Partial mobilisation is Inspector-General jargon for admitting your ‘special military operation’, itself Inspector-General speak for a major European war, is going badly and the Russian Army running out of soldiers. The situation is further complicated by the Kremlin trying to hide the real extent of the partial mobilisation. After looking at leaks in opposition outlets and Telegram channels, the Institute for the Study of War in Washington DC ( ISW ) believes the target is not 300,000 as announced but actually 1.2 million. Judging from long lines at the frontier, mostly young men trying to leave Russia, a lot of Russians appear to suspect the same.
This is the first mobilisation in post-Soviet Union Russia. The ISW point out that from 1878 to 2008 Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and modern Russia maintained the cadre system to permit mass mobilisation. This resembled our Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve but with only the cadre of officers and NCOs, no soldiers until mobilisation is ordered. That kept a structure in place to rapidly train soldiers after a mass call up. The cadre structure no longer exists.
Is the Russian mobilisation machine therefore any better prepared for large scale war than the Russian Army? It doesn’t appear so. Bear in mind that the Kremlin, for all practical purposes, by-passes the defence ministry and replaces combat losses including front line formations with ad hoc volunteer battalions. This approach causes muddle and complication along the chain of command. The fate of the 3rd Corps at Kharkiv shows how long these ad hoc volunteer formations last in full frontal combat against the Ukrainians. Also, one cannot take Kremlin announcements as a guide for what will actually happen on the ground throughout Russia. Local officials are under pressure from the Kremlin to produce enough recruits and therefore make up their own rules to reach the quotas they have been set. The Defence Ministry set out criteria for who is eligible for call up and who is not. Yet the military bloggers (milbloggers) report local officials calling up students, employees of military industries, civilians with no previous military experience, airport and airline employees, people with chronic illnesses, just to give a few examples. Even those with military experience are being assigned to the wrong trades, thus muddle and confusion is the fate awaiting actual reservists.
A further and significant aspect is that the army tends to recruit from the non-Russian regions of the country. Partial mobilisation effects the Russian population as well and judging by the instant exodus of young men, looks deeply unpopular.
Will this gamble provide the Russian Army with effective reinforcements on the scale needed to avoid defeat and hold those parts of Ukraine grabbed since their late February and early March retreat from around Kiev? This seems unlikely. Even if Russian losses are 20,000 killed rather than 40 – 50,000 as claimed the Ukrainians, that still implies another 60,000 wounded. If the Ukrainian estimates are closer to the actual number, then Russia’s casualties are horrendous, perhaps nudging their original strength on the February night when they tried to seize Kiev. Restoring their original fighting capacity requires tens of thousands of properly trained soldiers, ideally experienced combat veterans from a well organised reserve.
Instead, much more probable seems an erratic flow of barely trained replacements for those killed and wounded in existing battle groups and little prospect of replacing and resting larger formations, some of which have been fighting for seven months. Add to the trickle of replacements the need for a large mob of uniformed security auxiliaries for policing and subduing the occupied territory. A recent example of such security tasks is the fake referendum held over the few last days when troops went round with voting papers and people were made to vote at gunpoint. Russian television made no secret of no secret ballot. Fake referendums are not going to defeat Ukrainian counter-offensives. They do offer one possibility that may outrank nuclear threats; namely, allowing the Kremlin to send conscripts legally to Ukraine – conscripts only can be sent outside Russia during a war – by pretending they’re going to part of Russia.
One wonders who is left inside Russia to train anyone and whether all these recruits will spend the winter in tents. Those called up are unlikely to have any effect on the battlefield this year nor probably next year. So far, regardless of the national security committee meeting this week, the ISW maintains that the evidence suggests that the Russian ministry of defence is mostly an onlooker at recruiting driven through private political channels; many aspects would break Russian mobilisation law if carried out by the ministry of defence. Some recruits have been sent to the front without any training.
Compare this shambles with the British programme for training 10,000 combat ready soldiers every 120 days to the same standard as our soldiers, who understand command from the bottom up, an approach shared with the Americans, Canadians and Commonwealth, also several NATO countries. Russia’s Tzarist army does the exact opposite. Effectively the British programme adds a new division’s worth of trained infantry soldiers every 120 days, all of them capable of quickly learning the skills of combined arms warfare. Ukrainians are also learning how to use the artillery and armoured vehicles, rockets and missiles provided by NATO members particularly the Americans and British.
Another question is what kind of equipment will be issued to these newly mobilized Russian troops? Will it be the latest or stocks that remain from the 1970s and 1980s, from the days of the Red Army? Ukraine daily acquires a 21st century army.
Fake votes and threats of nuclear weapons
Russia’s collective leadership has been quite effective at threatening NATO with nuclear weapons. They rightly calculate that Joe Biden and his Administration remain wary of risking any counter action that might start a third world war. If you’re sane, there’s no alternative option – although the US Navy on its own possesses enough conventional power to destroy Russia’s invasion forces. Instead, the Americans, British, Canadians and a few NATO members in Europe have supplied Ukraine with modern weapons and ammunition, logistic and medical help, large scale training, hot intelligence and money. Ukraine provides daily lessons for NATO on how to deal with a belligerent Russia that has invaded a neighbour, not once but twice during less than a decade.
The Americans and the French possess tactical nuclear weapons. Fortunately for NATO the US nuclear arsenal was never in the hands of Tony Blair. Thanks to Tony – I’m sure he meant well but it was a dangerous mistake – we no longer maintain an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons. By giving up our tactical nuclear weapons, Russia’s decision whether or not to invade Ukraine became simpler. The Russians calculated that France would not intervene without EU agreement which Germany would block. The British still had a strategic nuclear deterrent, but no tactical nuclear weapons any longer. There was thus no wild card in the pack. Russia only needed to fear America’s reaction. Two invasions of Ukraine during the last eight years strongly suggests that we should look again at this decision. Perhaps new hypersonic weapons could fill the gap otherwise we need our tactical nukes restored, fast.
I fully take on board the warning from Alan West, former Chief of the Defence Staff, that we should take seriously Putin’s and the collective leadership’s threats to use nuclear weapons. On the other hand, if you were going to do the unthinkable, why also try to scrape up 1.2 million conscripts on the sly? One has to allow that some of the threats are bluff and bluster aimed at impressing and reassuring those Russians who, so far, support the war.
ISW observe that judging from its performance in Ukraine, Russia’s army does not possess the kind of highly trained combined arms force required to follow up and exploit a tactical nuclear strike. The degraded hodge-podge of Russian forces presently operating in Ukraine are unable to mount and maintain a conventional warfare offensive.
None-the-less, Russia needs a clear signal that any nuclear attack will bring consequences. Perhaps the clearest message is to position a large number of nuclear or conventionally armed aircraft in Europe. The quickest way to do that is to send them to bases in Britain – no political hassle involved with your closest ally, Joe – and possibly to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus. At the same time position two carrier strike groups on this side of the Atlantic and warn that they are carrying nuclear weapons.
Why should that work?
One of the images lodged in my memory from this summer is of Putin rambling in front of his defence chiefs about putting Russia’s nuclear forces on alert – and the looks of horror on their shocked though otherwise gloomy faces.