Going back to the army that Russia had for 150 years
January 7, 2023
  • Alexander Golts 
Alexander Golts analyzes the statements of Defense Minister Shoigu and President Putin at the year-end Defense Ministry collegium meeting and argues that the ministry has its sights set on bringing back the “mass mobilization army,” which Russia abandoned under the Serdyukov reform of 2008-12.
The original text in Russian was published by Republic and republished here with their permission.

The year-end collegium meeting of the Defense Ministry is traditionally held at the end of December with the commander-in-chief present. Though the figures voiced at this event are hardly realistic, the trends are plain to see.

Thus, the previous year’s meeting, at which no coherent data was provided, left no doubt that the Kremlin had already decided to launch a military operation against Ukraine. Similarly, at the recent meeting, the defense minister bombarded his colleagues with figures that are enough to drive mad military analysts who try to correlate them with reality; however, the direction that the Russian military is developing is quite obvious: the Defense Ministry has its sights set on bringing back the so-called “mass mobilization army,” which Russia successfully abandoned under the Serdyukov reform of 2008-12.

Unspecified objectives, unnamed problems

Surprisingly, both President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu did not try to analyze the conflict in Ukraine, which has gone on now for more than 300 days.
"They did not say anything about the retreat from Kherson or the fighting in the Donbas, limiting themselves to comments that the objectives of the operation would certainly be achieved without specifying what they actually are."
President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the annual meeting of the Defense Ministry collegium. December 2022. Source: VK
Shoigu humbly pointed to the capture of Mariupol and the establishment of control over the North Crimean Canal as the key achievements. Nevertheless, the commander-in-chief highlighted “issues that need our special attention, including issues we have discussed more than once.” He named communications, automated command and control systems for troops and weapons, counter-battery tactics and target detection, the problems with which, it follows, are preventing the army from achieving even greater success.

Separately, Putin commented on drones, describing how they should be used (note that it is how they have been used for 20 years in the armies of the US and its allies, who, according to the Kremlin, are actually fighting against Russia in Ukraine): “Unmanned vehicles should be interconnected, integrated into a single intelligence network, and should have secure communication channels with headquarters and commanders. In the near future, every soldier should be able to receive information transmitted from drones.” He is confident that “technically speaking, [such a system] can be implemented in the very near future, almost now.” One can only guess why it has not been implemented yet.

Both Shoigu and Putin mentioned “all the well-known issues” that arose during the partial mobilization, yet again without naming them. Putin promptly pointed out how they should be resolved: “First, it is necessary to upgrade the system of military commissariat offices. I am referring to the digitization of databases and interaction with the local and regional authorities. It is necessary to upgrade the organization of civil and territorial defense and interaction with industry. In particular, we need to improve the system of stockpiling and storing arms, combat equipment and material resources for the deployment of units and formations during mobilization.”

Big plans

Perhaps the most important thing that was mentioned at the meeting was increasing the size of the armed forces. Shoigu outlined grandiose plans for a buildup, stating the need for 1.50 million servicemen. Just on January 1 did a presidential decree to increase their number by 137,000 to 1.15 million come into force, meaning another 350,000 people will now have to be found. The target for contract soldiers was given at 695,000, compared with the 521,000 targeted by the end of 2023. Just last year the Defense Ministry spoke of 405,000 contract soldiers as a great achievement. It might be assumed that the ministry expects that the mobilized soldiers will like their salary (and life at the front) so much that they will jump at the opportunity to sign contracts.
"Defense Ministry officials clearly believe that they will also be able to force conscripts to sign contracts, as Shoigu proposed allowing them to do the very day they are conscripted."
To make the choice seem conscious, he also proposed raising the conscription age from 18 to 21. 

Shoigu has a plan for what all these "additional" soldiers will do. He intends to create three motorized rifle divisions, as well as an army corps. Two more air assault divisions are also to be created. Seven motorized rifle brigades are to be transformed into divisions. Five marine brigades are to be converted into divisions as well. In addition, each of the nine combined arms armies and one tank army should have a composite aviation division and army aviation brigade within it with 80 to 100 combat helicopters. Shoigu also pointed to the need to add eight bomber aviation regiments, one fighter aviation regiment and six army aviation brigades. Finally, each military district is to get an artillery division and super-heavy artillery brigades.

It makes no sense to try to correlate these demands with the demographic situation in the country or the labor needs of the economy. Currently, working-aged men include those born in the early 2000s, a period of great demographic decline. According to Rosstat, as of January 1, 2022, there were 7.2 million men aged 17-26 in Russia. It is them who will make up the majority of the servicemen Shoigu intends to recruit. They will leave the labor pool. Meanwhile, industry is clearly incapable of providing the more than two dozen new divisions with cutting-edge or even modern equipment and weapons. Analysts are perplexed. An unnamed Vedomosti source from the defense industry indicated that 800 helicopters would be required to equip the army aviation brigades, versus 400 available now and no more than 100 produced per year. It is not very clear where the planes, tanks and armored personnel carriers will come from in the required quantity given the current economic system.

Going back to the old model

Thus, at first glance Shoigu's plans simply represent an element of psychological warfare and are unrealizable. However, everything makes sense if we assume that the Kremlin has decided to radically change its approach to the development of the army and state and go back to the concept of a mass mobilization army – the army that existed in Russia for almost 150 years and that Anatoly Serdyukov abandoned.
"It assumes that the state will be defended by millions of reservists when it is threatened."
Anatoly Serdyukov, Russia's defense minister in 2007-12 who carried out several major reforms of the Russian military. Source: Wiki Commons
These reservists would receive military training when they go through conscription.

Such an army typically consists of the so-called “skeleton units” mainly made up of officers and a small number of low-level soldiers who service stores of equipment and weapons. Reservists are sent to these formations, where they refresh their skills and go through cohesion exercises before being sent to the front. At the same time, every industrial enterprise, regardless of what it usually produces, receives so-called a “mobilization task,” i.e. an order to make components for weapons and military equipment. Obviously, such parallel production makes enterprises’ usual goods more expensive. To lend this system a semblance of economic sense, Gosplan had to set prices of all manufactured products through directives.

With the collapse of the USSR, the entire mass mobilization system began to rapidly unwind. The state could not provide the necessary number of conscripts and reservists to fill out the skeleton units and formations during a crisis. The stored military equipment fell into disrepair. Just how much the mobilization army had degenerated was demonstrated by the war with Georgia. A quarter of the armored vehicles broke down on the way to the border, while officers of the skeleton divisions proved unable to lead the soldiers.

Anatoly Serdyukov, who had become the defense minister a year before the war, destroyed the outdated mobilization system. All skeleton units and formations were liquidated, and the two dozen remaining brigades were manned to full strength. They were able to proceed with the execution of the order without wasting time on outfitting and cohesion. However, an army created in this way was intended to win a short local conflict, like the war with Georgia. It was certainly not intended for long-term conventional warfare against a country that the West is providing all possible assistance. Nor was it intended to establish control over a territory that Shoigu said was five times the size of the Lugansk and Donetsk people's republics as of February 24.

Thus, the “special military operation” has inevitably generated a demand for counter-reform. The two dozen divisions that Shoigu intends to create are doomed to be skeleton formations. Essentially, a return to the Soviet-style mass mobilization army is planned. With it, old problems will come back as well – namely, cumbersomeness and an inability to respond quickly.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy