Mobilization and Gosplan on the Horizon
August 2, 2023
  • Aleksandr Golts
Aleksandr Golts writes that the new laws tightening the rules for conscription and  formation of the mobilization reserve entail the creation of a Soviet-style mass mobilization army in Russia, though this will require the restructuring of industry and a reversion to a planned economy and autarky.
We should give credit where credit is due – when it comes to things that are really important to it, the Kremlin knows how to learn and does so quickly. Obviously, the “partial” mobilization announced last fall was not as successful as the military authorities reported. A significant number of the 300,000 people supposedly mobilized “evaporated.” Some of those who were mobilized in September (but hardly all of them) were supposed to make up for the losses of the Russian army. As for new formations, the General Staff announced plans for them, but almost a year after the mobilization, there is no information about them. Meanwhile, a considerable number of potential recruits (according to conservative estimates, at least 250,000 people) managed to cross the border.

Everyone under arms

Recently, the government passed a new law aimed at systematically closing all possible loopholes – so that no one slips through. It started in April with the adoption of laws that scrapped the requirement that military registration and enlistment offices hand over draft notices in person and get the signature of a potential conscript. The notice now is considered served after it is sent to the personal account of a conscript on the public services portal Gosuslugi.

From that moment until he shows up at the enlistment office, the conscript has his rights seriously restricted: he is forbidden to leave the country, conduct real estate transactions, register a car and obtain a driver’s license. The fines for violating the rules of military registration have been increased manyfold. In addition, huge fines of half a million rubles are to be paid by employers who do not ensure that their employees turn up when conscripted.

Then in July, another law was passed increasing by five years the time personnel are to be kept in the reserve. Now, privates and sergeants are in the first-category reserve (meaning that they are the first to be mobilized) up to 40 years old, and junior officers up to 50 years old.
General Andrey Kartapolov, who chairs the Duma Defense Committee, spoke about the prospect of a "big war." Source: Wiki Commons
Finally, legislators moved to expand the contingent subject to conscription. At first, they were going to shift the age range for conscript service from 18-27 to 21-30 years old. That way, they explained, it would not be green youths but fully grown men going into the army. However, the day before the final vote in the Duma, it turned out that the draft age would simply be expanded: the lower bar would remain at 18 years old, while the upper one would be raised to 30.

Meanwhile, assurances from the Russian authorities that conscript soldiers would not fight in Ukraine are hardly worth taking seriously. Indeed, on the same day, the Duma adopted a law “permitting” conscript soldiers to sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense (which would make them “professionals” and lift the prohibition on them fighting) as soon as a month after the start of service. The Russian military long ago learned how to force conscripts to sign these contracts – through psychological pressure, and sometimes physical violence.

This law was adopted in violation of Duma procedures, while the new legislation directly contradicts the Constitution – for example, the provisions prohibiting conscripts from having lawyers to represent their interests at military enlistment offices, as the head of the Federation Council Constitutional Committee Andrei Klishas pointed out.

The chair of the Duma Defense Committee, General Andrey Kartapolov, who changed his position several times, finally told the truth: “This law was written for a big war, for a general mobilization. It already smacks of such a big war. And we are all looking at who to remove from there, who to protect. No one can be protected.”

The collapse of the Soviet mass mobilization system

It is obvious that
“By adopting these new laws, the Kremlin is turning the whole Russian system of military construction around 180 degrees. From now on, Moscow is beginning to revive the mass mobilization army.
This concept, created by Prussian military reformers at the very beginning of the 19th century, was adopted by almost every major state in the 20th century. In Russia, it was followed from 1873 to 2008. It is based on universal conscription and means that all men must do conscription service.

In peacetime, they would receive military training and become reservists. In the event of war, mobilization would be announced, and the army would immediately balloon in size. And after the start of hostilities, the mobilized men would make up for the losses of the army in the field.

In the USSR, this system was realized almost perfectly. Nearly the entire male population was considered the “mobilization resource”. Millions of conscripts passed through the gigantic – five-million-strong – peacetime army. Thus, when a threat arose, on the eve of the war, up to 8 million reservists could have been immediately called up. They were to be sent to skeleton divisions, which included a full staff of officers.

These officers were to restore the military skills of the reservists, lead the newly formed regiments and battalions and go to battle within a month – only to swiftly lose most of the men killed and wounded, and regroup. During World War II, a tank brigade would “burn out” in 2-3 days and would be replaced by the next formation from the rear. Still, it was this system that ensured victory over the Nazis. After the war, it was used as the basis of Soviet military strategy and guaranteed the complete superiority of the USSR over the West in terms of conventional armed forces.

With the collapse of the USSR, the mass mobilization system also met its end – primarily due to worsening demographics. To form a million-strong army of conscripts, about 700,000 men should be called up each year, while the number of 18-year-olds in post-Soviet Russia reached  a little over 600,000 each year – and is still at this level today. Under pressure from conservative generals in the 1990s and early 2000s, attempts were made to preserve the Soviet recruitment system, but the result was the complete degradation of the armed forces. Recruits did not meet even the minimum intellectual, physical and moral requirements. Morality in the Russian army was not too different from that in prison.

The leadership of the armed forces essentially admitted then that they were incapable of fighting hazing (dedovshchina) and violence inside barracks. Often, hazing led to real tragedies and the death of conscript soldiers. Desertion became a real epidemic due to the unbearable conditions, with soldiers leaving military units by the platoon and company. It happened that after deserting, soldiers turned around and committed the most terrible crimes. The combat effectiveness of the Russian armed forces was terribly low, as demonstrated by the two wars in Chechnya and the war against Georgia.
Anatoly Serdyukov, Defense Minister in 2007-12, launched a modernizing military reform that antagonized many among the top brass and was later largely scrapped. Source: Wiki Commons
Anatoly Serdyukov, appointed Defense Minister in 2007, realized that the only solution for the army was to turn away from the concept of mass mobilization. All “skeleton formations” which were actually not staffed, were liquidated. Those units represented 80% of the entire strength of the ground forces. Tens of thousands of officers who had spent their service doing almost nothing, just waiting until they would be assigned reservists to command, were discharged. This bitter reform made it possible to fully staff several dozen formations capable of moving on an order within a few hours after receiving it. This is what ensured the effectiveness of the Russian army in 2014 during the first stages of the war against Ukraine – the annexation of Crimea and the rapid deployment of a 40,000-strong contingent on the Russia-Ukraine border.

Here we go again

Based on these successes, the Kremlin erroneously concluded that an army capable of winning a short-term local conflict would be ready to take over a neighboring country. This resulted in the failures in 2022 and 2023 in Ukraine.

The only means that the military could offer the Kremlin to achieve victory was establishing absolute numerical superiority. At first glance, there are grounds for this. According to Rosstat, as of January 1, 2022, there were 7.2 million men aged 17 to 29 in Russia. About 18 million more men aged 30 to 44 can be mobilized, at least on paper. It was these numbers that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu apparently proceeded from when last December he announced plans to increase the size of the armed forces by a third, to 1.5 million servicemen. Five new divisions are to be formed from them, as well as an army corps. On top of that, 12 existing brigades are to be enlarged to the size of divisions. This can only be done through mass mobilization.

The set of laws adopted at the end of July provides for just such a mobilization. However, the people behind the plans for a massive buildup of the armed forces on the Soviet model have not taken into account several factors of critical importance. First of all, it is junior commanders, lieutenants and captains who should command the platoons and companies of mobilized men.
To form a half-million army, a minimum of 50,000 junior officers are needed, while currently about 14,000 lieutenants a year graduate from military universities.
Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. Source: Wiki Commons
The inevitable losses of junior commanders in the course of hostilities in Ukraine should also be considered. The Soviet model assumed that junior commanders in wartime would be graduates of civilian universities, who, almost without exception, underwent military training during their course of studies, and, upon graduating, received the rank of reserve lieutenants. In the past 30 years, the Russian army did not need lieutenants, and this system vanished. It will now take at least five years to resurrect it.

In addition, there is the Soviet experience of World War II when short-term officer courses were set up, where mobilized men with a higher level of education were selected, and received several months of basic training. However, it is not clear whether this practice can be reproduced given that today’s army relies on relatively sophisticated equipment.

Besides, to conduct an effective mass mobilization, a large number of skeleton formations must be restored to serve, once again, as the basis for the formation of new divisions. To do that, it is necessary to recreate the network of gigantic training centers, training grounds and weapons depots.

Is a planned economy next?

Finally, and most importantly, the transition to a mass mobilization army will inevitably require fundamental changes in the organization of industry and a revision of property rights – in other words, changes in the structure of the Russian state. The current level of military production does not correspond whatsoever with Shoigu’s plans to expand the armed forces. Contrary to bravura reports about output being ramped up as much as 12 times, industry is clearly unable to provide more than two dozen new divisions with at least new, if not modern, equipment and weapons. The real state of affairs is evidenced by the occasionally voiced complaints about the lack of shells and the use in combat operations of tanks and artillery that were produced almost half a century ago.

Only a defense industry organized on the Soviet model – that is based on a so-called planned economy and autarky – can provide a mass mobilization army with the adequate number of weapons and amount of equipment.

In the USSR, there was no real division between the civilian and defense sectors. The vast majority of components for military production were manufactured at “civilian” factories. An integral part of this economy was Gosplan, which allocated funds and set all prices – for raw materials, for elements, for various components – ensuring the necessary profitability.

In the 1990s, most Soviet industry died. A small part was reprofiled to make other products. The current owners of private enterprises do not want to take defense orders, as they would inevitably make their main products more expensive and therefore less competitive. It is no coincidence that even before the war, proposals arose in the government to obligate private manufacturers to produce military products, of which they did not want any part.

In spring 2022, parliament passed a law according to which “regardless of the structural and legal form and form of ownership, [owners of enterprises] have no right to refuse to conclude agreements and government contracts. Moreover, on the proposal of security agencies, the government may, at will, increase or decrease the amount of goods, the amount of work or services within the framework of State Defense Procurement.” Already, based on demands from the Prosecutor General’s Office, the courts have begun to revert to federal ownership enterprises “of strategic importance for ensuring the defense of the country and the security of the state.” However, these are only the first steps toward the militarization of Russia’s economy. Meanwhile, attempts to quickly put industrial production onto a war footing amid Western sanctions, are likely to significantly exacerbate the economic crisis.

As a totalitarian state, the Soviet Union was able to provide a mass mobilization army with human and material resources. Only such a state needs a mass mobilization army that can occupy vast foreign territories.
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