Paramilitary: Reluctant Russian Reservists


October 25, 2020: Back in 2010 Russia declared that it was establishing a Western style military reserve system, composed of troops who are fully trained to begin with, regularly refresh that training, and are capable to being quickly mobilized and operating as effectively as fulltime troops. This is a big departure from over a century of using less well-trained reservists.

The new system was to be operational by 2016, and be very similar to the reserve system currently used in the United States and other Western nations. In the United States, for example, reservists comprise 45 percent of the 1.1 million available US Army personnel available. Russia knew they could never afford that many, but might be able to eventually afford up to 100,000 reservists. Russians mentioned the American National Guard as the model for their reserve system. The National Guard not only provides a local force of trained part-time soldiers who can be used for natural disasters, but also perform as well as active duty troops in combat. This is possible because the reservists have, on average, more years of military experience than the active duty troops.

By 2020 Russia had only 6,000 paid reservists, mainly because of money shortages. Worse, the old, involuntary “national emergency” reserve system that recalled people had left the military up to five years ago was not working either. This involuntary reserve is still the law but all it can do is keep track where the five years’ worth of reservists are currently living. That tracking system has not worked. In post-Soviet Union Russia people are free to move without telling anyone. The Soviet police state strictly monitored and controlled who lived where. Those who ignored it were outlaws and that was a very small percentage of former soldiers. It’s estimated that the 2020 involuntary reserve would bring in less than ten percent of the million men technically available. Most of these men would only have a year of conscript service and military skills that faded fast.

The new reserve system is more expensive than the Soviet era one, where you didn’t have to pay former soldiers to be available for mobilization. The new reservists get regular refresher training to keep their military skills current. The new reserve system is voluntary. Officers and troops sign three-year contracts and are paid from few thousand to over six thousand dollars a year for about a month of active each service yearly plus an obligation to maintain military skills and be ready to get called up and spend a few months or more than a year on active duty.

All these plans were made when the Russian economy was booming. That meant there was money available to pay the reservists. But by 2016, when the system was supposed to be fully operational it wasn’t. Mainly it was about money. In 2014 the Russian economy was hit by two financial disasters. First the price of oil fell from a hundred dollars a barrel to less than thirty dollars. Oil and gas exports are a major source of government revenue. Added to that Russian got hit with some serious economic sanctions in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

What drives the Russian desire for a more effective reserve system is the poor performance of the old one. That reserve system looked impressive on paper, but was a mess when actually used. At the end of the Cold War, Russia had over 150 combat divisions in its army. But only a third of these were at full strength in peace time; the rest were reserve divisions. The Russians planned to mobilize over two million men to fill out their reserve divisions in wartime. The Russians maintained their reserve divisions with a skeleton crew of active duty soldiers to maintain equipment.

In theory, this could work. 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. Russia called up reservists when they invaded Afghanistan in 1979, but quickly removed them and sent in regulars. Those reservists just weren't very effective, especially against the formidable Afghan tribesmen.

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 they were, would 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.

Russia has used conscription for over a century, and during the Cold War, there was a constant supply of recently discharged men. 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 the military. 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, originally developed in 19th century Germany, was suitable for a nation lacking great wealth. It was cheap, because it had to be. In Soviet Russia, a reservist could not be called up for more than ninety days a year unless a national emergency was declared. This is 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 are 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 occupying East Germany and Czechoslovakia. 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 had 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 force. 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 mobilized armies face. These armies rely heavily on conscripts, to the extent that 75 percent of their manpower are two- or three-year draftees, at best. After 1991 popular hostility to conscription forced the government to reduce conscript service to one year. Most of the noncommissioned officers were conscripts who seemed capable of doing that job. Currently Russian conscripts, about 250,000 of the million military personnel, are in for only a year and each year the entire military suffers the trauma of losing a quarter of their strength and replacing it with untrained civilians.

Soviet era Russian officers were all volunteers and graduates of military academies. These officers perform the tasks normally assigned to NCOs in Western armed forces. Russian army supervision, management and leadership was inadequate in peacetime and become even more scarce when millions of reservists are mobilized. The mobilized army was about 85 percent conscript, with the rate going over 90 percent in a third of the divisions. If history was any guide, this third of the Soviet 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 many were of 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 that their deficiencies would not catch up with them. This is not to say that Russia could not win a long war. They were victorious during World War II, but at a cost of 29 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.




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