Mobilization as a demonstration of the regime's inefficiency
October 27, 2022
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Senior Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, The Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House)

Nikolai Petrov writes that the "partial" mobilization announced by Putin has demonstrated the administrative incompetence of the political regime in Russia. Jobs that require timely preparation and can’t be done through colossal cash injections are beyond its power.
On October 17 Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin announced the end of the mobilization in Moscow. Source: Wiki Commons
The "partial mobilization" announced by Putin on September 21 was a game-changer – less in terms of the conflict in Ukraine than in terms of the relationship between the regime and society. A lot has already been written and much more will be about the fact that the mobilization has dramatically changed ordinary Russians’ perception of the war, not to mention the second wave of the “exodus” from Russia as men leave to avoid being mobilized. We will consider another aspect of the issue: the administrative failure of the political regime to carry out a mobilization without huge losses – social, political, reputational – for which it seemed to have been preparing since it came into power.

Chronicle of the mobilization

On September 21, against the backdrop of the successful offensive by the Ukrainian army that had been chugging along for several weeks, Putin announced a “partial mobilization” “to protect our Motherland, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country” while almost simultaneously deciding to hold referendums to incorporate occupied Ukrainian territories into Russia. Following up, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu clarified that 300,000 reservists, or 1.1% of the total draft pool of 25 million "who have served, have combat experience or have a military specialty," would be called up.

In each region, a draft commission for the mobilization was formed, headed up by the regional governor.
Putin's decree on mobilization merely outlined a certain framework to be used depending on the circumstances, including increasing the number of draftees without limits and making the mobilization recurring instead of a one-time event. Meanwhile, Putin – known to be inclined to personally interfere in areas that he considers important – allowed Shoigu to announce the specific parameters of the mobilization. It should be noted that Putin's decree contains a secret seventh clause on the number of draftees. According to some sources, it allows for a million men or more to be mobilized.

Three weeks after the announcement of the mobilization, on October 14 Putin announced that 222,000 people had already been mobilized and that the mobilization measures were planned to be completed within the next two weeks. On October 17 – after numerous reports of raids in the capital, with security forces handing out draft notices at hotels and business centers, right on the metro and in the street – Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced the end of the mobilization in Moscow.

Starting November 1, a month later than usual, the autumn conscription is set to get underway in Russia, when 120,000 young men are planned to be called up for military service. At the same time, the conscripts who have completed their service should be demobilized from the army. The Ministry of Defense has announced that they will be released on time, though upon returning home they may be subject to the mobilization.


Mobilization involves a complex set of measures carried out by structures within the military bureaucracy and also various agencies – their activities must be coordinated. 
"The regime, however, has big problems with coordination and horizontal interaction in general."
It has never been able to effectively carry out a complex set of measures to achieve any large-scale intricate goal, be it the economic reforms (social benefit monetization) of the early 2000s or the pension reform of 2018. The war in Ukraine, along with the mobilization launched for it, is no exception.

The network of military recruitment offices seems to have been preparing for the mobilization. In any case, draft notices began to be sent out the very next day after the mobilization was announced, at first targeting the scarcest specialties in the army – pilots, tankmen, paratroopers, etc. Then the recruitment offices started to race to hit the quotas sent from above at any cost, considering neither the effectiveness of the mobilized men nor the impact on the sectors whose employees they were taking, including the financial system, airlines, etc.

Initially, the Ministry of Defense announced that enterprises working for the military-industrial complex would be exempt from the mobilization. Yet from the first day, companies from a wide range of sectors began to lobby to have their employees protected. On September 23, the Ministry of Defense announced that to “ensure the operation of certain high-tech industries, as well as the financial system,” men with a higher education working in IT, communications, finance and in a number of media wouldn’t be recruited for military service under the partial mobilization. The heads of companies in those sectors were asked to draw up and send to the General Staff lists of workers who should be exempted from the mobilization. However, even two weeks after the Central Bank sent these lists, its management hadn’t received a response from the General Staff and its personnel continued to be taken away and sent to the front. It was only in mid-October that bank employees began to be returned home, some even being "pulled off trains."

Obviously, the mobilization has been carried out how campaigns usually are in Russia. While the system has coped with the task of mobilizing everyone it could grab and reporting on directives being met, it has had big problems with logistics, as well as providing draftees with necessities, accommodation and training. In the conditions of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the military system turned out incapable of "digesting" the large number of mobilized men.

At first, social networks were flooded with reports that the military was raking up everyone, ignoring age, lack of any military training and medical problems; that there was nowhere to house and no one to train the mobilized men; that they couldn’t be provided with uniforms and weapons. At that point, criticism of the military authorities began to sound at a higher level, with Andrei Gurulev, a Duma deputy and general, saying that 1.5 million sets of military uniforms had gone missing from the centers where the draftees were being assembled.

Already on the third day after the start of mobilization, General Dmitri Bulgakov, who was responsible for army logistics, was dismissed as deputy minister of defense. Following reports of men being mistakenly mobilized, at the end of September about 400 were returned home in Crimea, about 300 in Yakutia and about 600 in Primorye. 
"Overall, 10,000 men who were mistakenly mobilized were returned home by mid-October, according to Duma Defense Committee Chair Andrei Kartapolov."
General Andrei Gurulev, a Duma deputy, said that 1.5 million sets of military uniforms had gone missing from the centers where the draftees were being assembled. Source: Wiki Commons
“As a special measure in the economic sphere,” on October 3 the Russian government allowed regions to purchase with local budgets dual-use goods, drones means for detecting them, radio communications, electronics, night vision devices, detection devices for laser and optical guidance systems, vehicles, uniforms, outdoor equipment, medicine, hygiene products, food and building materials.

The political scientist Grigory Golosov offered his own diagnosis of the system: “exactly the same thing is happening with the mobilization that has been happening for years with elections. There are implementers on the ground who try to fulfill the plan at any cost. They know that they could still run into trouble if they overdo it, but there will be either no punishment or it’ll be mild; however, if the plan isn’t fulfilled, then you could pay by losing a very profitable post. Overfulfilling the plan – if there are no scandals that are too loud – won’t be held against them… All systems in Russia operate the same way, through a combination of ineptness on the part of decisionmakers and insane diligence on the part of those who implement the decisions.”

The regional dimension

The share of the population called up varies greatly by region. Regional capitals and major cities are underrepresented, while economically depressed regions and rural areas on the contrary have been affected disproportionately. The reasons are clear: on the one hand, in large cities there is a higher share of students, who according to Putin's decree receive a deferral and often a complete exemption from the draft after completing their studies; on the other hand, it is precisely in large cities that there is a high amount of draft dodging, by all possible means, including bribes to doctors and medical boards.

During the mobilization, these differences further deepened. Regional governors received directives for the mobilization: about 7,000 from Ryazan, about 6,000 from Kaliningrad, which is about 2.5% of the number of military-age men in those regions. The largest proportion of draftees was seen in Sevastopol, with up to 4% of reservists, or over 3% of the entire male population aged 18-50 years. The most modest directives: from 0.3% to 0.7% of men aged 18-50 in Moscow and St Petersburg, as well as Novosibirsk, Murmansk and Yamalo-Nenets regions.

Villages and remote areas have been the hardest hit by the mobilization. It was recommended, according to Meduza sources, to recruit minimally from regional centers: "they’re going through rural areas, there is no media, opposition and more support [for the war]."

Military commissars were criticized by several regional leaders, in particular in Krasnodar, Vladimir, Belgorod and Tyumen regions.
"Protests by mothers broke out in Dagestan, Yakutia and even Chechnya, where, it would seem, everything had been 'mummified'."
Оver 3% of the entire male population aged 18-50 years were drafted in Sevastopol, the largest proportion of draftees of all Russian regions. Source: Wiki Commons
The suppression of the mothers’ protests always comes with very high costs – at least politically. It is telling that in all these cases, the leaders of the ethnic regions, regardless of what they usually proclaim, took up a position in solidarity with their peoples and in one way or another criticized the Ministry of Defense or even the federal center for how the mobilization was organized.

Mobilization and corruption

The mobilization dramatically raised the opportunities for corruption related, among other things, to the shadow market for draft-dodging services. The surge in demand for such services instantly spawned a huge supply. Noyava Gazeta.Europe analyzed the most common services: probiv of the “mobilization database” used by border guards (based on data from military recruitment offices, it shows the names of men who already have a draft notice, meaning they can’t be let out of the country and may even be mobilized right at the border); cancelling a draft notice; and obtaining a deferment or protection through enrollment in a bachelor's degree program at one of the Moscow state universities or job placement for a year in a “major IT company” with an office in Moscow City.

However, a much larger corruption market is the one created by the state as it attempts to urgently compensate for the uncovered shortage of state reserves and mobilization reserves at the Ministry of Defense. It works thanks to the resourcefulness of regional authorities: they negotiate with local businesses to take upon themselves the services and sponsorship in purchasing equipment for mobilized men from a given region. Such equipment (all Russian media came out with their own detailed lists put together by “professionals”) costs, according to various estimates, from several tens of thousands to a couple hundred thousand rubles per person, while the price is constantly rising. Recently, the Federation Council discussed how bulletproof vests in Russia had jumped in price 20 times since the beginning of the year, from RUB 7,000 in January to RUB 135,000 today. Meanwhile, Duma deputies turned to the Prosecutor General to provide mobilized men with helmets and body armor.


Mobilization as a clearly organized and carried out recruitment of reinforcements for the army has failed. Instead, the country and the world have witnessed chaos and confusion. This is not "mismanagement" in a particular area, as Putin put it, but a systemic vice. Note that two previous attempts to replenish the army with manpower had failed: the formation of a combat-ready reserve called BARS, followed by “volunteer battalions.”

The regime has shown disastrous results in everything that requires systematic, timely work and that can’t be achieved through an “all-hands-on-deck” call or colossal cash injections. To ensure results at any cost, individual components of the system often work to the detriment of the system as a whole. This was also the case in Soviet times – only then the management system combined bureaucratic with territorial management and was more balanced.

The mobilization has demonstrated Putin's state capitalism at its worst, including inconsistency in the actions of individual elements of the administrative system, colossal corruption and the predominance of personal and narrow corporate interests over system-wide ones.
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