Vladimir Putin's Ragtag Army
Mobilization has brought society to a breaking point.
“As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time,” former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said in 2004, dismissively answering a reporter's question about poorly equipped U.S. troops in Iraq.
Some 18 years later, a month after announcing a "partial" mobilization of some 300,000 men, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is facing the same problem on steroids. In an effort to stem embarrassing defeats in Ukraine, Putin has tried a tactic with roots in Russian history. In 1941, the Soviets had some 5.5 million men mobilized and called up another 14 million when Nazi Germany invaded in 1941.
But Russia can't do that now. It has had a relative shortage of men since at least World War II. (Women aren't conscripted in Russia.) In addition, it has an aging population, and has suffered a decline of births after the fall of the Soviet Union. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the average age mobilized was 35 -- old for a military draft. In addition, an estimated 350,000 men have fled the country since mobilization.
Who's left? The answer is a ragtag group without much training. Although Putin said that "primarily those who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialties and corresponding experience" would be called up; reports indicate that many men without training have received summons. (Virtually all men under 65 are eligible.) For example, the wife of a 45-year old man reported that he was sent to the front after a day of training as part of a tank regiment to be a grenade launcher. (Thousands were also sent back after being unfit to serve.)
Russia's rural and poorer regions are mobilizing at higher rates than affluent big cities. According to an investigation by iStories Media and the Conflict Intelligence Team, in 23 out of 26 regions with the highest proportion of recruits, incomes are below the Russian average. "We see a correlation between the share of conscripted reservists and the poverty of the region," wrote the report's authors. "Often the army in such regions is one of the few employers, as well as an engine for social mobility." (32 regions have no data publicly available, making the analysis necessarily incomplete.) Recruitment rates varied from 5.5 percent in Russia's Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia, to well under one percent in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Natalia Zubarevich, a Russian economist specializing in regional dynamics, explained why women haven't resisted the draft for their husbands. In an interview with RTVi Novosti, a private Russian-language international channel, she illustrated this dynamic with a composite: "My unemployed husband will not find any job here; he is heavily drinking and will die sooner or later; if he goes to war he will at least earn some money and we'll get social benefits."
Convicts and ex-convicts are enlisting in Russia's war. Earlier this month, the Russian parliament lifted a ban on mobilizing men who have been convicted of grave criminal offenses and been released from prison. iStories Media reported that representatives of the Ministry of Defense had been going to various Russian prisons, offering a six-month contract, a salary, and a pardon, coming with a non-disclosure agreement. Russia's notorious Wagner Group, a mercenary army founded by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, has reportedly turned to jails to find recruits. Journalist and human rights activist Eva Merkacheva told Republic.ru that Russia’s male prisoner population declined by 13,000 inmates between January 1 and October 1, while the number of women imprisoned rose slightly.
Many of these men are a poor fit for the army. Russia's most famous prisoner, Alexei Navalny, tweeted before the Russian parliament made the change, "There is a reason why, both in the USSR and now in Russia, former convicts are not accepted into the army. Almost all such people have big problems with discipline and even bigger problems with alcohol and substances," he said. "Of course, if the combat mission were to walk around the area asking people for moonshine, the convicts would make perfect soldiers."
On October 28, Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared the end of mobilization. Shoigu said 300,000 men, 82,000 of whom are deployed in Ukraine and 218,000 of whom are in training, have been mobilized -- the same total number Putin called for last month. These numbers are impossible to verify. However, Putin and Shoigu saying mobilization is over doesn't mean it's over: Putin has issued no decree to officially end the mobilization and Russia's autumn draft for men aged 18 to 27 starts on November 1.
The mobilization has impacted Russia's economy. The men leaving and being drafted are generally able-bodied and of working age. Even before the war, Russia had been facing a worker shortage, losing 500,000 to 1 million workers each year in a country of 146 million people. Russia's central bank reported economic activity "stalled" at the end of September. Anecdotes reveal that mobilization has disrupted services: the Russian independent news website 7x7 reported that public transit in the city of Voronezh was severely disrupted because 62 bus drivers were mobilized.
For Putin, that might be a reasonable trade-off if the newly mobilized men changed the war dynamic. However, Russia’s troops remain stuck in the mud and not much has changed on the front lines. Putin is not only losing on the battlefield; he's losing at home because people are leaving and the economy and society are breaking down.
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