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How Putin’s partial mobilization could backfire

Largely ill-trained, unwilling reservists may hamper Russia’s endeavor to reassert control in its Ukraine campaign

Destroyed military vehicles and equipment in the village of Husarivka, not far from the city of Balakliya in Ukraine's Kharkiv region, on Sunday. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

Facing battlefield setbacks, this week Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the partial mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists. Most analysts see this as a move to buy breathing space for his exhausted military — as well as appease critics in Russia who think the invasion has moved too slowly in Ukraine.

But the mobilization announcement may be a sign of weakness, not strength. A brilliantly executed Ukrainian counteroffensive near Kharkiv has recaptured nearly 2,300 square miles of Ukrainian land, freeing dozens of villages while inflicting heavy losses on a demoralized Russian army.

Six months into the war, an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 Russian soldiers are dead, wounded or have deserted. Some 6,200 military vehicles, among Russia’s most sophisticated, have been destroyed or abandoned. Deserters and refuseniks now make up an estimated 20 to 40 percent of some front-line units.

Will Russia’s partial mobilization succeed in stemming the tide and increase Russian military effectiveness? My research on the sources of military effectiveness suggests that’s unlikely.

The devil’s in the details

Much depends on how widespread, and how quickly, the mobilization drive unfolds. Russian history offers few precedents, with only two mass mobilization drives, during World War I and II. The formidable Soviet-era mass mobilization system has atrophied over the past decade — instead, the Kremlin has sought to staff Russia’s wars with a mix of contract soldiers, short-service conscripts, mercenaries and local allies.

Historically, the Russian army trains its soldiers within their home units — but many battered units may be ill-equipped to train replacements. Public protests, draft-dodging and outright fleeing suggest that the hoped-for wave of 300,000 soldiers might be more of a trickle.

Why Russia’s mobilization may lower the risk of nuclear war — for now

These new soldiers may not help much on the battlefield

In the short term, the new measures might help Russia consolidate its new battlefield position. Most importantly, tucked inside this partial mobilization was an order suspending all short-term service contracts.

Seeking to plug gaps in its forces, the Russian army turned to short-term soldiers who signed lucrative contracts for four to six months of service. Now these soldiers can no longer leave service when their contract expires — or refuse to deploy to their units.

If the upcoming hastily scheduled staged referendums go through in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, Russia will probably claim it can legally deploy Russian conscripts to these contested Ukrainian territories. Once winter sets in, mangled units might be rotated out, enabling them to rest and replenish their ranks (Russia typically leaves units in place until 50 to 60 percent of their original strength is lost).

But newly mobilized soldiers are likely to be poorly trained, their prior combat experience a distant memory. A high death rate among officers in the Russian army, in part because of deliberate Ukrainian targeting, has left Putin’s military without sufficient trainers.

In the race to master and implement the lessons of this war, the Ukrainians have surged far head. This means Russian troops will be facing skilled Ukrainian forces that have mastered the tenets of decentralized warfare by small, highly motivated and independent units.

Nor does Russia have the equipment stocks to make good on its losses. Ancient tanks cannibalized from Soviet-era stockpiles are already on the front lines; in many cases, the tanks are far older than their operators. If the best equipped and trained Russian forces couldn’t seize Kyiv or hold Kharkiv, it isn’t clear why this second wave would fare any better.

Putin just called up young men to the war. He’s taking a big risk.

Will mobilization worsen Russia’s military problems?

Partial mobilization risks exacerbating the structural problems inherent within the Russian military, along with military morale. The war has highlighted the importance of combat motivation and the huge disparity between Russian and Ukrainian will to fight. Contract soldiers are likely to resent being forced to fight beyond their contract end date, souring morale even further. Unsure of the war’s purpose, and keen to avoid harm, newly drafted soldiers are likely to be motivated more by survival than nationalism.

A surge of new soldiers also does little to fix Russia’s command structure. Less a military than a collection of warring tribes, the Russian army in Ukraine now comprises at least nine different organizations, including prisoner battalions, pro-Russian Chechens, local militia, the National Guard, regular army units and Wagner Group paramilitaries.

Without untangling the lines of authority, the infusion of additional soldiers seems highly likely to intensify squabbling across commands for resources — and worsen coordination and control problems. Of course, the greater the number of soldiers, the faster cascades of desertion and indiscipline might rip through the ranks. Russian commanders might find it necessary to divert incoming soldiers to the task of monitoring other soldiers, an eat-your-tail dynamic that would undermine Russia’s military goals in Ukraine.

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Putin’s move is also a political gamble

Putin’s partial mobilization is also politically risky. The “partial” nature of the mobilization risks the ire of his nationalist supporters, who could paint him as feckless. Meanwhile, any mobilization risks increasing opposition from those who have so far remained relatively silent about the war.

Does Putin have to worry? Russian leaders are only rarely overthrown after military defeat. Indeed, since 1800, Russia has lost 17 of the 49 conventional wars it has fought, but domestic opponents removed only two leaders.

But these undercurrents of opposition bear watching, especially if Putin decides to widen the social base of mobilized soldiers. To date, the war has been fought on the backs of non-Russians and poor Russians from regions far from the bright lights of Moscow and St. Petersburg. A move to alter regional quotas and draw from a more representative sample of Russian citizens might provoke the backlash Putin has been keen to avoid.

It’s also possible that the specter of a rebuilt Russian army creates incentives for Ukrainian leaders to redouble their efforts to seize additional territory now, before the window for offensive operations has closed. And Putin’s renewed commitment and nuclear threats may encourage Western allies to supply advanced weapons to Ukraine.

Partial mobilization, thus, is unlikely to deliver Russia any sort of real victory. But it will almost certainly prolong the war, allowing Russia to hang in the fight while grinding down Ukrainian forces. The cost of Putin's decree will be increased bloodshed and destruction over the coming weeks and months.

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Jason Lyall (@jaylyall_red5) is the James Wright Chair of Transnational Studies at Dartmouth College and author of Divided Armies: Inequality and Battlefield Performance in Modern War (Princeton University Press, 2020).