More than 10 months into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, looking back at 2022, the Kremlin is sparing no effort to at least partially restore the capability of its armed forces, which continue to shrink amidst heavy fighting. In recent months, neither the large-scale enlistment of prisoners, nor mass conscription, nor supplies of Iranian-made drones, nor command reshuffles coupled with nuclear blackmail have enabled Russia to turn the tide of war in its favour or improve its foreign policy standing.
Nevertheless, the Russian authorities clearly intend to continue the war at any cost in order to at least improve their foreign policy status. They still hope to force Ukraine and the West to broker a ceasefire and/or start negotiations, but only on the Kremlin’s terms, which include at least maintaining control over the occupied territories. These negotiations will buy Russia time to lick its wounds and to launch a new round of its war against Ukraine as well as its confrontation with the US and Europe. All in all, the Kremlin shows no signs of having abandoned its original war aims.
That is why, on 21 December 2022, at its year-end staff meeting, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced plans dubbed by many as a new ‘military reform’. However, reform implies institutional changes and innovations. What Moscow is going to do with its army amidst hostilities looks more like a desperate attempt to solve the most acute problems, or to pretend to be solving them.
Nominalists vs realists
Throughout the post-Soviet period, Russia has been reducing the number of its military personnel. The beginning of this process dates back to 1985, to the Soviet era. Still, the Kremlin has always clung to the idea that the Russian army must be quantitatively many times larger than not only any army in the post-Soviet states but also any army of any NATO member state except the United States. That is why, on paper, the manpower ceiling of the Russian armed forces has never fallen below 1 million. This is not only meant to maintain Russia’s status as a superpower, along with veto power on the UN Security Council and its nuclear arsenal, but also to ensure unconditional political dominance over all its neighbours and to serve as a tool for revanche in foreign policy.
This status and revanchist ambitions, which ripened in the 1990s, were designed to permanently cement Russia’s power and property distribution system. Simply put, reliance on revanchism and military might has increasingly become one of the main means of legitimising Russian power.
Still, objective socio-economic factors have taken their toll. In 1997, the nominal headcount of the Russian armed forces was 1.7 million service personnel, compared with the real number of about 1.2−1.3 million. This number was reduced to 1.135 million in the 2000s. In 2016, it was further cut to 1 million. By then, the real number of military personnel was already 770,000. True, the nominal number was soon increased to 1.013 million servicemen, but this had no effect on the real number. On the contrary, voices could be heard that the nominal number should be brought closer to the real number, i.e. the ideal of an army of a million soldiers should finally be abandoned.
In August 2022, six months into the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin decided to increase the nominal headcount of the armed forces by as many as 137,000 service personnel — to 1.150 million — in 2023. In other words, it was decided to exceed even the nominal level of military manpower maintained in 2006−2016 (1.135 million) and ultimately to give up the idea of bringing the size of the army in line with Russia’s objective defence needs and economic potential without detriment to overall socio-economic development, which had been discussed from the second half of the 1980s until the early 2010s. It is noteworthy that this idea was almost by definition a clear contradiction to the idea of maintaining Russia’s military dominance over its neighbours and revanchism in foreign policy.
Four months later, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the nominal size of the armed forces should reach 1.5 million service personnel over the next few years, 695,000 of whom (soldiers, sergeants, warrant officers, etc.) should serve under contract. The political decision has already been taken, although the relevant decree had not been published by the time this article was written, and the timeline is also not clear.
Thus, formally, the Russian army is going back to the late 1990s in terms of its number of personnel. However, a quarter of a century ago, the military staff included specialists in charge of maintaining military equipment and vehicles as well as military infrastructure inherited from the USSR which no longer exist today. Additionally, there were tens of thousands of auxiliary positions like military financial officers and army construction workers which have also ceased to exist. In other words, the nominal size of the armed forces cannot be increased in a realistic and meaningful way.
Army headcount for the sake of accounting
Here, too, the accounting and organisational needs of the military leadership probably played a major role. Compensation for killed and wounded military personnel, increased combat pay and preparations for mass conscription that started in September created a cash gap. Until the end of 2022, the cash deficit could be managed by inflating the military budget ad hoc, but 2023 requires a systemic solution. After all, extra soldiers and officers on paper cost the military budget no less than an additional 300−400 billion roubles, which requires more than impromptu decisions.
However, it has already become apparent that, in just a few months, the additional 137,000 positions in the army created on 1 January 2023 will no longer be enough for the Russian military leadership, and the headcount will have to be increased by another 350,000 servicemen. In other words, an emergency military budget of at least 5 trillion roubles in 2022 and over 5 trillion roubles in 2023 will become the norm regardless of when and how the war ends.
At the same time, the Russian command is sparing no effort to restore at least the real manpower of the armed forces that existed prior to the invasion, i.e. 740,000−780,000 military personnel. Of these, 250,000 troops have officially taken part in fighting (‘gained combat experience’). It is difficult to say for sure whether this figure includes those military personnel who were killed or wounded, members of Rosgvardiya (Russia’s National Guard), mercenaries and conscripts from the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.
Earlier, in the summer of 2022, I predicted that the real size of the Russian armed forces might shrink below 600,000 by the end of the year. This was to happen if the intensity of combat operations remained high, leading to a high death toll, given the significant outflow of military personnel and an obvious shortage of conscripts. The ‘partial military mobilisation’ announced in September was meant to turn the tide.
By the end of 2023, the Russian command expects to have 521,000 contract soldiers, ‘taking into account the replacement of draftees in the groups of troops and the manning of new formations’. However, the bulk of recruited civilians, if not the absolute majority of them, will eventually become servicemen under contract.
Currently, the total number of contract soldiers is apparently less than 521,000. It is noteworthy that the last figure of servicemen under contract published before the invasion was 405,000 (March 2020), and the Ministry of Defence was going to employ 500,000 contract soldiers by 2027. By the way, the newly announced 2023 plan for contract soldiers partially confirms the earlier conclusion that civilians make up less than half of the officially announced number of 300,000 conscripts. And the lion’s share of conscripts are the servicemen under contract who had submitted their resignation letters or whose contracts were to expire in late 2022 or early 2023, as a serviceman’s formal resignation procedure starts six months before their contract expires. These estimates will be adjusted as new data becomes available.
Moreover, the annexation of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics along with the establishment of their ‘armies’ and regular enlistment of their residents into these armies during the first two weeks of mass conscription distorts the numbers. Just prior to 24 February 2022, the size of these armies was estimated at 30,000−35,000 servicemen. Months into the war, the number of the military personnel in these armies cannot be estimated even roughly. The statistics pertaining to other areas occupied by Russia, namely Crimea and parts of Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts, are also outside the scope of this analysis, although the Russian Ministry of Defence does record these figures.
That is why it will be extremely difficult for the Russian military leadership to reach the desired number of contract soldiers. Currently, only servicemen who have completed higher or vocational secondary education can fight under contracts. Even if conscripts are allowed to sign contracts from the first day of their enlistment regardless of their level of education, this reliance on the poorest strata of the population will hardly work. After all, the proportion of conscripts who can boast of only school education is a little over 30%, and raising the conscription age to 21 would only further reduce this proportion.
Who will replenish the actual number of troops?
The announced gradual transition to enlisting 21−30-year-olds instead of 18−27-year-olds enables the military leadership to avoid the problem of conscripts granted deferment due to their studies. This approach is clearly designed to reduce the scale of draft evasion. At the age of 27−30, citizens are already building their careers, settling down and taking out loans, which is difficult to combine with both conscription and draft dodging. According to the logic of the authorities, faced with such an option, most young men would prefer to show up at the enlistment office soon after they turn 21. Preferably, they would be both educated and have at least some elementary or special military training under their belt. It will certainly not happen in a year, though.
Consequently, to actually increase the number of contract servicemen to 521,000 by the end of 2023, even more efforts, organisational resources and even more coercion will be required. Either a new wave of unpopular conscription should be carried out in the same vein, accompanied by the transfer of conscripts to service under contract and the potential enlistment of recent graduates of university-based military training centres (in 2021, 63,000 people studied at such centres). Otherwise, stronger incentives should be used to encourage conscripts and regular soldiers to conclude contracts. However, it is unlikely that facilitating the entry of foreigners into military service under contract would radically improve the situation.
Of course, another potential and highly unpopular measure would be to increase the term of the mandatory draft from the current 1 year to 1.5−2 years to encourage more young Russians to sign a contract right away. One could also try to increase the number of women in military service, although their number in the Russian army has been decreasing in recent years, from 44,500 in 2018 to fewer than 40,000 in 2021.
However, none of this solves the problem that the Russian army had clearly been facing by the end of 2022, namely a shortage of junior officers. To put it simply, there will be no one to command the new servicemen under contract. Here again it is possible that graduates of military training centres at civilian universities, including those who have graduated in the last few years, will be enlisted en masse. Still, even the implementation of the announced 2023 plan amidst the ongoing war will at best mean a quantitative, rather than qualitative, restoration of manpower to the level prior to 24 February 2022.
Towards an army on steroids
As for the prospect of 695,000 contract servicemen alone, i.e. 70% more than the headcount in 2020, it looks simply absurd in the context of Russia’s socio-economic and demographic situation with mass conscription remaining in place. Thus, if we take into account that the absolute majority of Russian contract soldiers are men under 30, then at any given time, slightly less than 10% of all men of the respective generations should serve under contract. Another option would be that all conscripts (260,000−265,000 people a year) conclude contracts on the first day they are drafted and stay in the army on average longer than for the duration of one standard two-year contract.
And if we treat the idea of an army of 1.5 million soldiers seriously, given that, besides 695,000 contract soldiers, there is a correspondingly greater number of officers (although no more than 1 million officers in total, and it is still unclear how to increase their number) and obviously conscripts, this might turn out to be an unbearable burden for taxpayers and the economy. Suffice it to mention that there are fewer than 75 million people in the workforce in Russia, fewer than 71 million of whom are employed. And it is one thing to offer vacancies on paper, and a totally different thing to fill these positions with real people pulled away from productive activities.
Thus, we can cautiously assume that an army of 1.5 million soldiers is a bureaucratic fantasy designed to secure, among other things, increased war-related salaries paid to soldiers and to mask the total amount of compensation paid to the wounded and the families of those killed, which would otherwise reveal the real death toll to society.
On top of that, Russia’s military industry is short 400,000 workers and engineers, as well as facilities for the repair and overhaul of military equipment and vehicles. And all this is happening against the backdrop of an official policy to ensure overtime work at least at some of these enterprises in 2023 (or even longer) in order to at least partially replace lost and used armaments, military equipment and vehicles. Hence, hypothetically, contract military service could include work in such enterprises, especially in the case of graduates of technical universities and colleges, based on the principle of placing university graduates in jobs in the defence industry.