Mob unhappy: Why Russia is unlikely to emerge victorious in Ukraine
Putin’s mobilisation is unlikely to change the direction of the war – if Ukraine’s Western allies remain steadfast in their support
Last month, the Kremlin’s ‘partial mobilisation’ and illegal ‘annexation’ of Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson regions dramatically increased Russia’s political commitment to its war of aggression. President Vladimir Putin’s decision to involve the whole of Russian society in his bloodbath has significantly raised the domestic stakes. And, given that the Russian constitution prohibits territorial concessions, he cannot now ‘give back’ the regions he claims to have annexed. Putin has essentially put a big middle finger up to any attempt for a negotiated settlement. Now, either Russia or Ukraine will have to win this war.
Russia is unlikely to emerge victorious. Its army has squandered the bulk of its manpower over the past seven months. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s armed forces have repeatedly demonstrated their qualitative superiority, the most recent example being their rapid counteroffensive to liberate the Kharkiv region. Ukraine has sized the initiative quantitatively too, expanding its army to well over 700,000 men and women who have gained combat experience and grown in confidence since the start of the war.
Mobilisation: No silver bullet
Putin’s mobilisation will likely not change the situation much in the short term. Even if the credible rumours that Russia intends to mobilise 1.2 million men (not 300,000 reservists, as its ministry of defence claimed) turn out to be true, its army only has the barracks, officers, and equipment to train about 250,000 soldiers at a time. So, Moscow will need to organise the draft, training, and dispatch of its new troops in waves. Putin has recently said that mobilisation may end soon, but this is not to be taken at face value, as the purpose of such suggestions is to reassure his domestic audience. It is far more likely that the mobilisation has reached its capacity for the first wave, and that Russia will repeat this process until it reaches 1.2 million conscripts in spring next year.
But mobilising more than a million new soldiers will be easier said than done – not least because Russia’s armed forces abandoned their structures for mobilisation in the 2000s. To send people to war, peacetime structures need to be in place for newly conscripted troops to slot into. All armies reliant on mobilisation have reserve battalions and brigades that not only provide the equipment, but also the officers, non-commissioned officers, and specialists for these formations to function. This permanent ‘skeleton’ structure also provides the army leadership with information on how many reservists they have (or need) for the formations to operate in wartime.
Russia’s mobilisation looks very different. The Russian armed forces appoint commanders on the fly, with volunteer soldiers occupying squad and platoon commanding positions and any former officer taking the roles of company and battalion commanders. And, compared to the West, Russian officers’ training is much more specialised: they learn their ‘branch’ such as infantry or artillery and their level of command, but not much beyond that. Officers who end up at different levels or in charge of a different branch will be unable to lead effectively.
Furthermore, the Russian armed forces have used their junior officers wastefully over the past seven months of the war. And the Kremlin cannot deploy those professional units and officers that remain in Russia – since they are needed to train the successive waves of mobilised troops. These factors have together exacerbated the shortage of officers and specialists and resulted in a lack of combat-experienced officers to lead the new conscripts.
So, whatever forces the mobilisation creates, their initial combat value will be extremely limited. They will have received at most a month of training in disorganised units often led by ineffective officers. This may prepare them for static defence from prepared lines, but, if the Ukrainian army breaches these lines, they will lack the capability to conduct an organised withdrawal.
Tactics and equipment: Options limited
The Kremlin appointed General Sergei Surovikin as commander of its forces in Ukraine on 8 October. Surovikin is an advocate of firepower-centric warfare, similar to first world war tactics. This relies on heavy artillery barrages on the battlefield, to soften the positions of opposing forces; and the bombardment of civilian targets, to wear down broader support for the war effort. This kind of warfare does not demand complicated manoeuvres, so it can be conducted with relatively poorly trained and inexperienced troops.
However, the Ukrainian forces are more experienced and better trained than they were earlier in the war, and have learned to deal with Russian tactics. HIMARS missile strikes behind Russian lines endanger any concentration of artillery and ammunition to support heavy barrages. Ukraine is also receiving Western-made air defence systems, relieving at least some stress on their Soviet legacy systems, which are running short on ammunition. Given the size of Ukraine, however, these will not be sufficient to create a tight ‘missile shield’ over the whole country. But the Ukrainian air force should be able to compensate for this, with the speed of their fighter planes posing a threat to Russian aircraft in areas not covered by air-defence missiles.
Russia, on the other hand, has already used more than 2,000 of its long-range ‘stand-off’ missiles (which one can launch from a safe distance). In essence, a sustained bombing campaign against the Ukrainian rear now depends on Iran delivering its promised Russian orders of drones and missiles. Otherwise, Russia would have to use fixed-wing aircraft strikes – a risky endeavour, as the Ukrainian forces would shoot these planes down in large numbers.
The long war
There is still cause for concern about the potential scale of Russia’s mobilisation. The sheer numbers of troops will make it more difficult for Ukraine’s forces to conduct effective manoeuvres once they have breached Russian lines. For example, the slower progress of the Kherson counteroffensive compared to that in the Kharkiv region is due to the higher density of Russian forces in that sector. And, although casualties among the inexperienced mobilised troops will be high, those who survive may eventually gain some sort of experience and competence. The Kremlin’s cynical calculus may also be that Ukraine will run out of ammunition before Russia runs out of cannon-fodder.
This war is expected to last several years, and Western willingness to continue supporting Ukraine is not guaranteed. Kyiv is increasingly dependent on Western military assistance and Western military supplies due to the depletion of its Soviet-era stocks. Support from Washington is a lifeline, and not only because the United States provides the most urgently needed systems in by far the largest quantities. Washington also provides the political leadership for the entire support effort. But the mid-term elections may complicate US domestic politics. While only a few radical Republicans are openly pro-Russian, scaling back support for Ukraine for fiscal reasons is a distinct possibility. Europe is also facing a difficult winter, with high energy prices contributing to political insecurity. The fallout of this is not yet clear. But pressure from populist parties and fear of nuclear escalation may encourage hesitation to increase military support to Ukraine and supplement the US effort.
If Washington and Brussels remain steadfast, however, Moscow is highly unlikely to win this war. Recent Russian missile and drone attacks on civilian and cultural targets all over Ukraine, and the increasing frequency of Putin’s nuclear threats, are signs of weakness. Russia cannot force its terms upon the Ukrainian military. So, it is reduced to using terror and threats against the population to try to get its way. For Europe, Moscow’s nuclear noise and empty escalation threats will become the new normal: Putin sees this as the only instrument he has to impose self-restraint upon the West.
The Kremlin’s lack of preparation and inaccurate assumptions since the start of the war have cost it dearly. And mobilisation is not a silver bullet that can suddenly rectify all of this. The West, and particularly western Europe, should increase their military assistance to Ukraine. This would allow Ukraine to further exploit the momentum of its recent successes and liberate more territories before large numbers of Russian forces arrive on the battlefield. In the long term, it should enable Kyiv to transition to Western-designed systems in all weapons to increase the sustainability of the war effort and signal to Moscow it will not win a war of attrition.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.