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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Putin’s new cannon fodder won’t win the Ukraine war

Russian president Vladimir Putin tripled down on the war in Ukraine in a short but defiant televised speech on Tuesday.

Politically, he announced a series of referendums on joining Russia to be held in the conquered territories of eastern Ukraine this week. Militarily, he repeated previous not-so-veiled threats to use nuclear weapons, and announced a mobilisation of 300,000 reservists to be thrown into his flailing “special military operation”.

All this smacks of desperation and an attempt to thread a narrow needle: Putin wants Russians to believe everything is going fine and ultimately he will conquer Ukraine; but he also knows with as many as 80,000 troops killed or wounded in just over six months of war, he simply needs more soldiers.

The referendums are largely meaningless, with pre-ordained outcomes that no informed observer or the UN will take seriously. The nuclear threat is a repetition of Putin’s bluster of months ago. He is highly unlikely to use even a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon given the obvious threat of starting World War III and also the immense damage it would do in his efforts to keep Brazil, India, Nigeria, South Africa and other large non-aligned countries in neutrality.

But the mobilisation of 300,000 troops is worth military analysis. What does the decision to call in reserves say about the state of the war, and how should the West react?

Troop exercises

When I was supreme allied commander of NATO, I participated in exercises with many reserve troops, including those of three non-Nato countries with exceptional systems: Finland, Israel and Switzerland. (Finland is currently in the midst of the NATO accession process.) Finland and Israel are small nations with a history of being invaded by their immediate neighbors — Russia in the case of the former, and various Arab nations for the latter. Both have universal conscription (males for Finland; both sexes for Israel) that flows into a highly ordered, motivated and exceptionally well-equipped reserve force. I came away with deep respect for their capabilities.

Police detain a demonstrator during a protest against mobilisation in Yekaterinburg, Russia.
Police detain a demonstrator during a protest against mobilisation in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Another country with incredibly ready reserves is neutral Switzerland. The military tradition there is deeply respected and woven into Swiss culture, from highly trained fighter pilots to troops mounted on racing bicycles. Every time I flew over Switzerland in NATO aircraft, I would look with admiration to the left and right at reserve fighter pilots in high-end jets escorting us over their country.

The Russian reserve system, by contrast, is not highly regarded by military analysts. It is based on the vestiges of universal conscription that were in place for decades, and the stories of raw draftees being beaten, abused and starved are legendary. ( One Soldier’s War, by Arkady Babchenko, is a snapshot inside the brutal system.)

 It is also shockingly corrupt. When soldiers get out of uniform — after brutal wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria — they want to get as far as they can from the army.

Once discharged, former soldiers are loosely tracked by the Russian state. In contrast to modern Western militaries, there appears to be very little systematic training, no organised equipment maintenance or operations, and no in-depth ties with standing units and missions. While there are a few reserve units as per the US model, they are small and inadequately supported by the larger armed forces.

Hurdles to overcome

Ominously for Russia, the mobilisation order places the onus for recruitment on various governors of Russian regions, under a system of quotas levied by the defence ministry. This demonstrates there is no broad, structured reserve to which the Russian military can turn. Additionally, the decree allows for further call-ups down the road, and offers bonuses to reserves who come forward, much like the incentives offered to convicts in Russian prisons to go and fight.

It will be a Herculean administrative task to provide uniforms and training for 300,000 troops, find qualified leaders at the officer level, provide them with effective equipment, and get them integrated with communications and logistics. 

It will be months before a significant number can be brought to bear in combat.

 Then, almost certainly, they will become yet another wave of cannon fodder launched at Ukrainian positions.

The Ukrainians, knowing they may eventually face a much larger force, will prepare responses.

They will be seeking (and likely receive from the West) systems to negate large numbers of foot soldiers: close-air attack planes, tanks and artillery, mounted machine guns, precision mortars and long-range surface-to-surface missiles.

The Russians being pulled off the street in this mobilisation will face a highly motivated, extremely well-armed and very innovative foe in the Ukrainians. The War of Putin’s Ego continues, and many of these 300,000 poor souls are likely to pay the ultimate cost for his folly.

James Stavridis is a retired US Navy admiral, former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.


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