On September 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on partial mobilization (Kremlin.ru, September 21) and issued a public statement in which he claimed that the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine are de facto confronting the West (Kremlin.ru, September 21). However, an official state of war has not been proclaimed, and the parameters of the partial mobilization, its schedule and number of mobilized personnel have been classified in the decree. Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu only clarified that the mobilization plan calls for at least 300,000 soldiers to be mobilized during an unknown period (Interfax, September 21). All this testifies that Moscow faces a crucial shortage of manpower and that the spring conscription of 2022, as well as the recruitment of volunteers and even prisoners has failed miserably. Meanwhile, an increasingly weak Russia is trying to escalate quickly, aiming to stave off defeat in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the mobilization became possible as a political decision, but it is still impossible technically and will bring more chaos into the Russian government, economy and society.
In February 1997, the federal law on mobilization and the accompanying training regime was passed in Russia (Pravo.gov.ru, July 14). The statute represented a politically motivated throwback to the Soviet era in response to, at that time, growing resentment among the elites and society as a political reaction to the events in Chechnya in 1994–1996. This federal law contains the term “partial mobilization” but does not clarify it. Although, it does stipulate that the president of Russia should declare general or partial mobilization in case of aggression against Russia, or the immediate threat of such aggression. Thus, declaring the partial mobilization in objective absence of such a threat definitely means that the Kremlin will either escalate the conflict itself or attempt to trade the threat of escalation in talks with Ukraine and the West.
Considering the federal law, the mobilization, whether full-scale or partial, always presumes mobilization of the people together with mobilization of the authorities at all levels of government, as well as the mobilization of economy. As the situation presently stands, the Russian political-economic system, together with the Russian Armed Forces, is not prepared for this comprehensive undertaking due to a number of factors.
First, the cadre units within the Russian Armed Forces that were previously designated for mobilization deployment have been eliminated since the military reforms of 2009–2012 (Nezavisimoye voyennoye obozreniye, December 12, 2008; Hse.ru, December 27, 2009). Considering that the real number of Russian units on the eve of the war did not exceed 770,000 troops (Sc.mil.ru, January 2017), instead of the nominal 1 million–strong pronouncement (Pravo.gov.ru, March 28, 2017), and that the number of ground forces, airborne troops and marines did not exceed 280,000, 45,000 and 35,000 soldiers, respectively (Iiss.org, February 2022), it is almost impossible to even reinforce existing military units with the mobilized recruits because of a lack of officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) after seven months of heavy losses. And, as a result, it is all the more impossible to deploy new units.
Second, the defense industry is unable to significantly extend its current manufacturing capacities (see EDM, June 16, July 7). Despite the fact that the Kremlin is trying to do something about these limitations, shortages in the workforce as well as with industrial equipment and necessary components do not allow Russian authorities to change the situation (Krasnaya zvezda, September 21).
Third, only two types of mobilization have occurred in human history: the republican mobilization, similar to the process in today’s Ukraine that presumes democratic governance and trust between the people and political elite, and the violent mobilization, as took place during the Soviet times of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin or the Mao Zedong era in China. The violent approach presumes force, and, during the 20th century, communists across the world dealt mostly with massive rural populations, which made the cost of mobilization much lower. That is not the case with the modern urban populace. In this way, mobilization efforts in Russian cities may bring about unpredictable consequences that will be quite negative for the Kremlin.
Fourth, after years of centralized dictatorship and the absence of federalism and self-governance, the Russian regional and local authorities are virtually unable to realize sophisticated tasks, such as mobilization, in an effective manner, especially in the face of the next upcoming conscription period that should start on October 1.
Fifth, regular training was not held for those who previously served in the military. Briefly speaking, most of them are reservists only on paper. By the early 2020s, the Russian Ministry of Defense had created a system in which reservists could sign contracts with low pay and attend regular exercises. However, the number of active reservists appeared to be low: no more than 20,000 in all military districts (Interfax-AVN, September 30, 2021; Mil.ru, October 14, 2021; VPK.name, January 27; Mil.ru, January 17).
All these factors mean that it will be nearly impossible for Moscow to effectively mobilize 300,000 soldiers. Nevertheless, the mobilization’s first sequence has already been initiated: Those soldiers, NCOs and officers who were expecting their military contracts (e.g., with the Russian Ministry of Defense or Rosgvardia) to expire soon are now forced to remain in active military service for an indefinite period. Even if the military is demoralized, the Kremlin may still consider the prevention of further turnover in the armed forces as critical no matter the costs.
Another evident sequence has been potential escalation of the war in Ukraine. Moscow is not going to give up, and it may try to drag the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into the conflict, hoping to test the tensile strength of renewed solidarity among NATO members and their readiness to directly fight against Russia.
However, even a partial mobilization contributes significantly to delegitimizing the Kremlin in the eyes of its partners. Moreover, spreading chaos within the Russian political-economic system related to the mobilization announcement raises questions about the future of Russia’s statehood and the long-term limitations of Moscow’s true military capabilities.