A rocky start to Russia’s mobilization

October 25, 2022
 Since Putin’s mobilization announcement, chaotic scenes at recruitment centers and military facilities across Russia have taken place. Reservists lack the most elementary supplies, such as warm clothing, sleeping bags and medicine.
In early October, a video surfaced online of mobilized Russian men at the Novosibirsk Higher Military Command School climbing over fences to receive boxes of food and hot drinks from concerned locals. Other videos uploaded to Telegram channels in the days and weeks following Putin’s announcement of partial mobilization on September 21 showed soldiers left outside in fields without tents or heating, forced to make fires to keep warm. Meanwhile, recruitment centers in cities across Russia are reportedly giving out lists of recommended items for men to bring with themselves, such as backpacks, underpants, socks and medicine.

The emerging picture is one of a Russian military woefully unprepared and undersupplied for the kind of large-scale mobilization that the country’s leadership said it planned to undertake. Kirill Shamiev, who studies Russian civil-military relations at Central European University in Vienna, said that the disorderly start to the mobilization is due partly to the gradual downscaling and underfunding of military enlistment offices over the years.

“The training for enlistment officers is rather poor,” Shamiev told Russia.Post. “The military commissaries that oversee enlistment offices are usually former military people appointed after their service. So they’re usually not professionals, in the sense that they don’t belong to a special enlistment profession.”

Investigative journalists from iStories report that, as of October 21, at least 50 reservists called up during mobilization have died. And at least 30 of these deaths were soldiers that did not make it to the front – they died of various causes at training centers and military bases. An official from the Moscow government, who had no prior combat experience, died in early October just days after being sent to the front. Russian authorities have been reluctant to comment on these incidents and blame the deaths mostly on the victims themselves.

Reporting on the experiences of reservists from Ufa and Chelyabinsk, the media outlet Verstka writes that the family of one man named Semyon spent about RUB 40,000 to equip him for the war. Men were told they wouldn’t receive any training and would be sent straight to Luhansk. After some of them asked superiors to provide tactical gloves and hunting knives, the knives given to them turned out to be blunt. Two days later, the reservists were taken to Luhansk, where again there was no food. Semyon contacted his relatives to ask them to send him RUB 4,000 so he could buy food for himself.

In response to massive shortages in the military, local governments, politicians, businesspeople and even ordinary citizens are collecting donations to purchase new equipment for mobilized soldiers. But the degree to which these initiatives are genuine and grassroots-like remains questionable, as coercion of businesspeople by the state has long been common practice in Russia. For instance, high school students in Primorsky Krai are sewing and knitting warm clothes for reservists – what officials are calling a “flashmob” to make it seem like it was self-organized, although the school administrations, under orders from the local government, appear to have initiated the effort.

In the Tyumen region, members of the ruling United Russia party launched a donation drive called “100 Million for Victory.” The chair of the Tyumen Regional Duma Committee on Social Policy, Olga Shvetsova, said of the drive: “We invite 1,000 patrons who are ready to contribute to victory – RUB 100,000 each.” With the donated funds the organizers hope to purchase thermal imaging devices and range finders for troops. Likewise, Yakutia’s Civic Chamber announced its own donation drive to purchase warm clothing, boots, sleeping bags and mats for mobilized soldiers.

In Chelyabinsk, half a million residents are reported to have signed a petition asking local officials to buy equipment for the military instead of setting up a tree for New Year. Other regions picked up on the idea to scale back New Year celebrations and redirect funds toward the military. One example is St Petersburg, where Governor Alexander Beglov announced that New Year and Christmas events will not take place this year. However, Russia’s Ministry of Defense has since spoken out against such initiatives, claiming that the military is sufficiently equipped for all of its needs, which jars with the mounting evidence to the contrary.

In Novosibirsk, representatives of the local business community, under the auspices of the region's business ombudsman – to be sure, a representative of the state – are reported to have collected RUB 1 million to help purchase clothes, personal hygiene products and medicine for soldiers.

"Businesspeople are concerned about how the special operation is going. They want to contribute so that it will end with our victory… The time when they thought only about profit is over, now ‘businessman' carries a completely different meaning," said Novosibirsk Business Ombudsman Roman Bessonov.

Shamiev says that these kinds of donation drives are unusual.

“It means that equipment isn’t in the place where it is needed, or it’s located in warehouses and isn’t being delivered to troops. But this kind of mobilization of civil society has been ongoing since the start of the war. Several military professionals criticized the Ministry of Defense for having very outdated standards for equipment,” he said.
Chair of the Duma Defense Committee Andrei Kartapolov sent a letter to Prosecutor General asking him to investigate supply problems in Russia’s military. Source: Wiki Commons
Chair of the Duma Defense Committee Andrei Kartapolov and Chair of the Duma National Security Committee Vasily Piskarev sent a letter to Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov asking him to investigate supply problems in Russia’s military, which suggests that the two Duma deputies suspect large-scale embezzlement at military depots is undermining the mobilization. In addition, just days after Putin’s mobilization announcement, General Andrei Bulgakov, who oversaw logistics for the armed forces, was dismissed in a move widely seen as punishment for failures in Russia’s war effort.

Meanwhile, on the ground, any soldiers who want better equipment must purchase it with their own money. Military procurement is highly regulated in Russia and even now it is difficult for Moscow to quickly alleviate the problems with the quality and quantity of equipment without major institutional changes.

Whether or not equipment purchased on donations will have a meaningful impact on the effectiveness of the Russian military is difficult to say.

“It does make a difference to individual soldiers that receive better equipment. It also shows that there is some kind of civil society in Russia, which is not so liberal… They want soldiers to return home alive,” said Shamiev. “But in a country as big as Russia, the speed at which donations are being made suggests that they’re not so helpful.”

Still, there are reports of state workers facing pressure to chip in their own money for supplies and equipment needed by soldiers. For example, in Khabarovsk Gazprom is reportedly pressuring its employees to donate RUB 1,000 for medical supplies lacking in military hospitals. In Volgograd Region, teachers at public schools are also reportedly being coerced into donating a portion of their salary to a foundation that purchases ammunition, equipment and other items that the military is requesting. Though some do donate money, supplies and even time by choice, mounting evidence suggests that in many cases not everyone has a choice.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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