Why Putin Is Drafting Up to 300,000 Russian Reservists to Fight in Ukraine

rehearsal of victory day military parade in moscow
Russia Calls Up Reservists to Fight Ukraine WarAnadolu Agency - Getty Images
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of Russian veterans on Wednesday.

  • The order calls up Russian citizens who have already served in the armed forces.

  • Most likely, the move will do little to improve Russia’s chances on the front, and will probably make the Russian Army’s situation even worse.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of army reservists on Wednesday, recalling up to 300,000 Russian military veterans to active duty. The mobilization is intended to replenish the ranks of the Russian Army, which has suffered grievous losses in Ukraine. Despite intentions to bolster the army’s fighting ranks, the move could end up further stressing the situation.

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Putin’s announcement, which was postponed for 24 hours, rehashed old grievances, mostly aimed at Ukraine and the West. Putin referred to Ukrainians as “Neo-Nazis” and described them as puppets of Western governments. He referred to “endless threats” against Russia, including what he complained was “nuclear blackmail” over the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, even claiming that some Western leaders were contemplating using nuclear weapons against Russia. He explained that, in his view, the goal of Western countries—which he accused of genocide—is to destroy Russia.

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency - Getty Images
Photo credit: Anadolu Agency - Getty Images

Explaining why the mobilization was necessary was a much trickier task. Putin made no direct reference to Russian casualties, which have been severe, but instead said that Russia was now fighting “the entire military machine of the collective West.” (The Russian President made no distinction between Western military aid and Western military forces, the latter of which have not appeared on the Ukrainian battlefield). Putin described a front line that is “over 1,000 kilometers long,” implying that was part of the reason for the mobilization.

The mobilization, Putin explained, is necessary “to defend our Motherland and its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to ensure the safety of our people and people in the liberated territories.” The call-up will go out to “only military reservists, primarily those who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialties and corresponding experience.”

In other words, Russia has been spared a military draft that would ensnare ordinary civilians—so far.

Putin didn’t take credit for the mobilization; instead he said, “I find it necessary to support the proposal of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff.” He also didn’t mention a specific figure for how many veterans will be called up, though Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu later elaborated and said up to 300,000 will be called up. Shoigu also stated on Russian television that 5,937 Russians had been killed in the war.

Photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV - Getty Images
Photo credit: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV - Getty Images

Putin and Shoigu’s comments are a mess of contradictions that call into question the credibility of the regime. Putin alluded to the 1,000-kilometer-long battlefront as a reason for the call-up, despite the fact that since Russia abandoned the failed advance on Kyiv, the front line has actually grown shorter. Shoigu asserted that only about 6,000 Russians have been killed, which according to conventional wisdom would mean another 12,000 or so soldiers were injured over the course of the fighting. So why does the Russian military need to call up 300,000 veterans?

In reality, Russia is estimated to have lost tens of thousands of troops killed in action in Ukraine. In July, the director of the CIA estimated Russia had lost 15,000 killed in action and 45,000 were wounded. Ukraine’s General Staff estimated Russia had lost 55,110 killed in action, which would translate to a further 100,000 wounded in action. While Ukraine’s estimate is high, those are the kind of losses that would truly prompt a call-up of 300,000 reservists.

The citizens Russia is calling up are former soldiers who have served in the military and have returned to civilian life. These civilians, as part of their military service, live with the prospect of being called back to duty in the event of a national emergency. The United States military has a similar system, called the Individual Ready Reserve, which can call up individuals as old as 60 if needed. The IRR tends to select soldiers with specific skills, like doctors or engineers.

The difference between the U.S. and Russian system is that the U.S. system also has a second, parallel Army and Air Force to the active duty Army and Air Force, composed entirely of reservists: the National Guard. These units are organized, trained, and equipped similar to their active-duty counterparts, and can be activated for service en masse. The result, after a period of refresher training, is an entire military unit ready for combat.

“The Russians don’t have an equivalent to our organized reserves,” Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells Popular Mechanics. “That is, reservists who train regularly. Their reserves are mostly names on the list. It will take them weeks or months to turn this call-up into personnel at the front.”

Photo credit: DVIDS
Photo credit: DVIDS

Russia has little in the way of an organized reserve, with just two territorial defense battalions as of 2016. As of 2019, only about 4,000 to 5,000 reservists received regular training, with the rest of the reservist pool receiving no training at all once their period of active-duty service ended. “The reserve personnel need refresher training,” Cancian explains. “The United States would give them several months of that training, but I doubt the Russians will have that much time available. Further, the Russians have devastated their training base by sending most of it off to the war.”

Russia is unlikely to use its called-up citizens to form new combat units for Ukraine. Instead, Russia will likely use them to bolster the depleted ranks of units already fighting in Ukraine, sprinkling them among units that have received heavy losses. This is less than ideal, as morale is low and the supply situation among Russian units—thanks to HIMARS and other Ukrainian artillery destroying supply depots—is very bad. Russia is having enough trouble feeding and equipping the troops already at the front line, and simply adding more troops to the logistical burden will further stress Russia’s supply situation.

Already, Putin’s decision is not going well. Flights out of Russia quickly sold out after the mobilization was announced, and a report from Russia stated that airlines were instructed not to sell tickets to Russian men between the ages of 18 and 65. Protests have already broken out in Russian cities, though it’s not clear if the protest movement will grow.

Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV - Getty Images
Photo credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV - Getty Images

While the mobilization will undoubtedly increase Russian casualties, it might have a dangerous logic. Injecting reservists into Ukraine, Mark Cancian explains, “may allow the Russians to hang on until the winter, when Putin hopes that high energy prices and cold houses will induce the Europeans to push for a ‘cease-fire’ in place, leaving the Russians in control of whatever territory they still control.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine enjoys up to 80 percent support among its people. Putin’s mobilization, which will reach into Russian families and pluck away veterans who have already performed their military service, will test that level of support. At the same time, a system to use these veterans effectively simply doesn’t exist. The most likely path for Russian reservists is as cannon fodder.

Instead of helping win the war, the mobilization could be yet another of Putin’s decisions, like starting the war itself, that backfired spectacularly.

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