The Russian Armed Forces on Steroids

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 4

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (Source: Russian Ministry of Defence)

Since January 1, the ceiling of military personnel in the Russian Armed Forces has been increased from 1,013,628 to 1,150,628 service members (, August 25, 2022), which exceeds the ceiling for 2006–2016 of 1,134,800 people (, November 28, 2005). This is the nominal number as the true number of personnel within the Russian Armed Forces usually tends to be lower. For instance, the officially stated quantity in 2016 was 770,000 and did not change much before February 2022 (, January 2017). Moreover, the real number inevitably decreased after Russia launched its all-out aggression against Ukraine and Russian forces started suffering from heavy losses, increased discharges and a lack of new recruits, as Moscow involved almost all available combat-capable and support forces in the war, about 250,000 service members (, December 21, 2022).

In this way, the Russian leadership announced the potential increase of the personnel ceiling in August 2022 and began the so-called “partial mobilization” in September 2022. The main purposes here were: (a) preventing the discharge of tens of thousands of contracted soldiers whose short-term (starting at three months) and standard (starting at two years) contracts were closer to expiration; (b) partially restoring manpower through the mobilization of reservists; and (c) reserving more money in the defense budget for additional combat salaries, equipment and compensation for dead and wounded military personnel by adding 137,000 new positions for military personnel.

Furthermore, on December 21, 2022, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced a plan to increase the maximum number of military personnel in the Russian Armed Forces to 1.5 million in the coming years, increasing the number of contracted soldiers to 695,000 (planned to reach 521,000 by the end of 2023) (, December 21, 2022). The problem here is that the number of contracted soldiers on the eve of February 2022 hardly exceeded 405,000, and it was originally planned to grow to only 500,000 by 2027 (, March 25, 2020). Therefore, such a rapid increase would only be hypothetically possible through the massive coercion of Russian society into military service.

The measures of this coercion are clear: (a) another wave (or waves) of mobilization that increases the number of contracted soldiers, despite the official denial of such plans (, November 2, 2022); (b) expanded efforts to increase the number of drafted soldiers who sign contracts from the very beginning of their military service; and (c) a heightened focus on decreasing the number of Russian young men fleeing conscription through education programs in colleges and universities, as the age range for conscription is planned to increase from between the ages of 18 and 27 to between 21 and 30. The possible extension of conscription military terms from one year to between one and a half and two years cannot be excluded as well, despite the fact that it would be a highly unpopular measure. Also, the Russian military has been extending a network of military education centers within Russian universities, where, in 2021, 63,000 students were engaged in four-year military training programs (, December 21, 2021;, December 23, 2022). The alumni of such centers may be mobilized and forced to sign contracts as well.

However, the Russian Armed Forces continue to suffer from long-term troubles in their command-and-control system, and these troubles are being further aggravated by a growing deficit of junior officers (, December 21, 2022). Consequently, it is difficult to say how precisely the number of personnel in the Russian military can be increased significantly and how all the planned new divisions would function in practice.

Nevertheless, another option has been presented for such an increase—that is, expanding the number of personnel in the repair plants and production facilities belonging to the Russian Ministry of Defense. This seems especially probable when taking into account the plans for further development of such facilities in 2023 and for increasing arms manufacturing in the face of a challenging economic mobilization. In this way, some Russian young men with university degrees may be drafted and recruited for military service as workers and engineers.

Moreover, the increase in the number of military personnel certainly means further increases in the national defense budget. As the Russian Armed Forces remain far off from the planned ceiling for military personnel, the extraordinary military spending of 2022–2023 will assuredly become the new norm for the coming years regardless of the final results of the ongoing war (see EDM, November 17, 2022).

Meanwhile, the increased weight of the Russian military brings with it a political challenge for the Kremlin that openly casts doubts on the military’s political loyalties. And it would be highly problematic to manage this only through increasing the corresponding budgets of the law enforcement agencies and armed forces, including the different mercenary groups affiliated with them (, December 2021;, October 26, 2022). That is why the Kremlin decided to split the Western Military District into the Western, Moscow and Leningrad military districts (, December 21, 2022). Each of these sections will have its own combined army and command structure that will allow the Russian authorities to appoint the most loyal commanders to oversee each district.

As a result, the Kremlin is definitely not considering an abrupt end to its war against Ukraine. Moreover, it seems the Russian authorities do not know how to simultaneously end the war and maintain their power together with the stability of the current authoritarian system. The increasing personnel ceiling for the Russian Armed Forces is a measure not only for maintaining the fragile balance and prolonging the agony of the war but also for preventing Russian society from fomenting domestic turbulence at any cost. Even so, the announced increase in Russian military units will remain mostly on paper for now as the economic and demographic situation in Russia will hardly allow for such a measure to be realized.