Could Putin Draft a Big New Conscript Army? Not Easily, Observers Say
Efforts to streamline conscription can’t overcome political and training obstacles, they say.
A new Russian law allowing draft notices to be sent electronically could be a first step in a new effort to send hundreds of thousands of fresh troops to Ukraine. But Kremlin watchers say Russian leader Vladimir Putin would find it politically impossible to draft that many people—and his military can’t train so many anyway.
The new measure, approved on Tuesday by the Duma, or legislature, would also allow Russia’s Ministry of Defense to create conscription lists from passport data, permanent residence registration documentation, and family information such as household size.
It follows Putin’s November order to create a centralized database for military registration by April 2024; he also called on his Defense Ministry to start digitizing print documents stored in local military recruitment centers throughout Russia, said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
CNA analyst Sam Bendett says all this “shows the Russian government's concern that young people may not be willing to be drafted, considering many that left the country at this point, and considering much open-source reporting from the front via social media like Telegram, which shows brutal, WW2-style fighting in Ukraine with heavy casualties.”
It comes on the heels of speculation that Russia is preparing to mobilize as many as 500,000 new conscripts.
But, said Stepanenko, Russia will find it hard to generate enough forces to meaningfully change the front line. The passage of the new measure isn’t a clear indication of imminent mobilization.
“Ultimately, the decision to do mobilization is entirely up to Putin. And we are seeing increasingly that he's still very hesitant to do so,” she said.
One big reason is that the Russian military lacks the means to quickly train that many new conscripts.
“Russia, during the previous mobilization callup…really had to send some forces to the frontlines without any preparation whatsoever. They were not very effective,” Stepanenko said.
But the more important reason is simply that Putin perceives such a move would alienate large sections of the public and imperil his regime. The Russian leader has emphasized volunteerism for a reason, she said.
“I don't think that the information space has yet been prepared for a new mobilization, she said. “We obviously see an influx of very nationalist rhetoric, especially from the Kremlin officials, and some advertisements in Moscow, which is unique, something that we didn't really see last year, and mostly the recruitment campaign for targeting ethnic regions with ethnic minorities.”
Vladimir Milov, a former Russian deputy energy minister-turned-vice president for international advocacy at the Free Russia Foundation, expanded upon that point. Last year, the Russian military conscripted heavily from rural areas and mostly avoided big cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg.
“They took like whole villages during the draft in September [from places] where people who really have no habits of defending their rights. They have no access to free information and so on. So once Putin continues drafting and it spills over into cities, this is actually where protest will be mounting…Putin knows this,” Milov said at a March event in Washington, D.C. “Putin does not have unlimited manpower. Among the population that might be more compliant with mobilization orders, the best candidates have already been scooped up or are dodging service.” In September, they “mobilized nearly everybody who was worthy in terms of military skill," he said.
Said Stepanenko: “I think that the Kremlin is in a predicament where it simply didn't prepare enough forces before starting this invasion. And I don't think that the Kremlin thought that they would need this many forces to start this war. At this point, even if they were to call up a very large-scale, a million-person mobilization, he wouldn't be able to process them. Even with provisions that we're seeing right now, such as electronic summonses, and so on.”