Forces: Where Have All The Soldiers Gone?


March 27, 2023: The Russian military has suffered, and continues to suffer, heavy losses in Ukraine but is still planning on how to rebuild and expand. Planners ran into a major problem upon discovering that, somehow, wartime losses and emigration had greatly reduced the number of men able to serve in the military. Another problem is the cost of this rebuilding. Russia hasn’t got the cash to pay for recruiting, equipping and training the new troops. The Russian plan calls for a force containing 600,000 volunteer (contract career) soldiers and several hundred thousand conscripts.

This latest and greatest new plan ignores past experience with contract soldiers. These men were willing to serve in a peacetime force that would defend the motherland. Invading a neighbor and running into very hostile and lethal locals was unexpected and unacceptable. Many of the contract soldiers who survived the initial weeks of the invasion quit the military, with many justifying this on the ground that their contracts had been violated. This was technically illegal but there were so many departing contract soldiers that the government just let them go. The government planners seem to have forgotten this but many of the military-age men they plan to recruit remember and are not interested. The government response to this is chiefly more attempts to deceive potential recruits into signing up.

The number of military age men coming of age is falling rapidly because of a low birth rate. There are also long-used methods to avoid conscription or otherwise being forced into the military. These techniques were developed two centuries ago when the Russian monarchy first introduced conscription. Families would try to hide their military age men, simply leave the country, or bribe conscription officials. The proportions of each varied over time – leaving the country was not possible during most of the communist period, while bribery rose in the 1990’s and really took off after the first Chechen war (1994). The government got new soldiers any way they could and life went on. 21st Century Russian recruiters have tried to adapt but the young men and their families are not cooperating.

Long before the Ukraine invasion disaster, Russia was struggling with the task of rebuilding the military after the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991. Russia needed soldiers and they became increasingly hard to obtain since the 1980s and that got worse after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Having tried just about everything else, Russia sought Russian-speaking foreigners from former Soviet republics that had become independent. Foreign recruits had to meet the psychological and physical standards, and especially if they had needed skills, good jobs are available. Not many Russian-speaking foreigners were interested.

This inability to attract new recruits, even with conscription, put the government in an embarrassing situation because promises were made on this issue and not kept. Not once but multiple times. Some of the solutions make the problem worse. For example, in 2012 the government assured the public that conscription would end by 2020 and be replaced with better paid and trained volunteers (contract soldiers). That did not happen because of a shortage of volunteers and money to pay them. To make matters worse the number of eligible conscripts continues (as expected) to shrink. This also puts at risk plans to also create a large reserve force.

The decline in available conscripts could be seen in the official number of conscripts expected for the semi-annual draft. Russian conscription still operates like the original 19th century version when it was easier to take the conscripts twice a year. The late 2017 draft expected to obtain 134,000 conscripts, compared to 152,000 in late 2016. Only 147,000 were available for the early 2017 draft and the decline continued into the 2020s. It was obvious that conscription could not be eliminated until the mid-2020s at the earliest and even that was seen as too optimistic because the military, under pressure to “meet the quota”, takes a larger number of young men who are unfit for service and leaves it to the units that receive these men to sort that out. That can be made to work in peacetime but if there is any combat it quickly leads to disaster. All industrialized nations (including China) now suffer from the problem of too many potential recruits being overweight, out of shape or illegal drug users.

In 2015 the conscript problem became a major domestic scandal because the government violated the law by sending conscripts into eastern Ukraine, where there was some combat. At first the government insisted that the law allowed conscripts to go if they were volunteers and signed a consent form. But families complained that a growing number of conscripts were sent in who had not volunteered and that they were sent to a combat zone that the government insisted contained no Russian troops. Some commanders were found to be using deception to get conscripts to volunteer and sign a document attesting to that, so they could be sent into Donbas (eastern Ukraine), which is not a declared war. Apparently some conscripts, caught up in the nationalist “NATO is conspiring against us” propaganda the government has been pumping out with increasing frequency and intensity, really did sign the document willingly. They were also encouraged by the much higher pay offered for those serving in a combat zone. But as often happens in the military, some volunteers were acting under duress or were deceived when told signing the contract was a formality to justify the extra money for some “special training exercises inside Russia”. Some of these volunteers later figured out where they really were and deserted inside Ukraine and shared details of their experiences with Ukrainians and others outside Russia.

This sort of thing was officially denied and denounced by the Russian government via the government controlled mass media. But the Internet is another thing and there were a growing number of Russians who called out their government for lying about what is going on in Ukraine and for forcing conscripts into combat zones. Some of those conscripts were sent back to their families in sealed coffins with the explanation that it was because of a training accident. Other soldiers who served with some of the dead soldiers, especially those who were also conscripts, provided more accurate and embarrassing, to the Russian government, versions of what went on.

Meanwhile, despite resistance from Russian traditionalists in and outside the military, Russia moved ahead after 2012 to establish a Western style military reserve system, composed of troops who are fully trained to begin with, who would regularly refresh that training, and be capable of being quickly mobilized and operating as effectively as active duty troops. This was a big departure from over a century of using less well trained reservists. The new system was supposed to be operational by 2016 and look similar to the reserve system currently used in the United States and other Western nations. The Russian plan did not work out as expected.

Rebuilding their reserve system was an attempt to revive the Russian “secret army” that long drove foreign intelligence analysts nuts because it was difficult to ascertain just how good these reserve troops were. During the Cold War it was known that the first Soviet secret army, composed of former conscripts (reservists with no training after discharge), was not as good as the Soviet leadership believed but good enough to halt, just barely, the 1941 German invasion. After the Cold War ended in 1991, and a lot of secrets were briefly available from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, it was discovered that the Cold War era secret army was more of a shambles than the pre-1941 one. In the 21st century the Russians are determined to do it right. The only problem now is the falling price of oil. Sales of oil are a major part of the national economy and the falling oil price plus Ukraine-related financial sanctions means there was less money for military programs. The reserve program was a victim of this.

The old Russian cadre/conscript/reserve system looked impressive on paper but was a mess when actually used. Traditionalists in the Russian military still believe the old system is better than trying to import Western ideas. Yet the recent experience with the traditional reserve system says otherwise. For example, at the end of the Cold War, Russia had over 150 combat divisions in its army. But only a third of these were at full strength in peacetime, the rest were reserve divisions. The Russians planned to mobilize over two million men to fill out their reserve divisions in wartime. In peacetime the reserve divisions and their equipment were maintained by a skeleton crew of active duty soldiers.

In theory, this mass reserve system could work and its use against German invaders in 1941 was the best example of that. But it rarely worked well for Russia. In 1914 the Germans demonstrated to their disbelieving opponents that reserves could be as effective in wartime as regulars. The Germans did this by requiring their reserves to train regularly, much like the current American system. Russia could not afford this, although attempts were made to do some training. Most Russian reservists were assigned to a unit they had never seen and never would see unless they were called up. Despite the disastrous performance of their reserves in 1914 and 1941, when Russia called up reservists for their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 they were forced to quickly withdraw them and bring in regulars. The reservists just weren't effective.

Before 1991, Russia maintained an additional fifty divisions on paper, to be raised in wartime from reserves and obsolete equipment held in storage. These units, with troops in their thirties and forties using equipment as old as themselves, were known to be no match for an equal number of active divisions. But such "mobilization" divisions can make a difference, if you believe that quantity has a quality all its own. Now that Russia has sold, scrapped, worn out, lost in combat, or mislaid over 100,000 Cold War era armored vehicles and other equipment, bringing back the old reserve system is not only difficult, but probably more expensive than adopting a Western model. In fact, given the cost of modern equipment and the economic problems, as in not enough cash for any government endeavors, by 2000 reviving the old reserve system was impossible.

The pre-1991 Russian system kept track of every veteran until the age of fifty. That was their reserve manpower, and about all they did was keep track of current mail addresses. Many nations still use the same general concept for their reserves. Unable to afford the expense of regular reserve training, the usual source of men with current experience are those discharged in the last few years. Russia has been using conscription since the 19th century and during the Cold War there was a constant supply of recently discharged men for the reserves. That reduced Russia's reserve to a million men times the number of years you want to go back- say two to five million men. This was a major flaw in the Russian system, as it has been found that soldiers lose most of their military skills within a month of leaving active service. It takes several months to get these skills back. If troops are sent into combat before they have been retrained, their units will do very poorly against a better trained opponent. This was demonstrated in Ukraine during 2022 and 2023.

The Russian system, based on the one developed in 19th century Germany, was suitable for a nation lacking great wealth. It was cheap, because it had to be. During the Cold War a Russian reservist could not be called up for more than ninety days a year unless a national emergency was declared. This was not done out of any regard for the reservist but in recognition of the labor shortage and economic disruptions that would be created. Most reservists were never called up.

An example of the problems inherent in this system could be seen in the Russian mobilization against Poland in 1980. In areas adjacent to Poland Russia had 57 divisions. At least 40 would be needed to guarantee a quick conquest of an increasingly uncooperative Poland. Of the 57 available divisions, only 28 were fully manned and 24 of those were active units already assigned to East Germany and Czechoslovakia. These were for dealing with a NATO invasion or local rebellion in those two countries. Because of possible unrest in Eastern Europe, or interference from NATO countries, the divisions in East Germany and Czechoslovakia were left alone. This forced the use of 36 reserve divisions and bringing most of them in from other areas. Over half a million men would have to be called up. This would have a noticeable effect on the local economy, as over 50 million man days would be lost. In addition, there would be the expense of maintaining the troops and the loss of civilian trucks taken by the army for activated reserve divisions. This strain on the local economy was one of the critical, but not mentioned, factors causing Russia to demobilize and not attempt to pacify Poland by invading. Local officials were also not cooperating because they were not going to be reimbursed by the central government for what the local governments spend on this. Russia made it appear that they were being diplomatic but they were faced with causing enormous economic disruption in Russia areas adjacent to Poland, and that could have led to unrest in Russia itself.

Economic disruption is not the only problem Russian-style mobilization armies face. These armies rely heavily on conscripts, to the extent that 75 percent of their manpower were conscripts serving for two or three years. Most of the noncommissioned officers were conscripts of dubious quality. Russian officers are all volunteers and graduates of military academies or civilian universities. These officers also perform many of the supervisory tasks normally assigned to NCOs in Western armed forces. Supervision, management and leadership of Soviet troops was inadequate in peacetime and became even more inept when millions of reservists were mobilized. The mobilized army was about 85 percent conscript, with the rate going over 90 percent in a third of the divisions. If history is any guide, this third of the Russian Army was probably less than half as effective as the top third.

The solution to these quality problems is training. Most Western armies train their reserves, or attempt to. Training is critical because an effective soldier is very much a technician. The effective maintenance and use of weapons and military equipment is possible only with constant practice. Reserves that do not regularly practice require one or more months to regain their skills. Personnel with prior military service are easier to whip into shape for combat because of their familiarity with military routine. Because of their prior service, reserve troops have demonstrated an ability to function in a military environment. However, one should not place too much reliance on prior military experience. Unless these troops maintain good physical conditioning and some knowledge of their military skill, they are not a great deal better than raw civilian recruits.

The old Russian reserve system provided large numbers of troops but very low effectiveness. The Russians were aware of this, being diligent students of past experience. Their solution was to prepare for a short war, short enough so their deficiencies would not catch up with them. This was not to say that Russia could not win a long war. They were victorious during World War II, but at a cost of 30 million dead (18 percent of the population) and a ruined economy. Many of those losses were the result of sending newly mobilized, and so effectively untrained, reservists out to face German combat veterans. Russia made this same “short war” mistake in 2022 when they invaded Ukraine. Against the invaders, defending Ukrainians had an advantage because they were defending their country and were not only more motivated, but were better trained and led than most of the Russian invaders because they had adopted Western training methods including effective NCOs. NATO countries sent Ukraine billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, ammunition and equipment each month of the war. Most of Russia’s peacetime combat forces have by now been destroyed by heavy personnel and equipment losses.

Times have changed. Nuclear weapons make it unlikely that anyone would try to mount a major invasion of Russia. Inside Russia trained reservists would be useful for a local rebellion or natural disaster. This is how they have successfully been used in the United States and other Western nations. Russia wants some of that and believed it would be able to afford to build such a force in the 2020s. Heavy losses in Ukraine have set back those plans by a decade or more after the Ukraine War ends.




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