Russia has a military manpower crisis that is getting worse and appears to be unsolvable. There are several aspects to it. Fewer 18 year old men are available and more of them are avoiding conscription or, because of lifestyle changes are unsuitable for military service. Contract (more qualified and better paid volunteer) soldiers are more difficult to attract in part because the Russian military has a generations-long reputation for being corrupt and incompetently run. The Defense Ministry response is a return to Soviet (Cold War) era methods that tolerate many ineffective units and depends on a small number of well-trained units full of troops who want to be there and be good at their jobs. In effect, the only dependable, effective and available troops are about 100,000 men belonging to airborne, airmobile, special operations and marine units. Even these units rely on contract and conscript soldiers, but these men must volunteer for these elite units and meet high training and performance standards.
The impact of these new (old) policies is widespread. It means that most of the 40 new divisions and brigades the Russians announced over the last few years are “paper” units with little immediate military usefulness. In other words, Russia is not carrying out any surprise attacks with paper divisions and brigades. Russia learned that the hard way in the 1960s and 70s when they tried to mobilize some of these units for one emergency or another. It did not work out well. The worst experiences were in Afghanistan where it was believed mobilizing some of the nearby Central Asian infantry divisions would be useful. Quite the opposite for the Central Asian men knew that fighting in Afghanistan was a nasty and usually futile business. It took Russian military and political leaders a few years to figure that out.
During the Cold War, Russia had nearly two million troops in the army, which had 180 combat (infantry, airborne and armor) divisions. But only a third of these divisions were full strength and only about half of these units were well led, equipped and trained for immediate use. The understrength divisions had only about ten percent of their personnel on duty. The rest were called up from former soldiers. These had little or no refresher training and when used these “paper divisions” proved very ineffective. Now Russia is returning to this system, mainly because they have no choice. Russia realizes an all-volunteer force is much more effective but the cash and volunteers are not available.
A good example of how this works out in practice can be seen in present day eastern Ukraine. Russia is having morale and financial problems with the increasing number of Russian troops it has there, pretending to be Ukrainian rebels. There are about 50,000 armed rebels in Eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and over half of them are Russians. Most of these armed rebels are part-timers who signed up for the regular pay and other benefits. But a growing percentage of the armed rebels are Russian soldiers who have long formed the backbone of the rebel combat capability. Russia has gotten rid of the Russian volunteers from outside Donbas because they were too much trouble to control. Many of the locals (Ukrainians and ethnic Russians) are not much better but getting a government job from the Russians is about the only way to make a living in the rebel-controlled half of Donbas. Even then a job with the Donbas rebel forces is not attractive if that means there is a chance of getting killed or wounded. So most of the local Donbas rebels are used for security and support jobs. Most of those in the front lines are Russian professionals and local rebels who get paid a combat bonus to be there.
Getting enough Russians to serve in Donbas has been a growing problem. Most Russian conscripts refuse to serve in Donbas and they have the law on their side. The Russian volunteer (or “contract”) soldiers are also unwilling to serve in Donbas and when forced to they are reluctant participants in the Donbas deception and often do not renew their contracts. The only alternative to using contract soldiers are the even more expensive former soldiers working for civilian military contractor firms. The current solution, which may or may not work, is to provide better training for the contract soldiers sent to Donbas and to send them there in units for short tours of duty. Until now most of the Russian soldiers were sent in as individuals or small groups to replace those whose time was up. Now Russia has adopted the same time-tested methods employed by all-volunteer Western armies (and the Russian army during World War II).
The replacements go in as units, often company size (at least a hundred troops) or larger. The units are all contract soldiers who have not only trained together for months but have received special training by Donbas combat veterans on what to expect and how to handle it. This is not only good for morale but reduces casualties. While Russian commanders prefer this the Russian government is having a hard time paying for it. The defense budget has been cut by over 40 percent since the sanctions and lower oil prices hit in 2014. The higher unemployment rate has not helped military recruitment much. The population is still shrinking, except for the Moslem minority, who comprise about 15 percent of the population and over a quarter of those eligible for conscription or to become contract soldiers. The government wants to keep the percentage of troops who are Moslem as low as possible.
Russia needs soldiers and they have become increasingly hard to obtain since the 1980s and this got worse after 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Having tried just about everything else Russia is now appealing for Russian speaking foreigners to apply. If they have met the psychological and physical standards, and especially if they have needed skills, good jobs are available. It is unlikely that enough qualified and willing foreigners are going to step forward.
This inability to attract new recruits puts the government in an embarrassing situation because promises were made about ending conscription and not kept. Not once but multiple times. Some of the solutions make the problem worse. For example in 2012 the government assured the public that conscription would end by 2020 and be replaced with better paid and trained volunteers (“contract soldiers”). That did not happen because of a shortage of volunteers and money to pay them. To make matters worse, the number of eligible conscripts continues (as expected) to shrink. This also puts at risk plans to also create a large reserve forces.
The decline in available conscripts could be seen in the official number of conscripts expected for the semi-annual draft. Russian conscription still operates like the original 19th century version when it was easier to take the conscripts twice a year. The late 2017 draft expected to obtain 134,000 conscripts, compared 152,000 in late 2016. Only 147,000 were available for the early 2017 draft. These declines continued into 2018. At this rate conscription could not be eliminated until the mid-2020s at the earliest and even that is believed too optimistic because the military, under pressure to “meet the quota” is taking a larger number of young men who are unfit for service and leaving it to the units that receive these men to sort it out. That can be made to work in peacetime but if there is any combat it quickly leads to disaster. All industrialized nations (including China) now suffer from the problem of too many potential recruits being overweight, out of shape or illegal drug users.
In 2015 the conscript problem became a major domestic scandal because the government violated the law by sending conscripts into combat. At first, the government insisted that the law allowed conscripts to go if the volunteers and signed a consent form. But families complained that a growing number of conscripts were sent in who had not volunteered and that they were sent to a combat zone that the government insists contains no Russian troops. Some commanders were found to be using deception to get conscripts to volunteer (and sign a document attesting to that) so they could be sent into Donbas, which is not a declared war. Apparently some conscripts, caught up in the nationalist “NATO is conspiring against us” propaganda the government has been pumping out with increasing frequency and intensity, really did sign the document willingly. They were also encouraged by the much higher pay offered for those serving in a combat zone. But as often happens in the military, some volunteers were acting under duress or were deceived when told signing the contract was a formality to justify the extra money for some “special training exercises inside Russia.” Some of these volunteers later figured out where they really were and deserted inside Ukraine and have been sharing details of their experiences with Ukrainians and others outside Russia.
This sort of thing is officially denied and denounced by the Russian government via the government-controlled mass media. But the Internet is another thing and there are a growing number of Russians who call out their government for lying about what is going on in Ukraine and for forcing conscripts into combat zones. Some of those conscripts have been sent back to their families in sealed coffins with the explanation that it was because of a training accident. But soldiers who served with some of the dead soldiers, especially those who were also conscripts, are providing more accurate and embarrassing (to the Russian government) versions of what went on.
Meanwhile, despite resistance from Russian traditionalists (in and outside the military), Russia moved ahead after 2012 to establish a Western style military reserve system, composed of troops who are fully trained to begin with, regularly refresh that training, and are capable of being quickly mobilized and operating as effectively as full time troops. This was a big departure from over a century of using less well-trained reservists. The new system was supposed to be operational by 2016 and look similar to the reserve system currently used in the United States and other Western nations. The Russian plan did not work out as expected because of lack of money and little enthusiasm from former soldiers who were forced to be in the reserves.
Rebuilding their reserve system is an attempt to revive the Russian “secret army” that long drove foreign intelligence analysts nuts because it was difficult to ascertain just how good these reserve troops were. During the Cold War it was known that the first Soviet secret army (that was mobilized to stop the 1941 German invasion) was not as good as the Soviet leadership believed but was good enough to halt (just barely) the German advance. After the Cold War ended in 1991, and a lot of secrets were briefly available from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, it was discovered that the Cold War era secret army was more of a shambles than the pre-1941 one. In the 21st century the Russians are determined to do it right. The only problem now is the falling price of oil. Sales of oil are a major part of the national economy and the falling oil price plus Ukraine related financial sanctions means there will be less money for military programs. The reserve program will became another victim of this.
The old Russian reserve system looked impressive on paper but was a mess when actually used. Traditionalists in the Russian military still believe the old system is better than trying to import Western ideas. Yet the recent experience with the traditional reserve system says otherwise. In peacetime, the reserve divisions and their equipment were maintained with a skeleton crew of active duty soldiers and in practice, much of this gear is not combat ready, nor are the reservists called up to use it.
In theory, this mass reserve system could work and the Germans were the best example of that. But it rarely worked well for Russia. In 1914 the Germans demonstrated to their disbelieving opponents that reserves could be as effective in wartime as regulars. The Germans did this by requiring their reserves to train regularly, much like the current American system. Russia could not afford this, although attempts were made to do some training. Most Russian reservists were assigned to a unit they had never seen and never would see unless they were called up. Despite the disastrous performance of their reserves in 1914 and 1941 when Russia called up reservists for their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 they were forced to quickly withdraw them and bring in regulars. The reservists just weren't very effective.
Before 1991, Russia maintained an additional fifty divisions on paper, to be raised in wartime from reserves and obsolete equipment held in storage. These units, with troops in their thirties and forties using equipment as old as themselves were known to be no match for an equal number of active divisions. But such "mobilization" divisions can make a difference, if you believe that quantity has a quality all its own. Now that Russia has scrapped over 100,000 Cold War era armored vehicles and other equipment, bringing back the old reserve system is not only difficult, but probably more expensive than adopting a Western model. In fact, given the cost of modern equipment and the economic problems (not enough cash for any government endeavor) by 2000 reviving the old reserve system was impossible.
The pre-1991 Russian system kept track of every veteran until the age of fifty. That was their reserve manpower, and about all they did was keep track of current mail addresses. Many nations still use the same general concept for their reserves. Unable to afford the expense of regular reserve training, the usual source of men with current experience are those discharged in the last few years. Russia has been using conscription since the 19th century and during the Cold War there was a constant supply of recently discharged men for the reserves. That reduced Russia's reserve to a million men times the number of years you want to go back- say two to five million men. This was a major flaw in the Russian system, as it has been found that soldiers lose most of their military skills within a month of leaving active service. It takes several months to get these skills back. If troops are sent into combat before they have been retrained, their units will do very poorly against a better trained opponent.
The Russian system, based on the one developed in 19th century Germany, was suitable for a nation lacking great wealth. It was cheap because it had to be. In Russia, a reservist may not be called up for more than ninety days a year unless a national emergency was declared. This was not done out of any regard for the reservist but in recognition of the labor shortage and economic disruptions that would be created. Most reservists were never called up.
An example of the problems inherent in this system could be seen in the Russian mobilization against Poland in 1980. In areas adjacent to Poland Russia had 57 divisions. At least 40 would be needed to guarantee a quick conquest of an increasingly uncooperative Poland. Of the 57 available divisions, only 28 were fully manned and 24 of those were active units already assigned to East Germany and Czechoslovakia. These were for preventing a NATO invasion or rebellion in those two countries. Because of possible unrest in Eastern Europe, or interference from Western Europe, the divisions in East Germany and Czechoslovakia were left alone. This forced the use of 36 reserve divisions and bringing most of them in from other areas. Over half a million men would have to be called up. This would have a noticeable effect on the local economy, as over 50 million man days would be lost. In addition, there would be the expense of maintaining the troops and the loss of civilian trucks taken by the army for activated reserve divisions. This strain on the local economy was one of the critical, but not mentioned, factors causing Russia to demobilize and not attempt to pacify Poland by invading. Russia made it appear that they were being diplomatic but they were faced with causing enormous economic disruption in Russia areas adjacent to Poland, and that could have led to unrest in Russia itself.
Economic disruption is not the only problem Russian style mobilization armies’ face. These armies (like those in Israel and Switzerland) rely heavily on conscripts, to the extent that 75 percent of their manpower are two or three year draftees. Most of the noncommissioned officers were conscripts of dubious quality. Russian officers are all volunteers and graduates of military academies or civilian universities. These officers also perform many of the supervisory tasks normally assigned to NCOs in Western armed forces. Supervision, management and leadership of Soviet troops was inadequate in peacetime and became even more inept when millions of reservists were mobilized. The mobilized army was about 85 percent conscript, with the rate going over 90 percent in a third of the divisions. If history is any guide, this third of the Russian Army was probably less than half as effective as the top third.
The solution to these quality problems is training. Most Western armies train their reserves, or attempt to. Training is critical because an effective soldier is very much a technician. The effective maintenance and use of weapons and military equipment is possible only with constant practice. Reserves that do not regularly practice require one or more months to regain their skills. Personnel with prior military service are easier to whip into shape for combat because of their familiarity with military routine. Because of their prior service, reserve troops have demonstrated an ability to function in a military environment. However, one should not place too much reliance on prior military experience. Unless these troops maintain good physical conditioning and some knowledge of their military skill, they are not a great deal better than raw civilian recruits.
The old Russian reserve system provided large numbers of troops but very low effectiveness. The Russians were aware of this, being diligent students of past experience. Their solution was to prepare for a short war, short enough so their deficiencies would not catch up with them. This was not to say that Russia could not win a long war. They were victorious during World War II, but at a cost of 30 million dead (18 percent of the population) and a ruined economy. Many of those losses were the result of sending newly mobilized reservists out to face German combat veterans.
Times have changed. Nuclear weapons make it unlikely that anyone would try to mount a major invasion of Russia. Trained reservists would be useful for a local rebellion or natural disaster. This is how they have successfully been used in the United States and other Western nations. Russia wants some of that and believes it will be able to afford to build it in the next decade.