March 1, 2023:
The war in Ukraine has, among other things, demonstrated to Russia how bad their military manpower situation is. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, half the Soviet population left and formed independent states. What remained was Russia, which also inherited the economic problems that were a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia also inherited the mighty Red Army which had defeated the Germans in World War II and remained a large and formidable force as long as the Soviet Union lasted.
After 1991 Russia found that it had neither the manpower nor the money to maintain the Red Army and its armed forces personnel decreased by 80 percent in a few years. It wasn’t just the loss of half the Soviet era population or the post 1991 financial difficulties. There were other problems. The post-Soviet Russians were able to force the government to reduce conscription to one year. The government also noted that the birthrate of Russians was falling and that eventually reached the point where more Russians were dying than were being born. This dramatically reduced even ethnic Russian military-age manpower over 20 years,, plus most Russians wanted an end to conscription and an all-volunteer armed force, something that was common in Western nations, especially after 1991. Russia had a few good years after 1991 but was often short of cash and the attack on Ukraine in 2014 and invasion in 2022 found Russia subject to harsh economic sanctions. Russia is having a difficult time paying for its military, which suffered heavy personnel and equipment losses during the first few months of the Ukraine invasion.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin described the invasion of Ukraine as a defensive battle to disrupt NATO efforts to surround and destroy Russia. NATO was formed seventy years ago as a mutual-defense organization to deal with a Russian invasion. Putin needed a reason for the expensive and unsuccessful war in Ukraine and the “NATO is actually attacking us” fable was the best he could come up with. Many Russians believed this until those with family or friends in Ukraine or the West got in touch and Russians learned that they were seen as the invaders by the Ukrainians. Russian soldiers who were wounded and returned to Russian confirmed that. Ukrainians were fighting to defend Ukraine from Russian domination and were not part of some NATO conspiracy against Russia.
Putin continued to claim he was defending Russia in Ukraine but more and more military-age Russians were unconvinced and increasingly to be conscripted or otherwise mobilized into the army and risk death or serious injury in Ukraine. Before the Ukraine invasion the primary source of Russian military manpower was conscription, which brings in about 260,000 men a year who serve for only one year.
Russia depended on 400,000 contract (or “contracti”) soldiers who volunteered to serve for three year periods for a wage comparable to what they could earn as civilians. Conscripts were paid very little and often had to ask their parents for money. Many of the contract soldiers had initially served as conscripts, were familiar with military service and willing to further serve in peacetime. Fighting in Ukraine was a different matter, significantly discouraged new volunteers and caused many contract soldiers to refuse to renew their contracts. This became more of an issue when the government tried to force contract soldiers to stay in the military. So many refused that the government could not prosecute them so instead added a comment on their internal passport that they refused to remain in the army. That did not encourage anyone to re-enlist.
In fact, few Russians were willing to serve in the Russian armed forces in general at a time when they will probably be sent to Ukraine because about a third of the air force and a tenth of the navy are ground combat personnel. The government resorted to “mobilizations” that sought to conscript men with military experience or an interest in fighting for Russia. Most younger Russians were not interested and many fled the country to avoid mobilization. Putin then restricted foreign travel for military-age men and that led many of these men to find illegal ways to get out and, if possible, claim asylum in a Western nation. The mobilization did bring in some older Russian men who believed that Russia was being attacked. If they ended up in Ukraine they quickly discovered who was invading who.
Another mobilization ploy was to offer large cash bonuses to those who agreed to be mobilized. Those bonuses were often not paid and when that became common knowledge, there was one more reason not to trust the government on what mobilization was all about. The corruption still common in Russia was responsible for some of those bonus payments not arriving and also for new troops receiving substandard uniforms and other equipment as well as defective or inoperable weapons.
For over a decade before the Ukraine invasion Russia sought to create a paid and trained reserve force of 100,000 men, some of them formed into complete reserve units. Not enough former soldiers and officers were willing to join this reserve, even though they were paid for the time they spent training. While Russian leaders praised the glorious history of the Russian military, its personnel had a low opinion of the military because it was run in a haphazard manner in peacetime. The Russian army has a sad tradition, reinforced in its conflicts before (Afghanistan) and after the Soviet collapse (Chechnya) of being unprepared when a war breaks out and taking heavy losses as a more effective force is created while under fire.
After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russians were free to express what they really felt about their military and most regarded military service as something to be avoided. Because of this the trained reserves were seen as an effort to get people with previous military training to join a peacetime force, continue training a bit, get paid for that and be eligible for rapid mobilization in the event of a war. Most Russians assumed this would be a war to defend Russia being invaded, not Russian troops invading a neighbor. The mobilizations to replace early Ukraine war losses were seen as typical of Russian army incompetence and this was another reason why Russians avoided the reserves. The mobilizations found that there were fewer than 10,000 actual trained reservists and most of them regarded the Ukraine invasion as something they had not become a reservist for.
As was historically the case, the Russian army adapted to the mess in Ukraine and developed tactics that made the most of the many Russian shortcomings. This enabled Russian units to be of some use in combat. These improvised units took heavy casualties but the survivors became more capable and effective. This was another Russian military tradition and one that enabled Russia to emerge victorious during World War II. What was not revealed until the Soviet Union dissolved was the true cost of that victory; 13 percent of the pre-war population. That’s over 27 million dead. The Soviets reported lower losses because the true losses were considered bad for morale. When the true extent of the losses was revealed most Russians were not surprised at the higher losses and believed it was more realistic. Most Russian (and Ukrainian) families had a history of heavy civilian and military losses during World War II.
This explains the Russian expectation of high casualties in Ukraine. This is the first major war Russia fought since World War II. Naturally, the poor preparation and high casualty rates were expected. What has changed is that, unlike World War II, Russians have more opportunities to avoid going to Ukraine at all. Post-Soviet Russia no longer had the feared KGB and nationwide network of informers. Also absent was a homicidal maniac like World War II leader Josef Stalin. Putin tried to emulate all these World War II era tools but was unable to do so. One reason the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 was that Russians were fed up the many of the Soviet era military “traditions.” After 1991, school history textbooks were revised to tell the truth about Russian history. While this was not shocking to most foreigners, especially Westerners, it was a surprise to older Russians but the young students accepted the new textbooks because it described a Russia similar to the one quietly discussed among the adults, especially the older ones, in their families.
When Putin took over after 2000, one of his first actions was to bring back the old history textbooks which lied about the Russian military. It was too late. While teachers could be forced to use these textbooks, many of their students knew someone who had used the more honest 1990s textbooks. Not only that, some of those old textbooks survived the Putin purge that was supposed to remove all those accurate history books from circulation. Many survived and continued to quietly circulate. This was another Soviet era tradition, where books from the west were translated into Russia and quietly circulated, often as typescripts. Putin began his career as a KGB officer and knew more about how the KGB tried to control what Russians thought and did than what Russians did to resist all this. That ignorance makes it difficult for Putin to understand the widespread Russian reluctance to participate in his Ukraine war.