. Instead, it was probably trying to stabilise its losses and draw out the conflict beyond next year.
Russian forces only made territorial gains this summer in eastern Ukraine when supported by intense artillery bombardments. But western-supplied long-range rockets have since allowed the Ukrainian armed forces to strike Russian artillery positions and supply lines.
Still, Ukraine would need to come up with more men and more modern equipment into next year.
“It means that new Ukrainian manoeuvre units must be trained and equipped to counter new Russian formations in the spring,” Watling said, warning of the risk of complacency in the west about the need to prepare the Ukrainian military for a drawn-out conflict.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels