The Russian Army Is Preparing for a Fresh Attack

Foreign Policy, 15.12.2022
Maxim Samorukov, académico del Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Many of the problems from the initial draft have been solved.

There is a consensus emerging in the West that Russia has already lost its war against Ukraine. The timing, cost, and scope of Ukraine’s victory may be unknowable, but survival of the sovereign state of Ukraine is no longer in question.

Similarly, it is commonplace to say that Russian President Vladimir Putin has ruined Russia’s vaunted domestic political stability once and for all by mobilizing military-age men to fight in Ukraine. The sight of thousands of people escaping the country to dodge the draft was taken as confirmation that Putin had miscalculated badly and risked ruining the regime’s legitimacy at home.

Yet what matters to the Kremlin is the crude reality that the draft has enabled Russia to mitigate troop shortages at the front. The deployment of mobilized forces in Luhansk prevented Ukraine from making major advances in the region since the fall of Lyman, Ukraine, in early October. In Kherson, reinforcements facilitated Russia’s orderly withdrawal, helping to avoid a repeat of its disastrous defeat in Kharkiv. The Russian army has even made incremental gains near Bakhmut in the Donetsk region at the cost of scores of newly mobilized soldiers and prisoners.

Neither the better morale and superior technology of the Ukrainians nor the lack of equipment, training, and motivation of freshly drafted Russians have prevented Russia from achieving its interim military aims at a relatively modest political cost. If the arrival of a few tens of thousands of mobilized troops was enough to achieve that, then what would another million troops do?

During its first attempt at mobilization this autumn, the Russian government faced two major constraints: lack of basic equipment for new draftees and public backlash against coercive recruitment into the army. Military utility of the new recruits was reduced by various shortages of equipment and provisions, from weapons to uniforms and even food, and Putin’s ratings nosedived as ordinary Russians were left reeling by the mobilization effort’s arbitrary nature.

Since then, both problems have been at least partly addressed. Taking a leaf out of former Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov’s book of the relatively successful army reforms, the Kremlin outsourced the bulk of procurement from the military to Russia’s more efficient civilian bureaucracy. Two leading technocrats—Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin—were put in charge of ensuring that the material needs of the Russian army are properly met.

That is not to say that the mounting supply difficulties of the armed forces will be solved. But taking supply management out of the hands of the military brass all but guarantees certain improvements. In addition, ordinary Russians are expected to help their friends and relatives who have had the misfortune of being drafted. Indeed, they have little option but to cover the deficiencies in state provisions out of their own pockets simply to protect their loved ones who have been mobilized from cold and hunger.

What about the anger brewing among rank-and-file Russians? Won’t that ruin the regime’s domestic popularity? Unfortunately, that’s now how things work in a highly atomized society like Russia. It was telling how quickly Putin’s support rating and other public mood indicators bounced back as soon as the Kremlin declared the first wave of the mobilization complete. Most Russians simply sighed with relief that they themselves were not headed off to rot in the trenches of the Donbas. They leapt at the opportunity to return to the illusion of normal life, closing their eyes to the horrors of the war and downplaying the risk that they might be swept up in the next round of mobilization—whenever it happens.

The Russian education system and popular culture are dominated by a cult extolling military glory and selfless devotion to the defense of the motherland. Prewar opinion polls recorded an upsurge in militarist sentiment: The share of those who believe army service is one’s obligatory duty has risen to more than 80 percent while two-thirds of polled males declared their readiness to sacrifice their lives for the country. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that so many Russians find it natural that some of their compatriots have to die at the front when their country is at war. Back in the fall, people were shocked less by the mobilization itself than by the chaotic and catch-all way it was carried out. It just didn’t seem right to average Russians that men with no military experience, female doctors with small children at home, and men in their 60s were all being called up.

In response to the resulting public outcry, authorities are working hard to make any future rounds of the draft run more smoothly. Anyone who is privileged, proactive, or determined to avoid the army at all costs will have realistic options to do so. They can flee abroad, enroll for postgraduate studies, or find a job with a company that offers a technical exemption from active duty. At times, the draft has been used as a means of repressing anti-government activists, with protesters being arrested and then served with draft papers while in detention, but they represent only a handful of the people affected by the draft.

Putin himself has openly declared who should be a priority for future drafts, saying it is better to be killed fighting for the motherland than to drink oneself to death on vodka. The clear implication is that military authorities should go after poorer, disadvantaged Russians—the kind of people who offer less resistance and are of limited utility for the state anyway.

To achieve that, the Russian government is busy digitizing files of military commissions and integrating them with the databases of various departments, from the health care system to border guards. The deadline for this is April 2024, indicating that the Kremlin views the digitized draft as a long-term strategy that will remain relevant for many years to come.

Digitization is designed to allow the authorities to pinpoint those considered best suited for mobilization, easily find them, and draft them into the army. Those unfortunate draftees will be doomed to submit because the borders will likely be closed to them (and them only) and their access to public services blocked.

Of course, Russia is unlikely to construct a perfect digital draft system overnight. Delays and glitches are inevitable. But the Russian government has vast experience in establishing digital control over its citizens. For years, it has been applying surveillance technology to hunt down anti-regime protesters, tax dodgers, and violators of COVID-19 restrictions.

As a result, forthcoming drafts will be much more routine and targeted than the initial partial mobilization order seen this year. Instead of sowing panic in wider society, these drafts will help the vast majority of Russians cling to a semblance of normal life as well as enable them to keep ignoring the mounting costs of the war. Meanwhile, the unfortunate minority of future draftees will feel isolated and helpless in the face of the state apparatus. They will be dispatched—somewhat better equipped, thanks to efficient technocrats, but nonetheless as cannon fodder—to future offensives in Ukraine, its subjugation a constant on the Kremlin’s agenda

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