Mobilization po-russki

August 1, 2022
  • Alexander Golts 
    Military expert 
Alexander Golts explains why the “special economic measures” introduced by the government do not amount to a mobilization economy.  Structural militarization on the Soviet model, he points out, is in principle unthinkable under market conditions.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. Source: Russian Government / via
The original text in Russian was published in Republic and republished here with their permission.

In the last days of the spring session, the Duma passed a law allowing the government to introduce special economic measures "to provide for the execution by the Russian Armed Forces, other troops, military units and entities, of counter-terrorism and other operations outside the territory of the Russian Federation." The law’s authors claim that amid these operations "there is a temporarily heightened need for the repair of weapons and military equipment and the provision of material and technology,” which necessitated "temporarily focusing efforts within certain sectors of the economy…, ramping up the production capacities of military-industrial complex organizations, including mobilization capacities, and organizing support for deliveries within the framework of state defense procurement.”

A brief history of the Soviet defense industry

It follows from the law that the government is granted the power to activate mobilizational capacities and unlock stockpiles from the state reserve. In addition, the authorities received the right to go around the Labor Code and lengthen working hours, introduce work at night, on weekends and holidays, and cancel vacations. Perhaps the main innovation of the law is that legal entities, regardless of their legal structure and form of ownership, do not have the right to refuse to conclude agreements or government contracts.
"At the recommendation of the security services, the government may at will increase or decrease the volume of goods, work or services needed for state defense."
Many commentators, impressed by the scope of the government's new powers, hastened to point to Russia's transition to a mobilization economy. However, such a conclusion seems off the mark. The fact is that a mobilization economy is born of a mobilization army. And the latter means the ability to drastically increase the size of your armed forces in an extremely short time frame.

In the 19th century, Prussian military reformers made a discovery that radically changed the nature of subsequent conflicts. On the one hand, the Napoleonic wars convincingly demonstrated that victory on the battlefield depends fundamentally on the size of the army. Victorious are big battalions, Napoleon observed. However, it was too expensive for the state to maintain a huge army in peacetime. This problem was solved by the invention of a mass draft army in which all the country’s men were to serve for several years. They were transferred to the reserve at the end of their service, having received military training. They could be called up at any moment and thus multiply the size of the armed forces.

The 20th century brought changes to this concept. It turned out that for victory a large army must be equipped with modern weapons. In 1914, Russia managed to mobilize millions but failed to arm them properly.

During industrialization in the 1930s, the Bolsheviks openly set weapon-making capacity as a goal. Stalin decisively rejected Tukhachevsky's proposals to create a specialized defense industry. It was precisely the ⁠mobilization ⁠model that was adopted, which consisted of building enterprises supposedly ⁠for the production of civilian-purpose goods, though at the same time weapons were also produced there. During wartime, all enterprises were to completely switch to war footing in a very short time. This naturally impacted the quality and prices of the civilian-purpose goods (Soviet leaders of course didn’t worry about these issues at all). The main task of industry was to be ready to mobilize and produce military products.

For example, in the 1930s the Soviet Union produced more tanks than all other countries in the world at a rate of 2,000-3,000 a year. Still, the mobilizational capacities that were to be created during the second Five-Year Plan were required to ensure the production of 70,000 tanks a year! And the resources directed toward creating and maintaining the mobilizational capacities were much larger than those directed toward the development of the so-called military industries themselves.

Throughout the post-war years, almost every Soviet enterprise had both a mobilizational task of producing components for the defense industry and mobilizational capacities that made it possible to sharply increase the production of weapons in wartime.
"The Soviet Union produced much more oil, metals and chemicals than industry required. It was actually intended for the production of weapons, but only during wartime."
“The entire economy of the country was based on the model that in peacetime such resources were not required for war, so they were pumped into the civilian sector to maintain some kind of balance,” noted the prominent military economist Vitaly Shlykov.

An inherently twisted economic system 

In essence, in the system civilian industry was needed only so that at X-hour it could switch over to military production and that in peacetime it could consume excess and unnecessary resources. For example, 4.5 mln tonnes of aluminum was smelted every year in the Soviet Union. However, there was nothing to use it for. Ten-to-eleven percent went to military production; the rest – besides what went into the manufacture of spoons, forks and plates (the Soviet Union was probably the only country where dishes were made from aluminum) – had nowhere to go.

But production continued. After all, Shlykov says that according to General Staff plans for the mobilizational rollout of industry, the Soviet Union was supposed to reach peak production in 3-6 months after the start of a war. For example, instead of 1,000 aircraft, it was supposed to produce 30,000. This created both gigantic stockpiles of raw materials and huge idle production capacities. The case was basically the same with titanium, coal, rolled metal and a significant share of machine-building production.
Soviet tank KV-1. Source: Global Look Press
Of course, it was an inherently twisted economic system. It didn’t just ignore but also hindered in every possible way improving the well-being of Soviet citizens. But at least it was a balanced economy – because a huge part of GDP was simply taken out of circulation. And this kept the so-called planned economy from collapse for quite a long time.

Culturologist Igor Yakovenko very accurately defined this phenomenon as a “pyramid-building strategy”. In his view, among other things the strategy ensured a homogenous society and equality in widespread and artificial poverty. However, such a system could exist only under the severest autarky. The mobilization economic model was doomed to collapse as soon as the goal of the state became something other than preparation for war. This is what happened when, having decided to make life a little easier for the country, the Soviet leadership began to buy food from the West.

Why this is not a rival of the Soviet mobilization economy

Sure, the powers that the recently adopted law gives to the government are reminiscent of those wielded by Soviet industrial planners. But this surely doesn’t mean that these powers will be used today to revive the mobilization economy. Contemporary armed forces are not mobilization-based forces. Their basis is not reservists but contract soldiers.

It seems that with command economy measures the Russian authorities are currently trying to solve the same problems related to defense production that Western countries trying to help Kyiv have faced. Over the past decades, military officials have grown convinced that future war will be either low-intensity (counterguerrilla) or high-tech and very short. In neither case would strategic stockpiles of heavy weapons be needed.
"On the Ukrainian plains today, protracted hostilities characteristic of wars of the industrial, and not the digital age are taking place. They caught everyone off guard."
Vladimir Putin and Yuri Borisov, until July 2022 deputy Prime Minister in charge of military-industrial complex. Source:
Western arms manufacturers are struggling to increase production. Russia, meanwhile, seems to be taking the path of pressuring labor at defense industry enterprises. Presenting the bill, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, who oversees the defense industry, offered reassurance: “The amendments affect specifically the traditional main suppliers for state defense procurement and their work. The bills don’t entail the forced conversion of civilian small and medium-sized businesses for the needs of the armed forces, or the termination or revision of contracts between defense enterprises and contractors concluded outside state defense procurement.” According to Borisov, no one is talking about forced overtime. At least for now.

A rational person, Borisov understands that structural militarization on the Soviet model is in principle unthinkable under market conditions, even under such specific ones as in Russia. Soviet defense production was based on the so-called planned economy. In the Soviet Union, the overwhelming majority of components for defense production were manufactured at civilian factories. Effectively, Soviet people who bought trousers from the Bolshevichka factory or a Minsk-brand refrigerator financed the production of components for missiles and nuclear submarines. That is why the ban on other, better and cheaper goods in the domestic market was so important. Today, this seems unlikely.

Of course, the Soviet “defense industry” ministries could only exist if there was an omnipotent Gosplan, which allocated funds and set all prices in the country – for goods, for raw materials, for electronic and other various components – thus guaranteeing the necessary profitability of the defense industry. In the 1990s most of Soviet industry died. The current owners of long-reoriented enterprises don’t need defense orders at all, as they will inevitably make their main products more expensive and therefore less competitive. It is no coincidence that occasionally proposals have emerged within the government for a certain prodrazvyorstka, to oblige private manufacturers to produce military products, from which they have deliberately distanced themselves. But now the time for such a prodrazvyorstka seems to have come.

The new powers significantly expand the authority of bureaucrats and consequently their opportunities for corruption. Imagine that officials of a military agency and the Industry Ministry come to a businessman. In full accordance with the new law, they order him to reactivate the capacities indicated in their papers (God knows what happened to them over the last 30 years) and restart the production of some extremely important product at a price that they themselves have already determined. The businessman grabs his head: when he bought the factory, no one warned about mobilizational capacities. He understands that an attempt to restart production will completely and forever ruin his business. And then he is given the hint that a modest donation to some fund to support something will make everything go away. Moreover, if the size of the donation is worthy of attention, officials will go to his competitor with a mandate to produce an important defense product. Thus, the new powers of the government can be successfully transformed into a new source of rent.
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