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Putin's mobilization of thousands more troops unlikely to resolve basic problems in Ukraine

“Realistically, most of these guys haven’t been through recent training, and a 300,000 input is incredibly high,” said Jeff Edmonds, who served as the National Security Council’s director for Russia under Obama . 

The main challenge the Russian military faces after almost seven months at war looks likely to remain a basic one: manpower. 

The “partial mobilization” President Vladimir Putin rolled out Wednesday aims to add an additional 300,000 reservists to the front, according to Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, primarily those with some kind of military experience. This comes after the Kremlin had already aimed to boost its military machine to 1.15 million last month, the Pentagon said.

But it is unlikely that anywhere near all of the 300,000 will have true combat experience or training, or get it once in the field, said Jeff Edmonds, who served as the National Security Council’s director for Russia in the Obama administration. 

“Realistically, most of these guys haven’t been through recent training, and a 300,000 input is incredibly high,” he said. “Most Russian soldiers receive most of their training in the units now, but it’s hard to imagine the units that are in Ukraine being in any state to train recruits.”

“The administrative side of adding new territory takes time, mobilizing and integrating newly mobilized troops takes time.”

Ekaterina Schulman said

Ukraine had nearly 200,000 active duty soldiers at the start of the war, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British research institute in London. Kyiv bolstered that number with new recruits and volunteers that are trained in Ukraine and in partner countries, such as Poland and the United Kingdom.

Russia had about 1 million active personnel at the start, according to the institute’s estimates, though it did not dedicate all its troops to Ukraine. 

Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said Thursday that Putin’s mobilization appeared to expose that the Russian military was struggling with personnel shortfalls in Ukraine and that this could further exacerbate “command and control, the logistics, the sustainment, and importantly, the morale issues that we’ve seen Russian forces in Ukraine experience.”

Ryder said “it would take time for Russia to train and prepare and equip these forces,” with estimates ranging from weeks to months, meaning that these reinforcements could arrive closer to Ukraine’s bitter winter months when the front lines could freeze until the spring. 

“In many ways, this is just bad after bad,” Edmonds said.

Image: Russian servicemen on patrol
Adding a large number of poorly trained soldiers lacking motivation won't provide much beyond “cannon fodder,” said Glen Howard, the president of the Jamestown Foundation.Olga Maltseva / AFP via Getty Images file

A depleted military 

The Russian military has sapped much of its training infrastructure to support a war that has gone disastrously wrong for them in many ways, Edmonds and retired Marine Col. Mark Cancian said. The officer stock has also taken significant casualties. Both of these have made it hard to identify how the new additions to the Russian military could be trained or used effectively in this war. 

The Kremlin does not have a reserve military to draw on the way the U.S. does, said Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. The U.S. maintains a reserve force that it puts through military drills one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer and several months before deployment, he said.

“The Russians don’t do that,” Cancian said. “After you serve in the military — and this has been true for decades — your name is on the list, but you don’t really do any training. So you might have been discharged five years ago and now you’re being called up all of a sudden.”

Analysts and current officials noted a tougher ecosystem for Russian recruiters as well. They cited a report by OVD-Info, a Russian human rights group, that claimed that recently arrested anti-war protesters in Moscow were drafted into military service. Many also noted a viral video of the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit, recruiting prisoners as new soldiers for the Ukrainian front. 

Forcing dissidents and unwilling Russians into the military would likely exacerbate what are widely believed to be deep problems with morale within the rank and file. This week, the Duma, Russia’s parliament, passed legislation that would further punish deserters and those refusing to fight.

Adding a large number of poorly trained soldiers lacking motivation would not provide much beyond “cannon fodder,” said Glen Howard, the president of the Jamestown Foundation, a security think tank dedicated to Russian and Eurasian study in Washington.

“Sticking these guys in the front lines shows there’s no military unit cohesion, and that’s not the point,” he said. 

‘New territory takes time’

The “partial mobilization” comes after Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive broke through Russian lines outside Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populous city. They then drove farther into the contested Russian proxy-controlled Donbas region, forcing the Kremlin’s units to fall back quickly, losing soldiers and military hardware. 

Officials in Russian-occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions have since announced a referendum on accession to Russia as Ukraine’s offensive continues. 

The military support of mobilization and the veneer of territorial security that annexation could provide will likely take a while, however. Time would appear to be the Kremlin’s bitterest enemy, Ekaterina Schulman, a Russian political scientist and Putin critic living in Germany, said on her Telegram channel.

“The administrative side of adding new territory takes time, mobilizing and integrating newly mobilized troops takes time, and they’re assuming the opposing side is going to stop and wait, evidently out of respect for the Russian legislative process,” she said with a touch of sarcasm.

Will the West meet Russia’s escalation?

While Russia’s military is on its back foot, risks remain for Ukraine. Among them is the willingness of its allies to arm and continue supporting Kyiv, but it appeared the immediate aftermath of Putin’s announcement brought good tidings.

Since the Russian invasion began in February, the United States has pledged about $25 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Kyiv, and the Biden administration has already requested additional funding to provide military aid to Ukraine into 2023. Many partner countries have sent military packages as well. 

Meanwhile, Russia is coming under pressure from the West. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told NBC News that he had met on Wednesday with all the foreign ministers of the European Union member states attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York to discuss fresh sanctions against Russia and new military aid for Ukraine in an effort “to ramp up the price for the aggressor.”

Howitzer in Donbas
Conquering, and holding, territory takes time, discipline and resources, experts say.Anna Opareniuk / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Ukraine is focused on bolstering its missile and air defense capabilities in talks with partner countries, said former Ukrainian Vice Defense Minister Leonid Polyakov, who now works for a Kyiv-based think tank advising Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelenskyy. That would help them hold onto the territory they have retaken. Secondarily, he said, they still need more artillery pieces and munitions where they remain outgunned by Russia. 

Any delay or crack in Western unity, however, could work in the Kremlin’s favor, some said. This is especially a concern as the winter could be particularly costly for European energy prices.

Ukrainians appear to remain clear eyed on that festering issue, which Zelenskyy said Putin was attempting to use as a cudgel to soften Western support in a recent warning to his European allies

The fear that that support could waver in the coming months remains great in Kyiv and among those on NATO’s eastern flank, particularly as Putin’s “partial mobilization” will at least lead the war to drag on longer and further threaten the West. 

“I don’t think it will make a dramatic difference,” Reinsalu said, referring to the mobilization. “But of course it is a major escalation by the Russian Federation in both directions: toward Ukraine and the Western community, and also towards its own society.”