Russia continues to consider the war in Ukraine an “internal matter” and thus not eligible for a general mobilization. This does not include what Western nations call “mobilizing the reserves” (of trained soldiers). That’s because Russia has no such reserve. What a general mobilization means to Russians is a declaration that the survival of Russia is at stake and the government is calling on all Russians to obey government orders to do whatever needs to be done to save Russian from a serious threat. A general mobilization is only called when there is a serious and obvious threat to the Russian state and the Russian people. The Ukrainians fighting back against a Russian invasion of Ukraine does not qualify. Some Russians might respond but most would not because the current government has lied to them about what is going on in Ukraine and passed laws making any relevant information covering operations in Ukraine a state secret.
Russia has already mobilized reserves of weapons and equipment put into storage after the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. This can be seen and monitored via commercial satellite photos. A lot of those reserve tanks are in bad shape and stored in poorly run storage areas. Low defense budgets meant the reserve tanks were poorly guarded and rarely inspected. This made it easy for corrupt troops and officers to strip many tanks of valuable internal components. As a result, many of the defective tanks were put on rail cars and shipped to mobilization centers near the Ukrainian border where the sad state of these tanks was discovered. Under pressure to deliver the tanks to combat units, any that moved under their own power were delivered. Many of these tanks were found to be unfit for combat when their new crews checked them out. Some problems were not discovered until the tank was in combat. On paper there are more T-72 tanks in storage but these were plundered even more energetically because they had more modern components.
Russia does not have as many modern tanks in reserve as it thought it did. There were only about 2,500 tanks in its pre-war active-duty units and about 80 percent of these were assigned to 170 BTGs (battalion task groups) by 2021. On paper Russia had three times as many tanks in reserve but few of those were maintained well enough to be used. The real shortages in Russia are qualified tank mechanics who can quickly assess the state of an inoperable tank and fix it, and the Western electronics to make it battle-ready.
The situation is different in Ukraine. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, they inherited one of the largest armored vehicles stockpiles in Europe. Its armed forces had 780,000 troops, 6,500 tanks and 7,000 other armored vehicles as well as thousands of artillery systems (howitzers and rocket launchers), There were also 1,100 combat aircraft, and more than 500 ships. Most of the Ukrainian soldiers were demobilized and Ukraine rebuilt a much smaller army that they could afford. There were similar situations in all of the new nations that emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In 1991 much of the newest equipment was stored in Ukraine, which was closer to the NATO nations that the Russians expected to be fighting if there were a major war. The Ukrainians tried to sell off the best of this gear but there were not a lot of customers. They exported about 700 tanks sold to third-world nations that could not afford the much better German Leopard tanks that were also for sale at bargain prices along with older American M1 tanks.
Scrapping unneeded tanks was expensive, because once you removed all the reusable components you were left with tons of armor that had to be cut apart before it could be sent to the smelter to be melted down and recast as something new and useful. Ukraine kept the most modern and potentially useful tanks and other armored vehicles in active storage. Active means they looked after this gear and protected it from thieves and natural disasters. Such was not the case in Russia, where tanks and armored vehicles were largely put into inactive storage. That means thieves were able to steal a lot of valuable components from these tanks. The extent of this was not discovered until 2022 when Russia needed these vehicles after their heavy losses during the first months of the Ukraine invasion.
Details of this situation were soon revealed to the West and Ukraine by photo reconnaissance satellites that were able to monitor the activity at Russian tank reserve sites as well as the tank repair facilities near the Ukrainian border to inside occupied Ukrainian territory. Since the 1980s satellites have been transmitting back higher and higher resolution photos of things like areas where armored vehicles are stored. The current generation of high-resolution photo satellites are good at finding and counting tanks and warships. This became a lot easier after 2005, when Google Earth appeared. It was free and allowed anyone to view high resolution satellite photos of the entire planet. This was made possible by the fact that most of the satellites in orbit are commercial, not military, and provided communications as well as photo surveillance to monitor the weather, crops and much else. In the 1990s that led to proliferation of commercial photo satellites and sharing some of the older government tech and giving a lot of business to one of the first commercial satellite firms like DigitalGlobe in the late 1990s.
In 2005 Google used DigitalGlobe services to run Google Earth. Other American and European firms followed and in 2017 DigitalGlobe merged with SSL to create Maxar; the largest and best equipped commercial satellite photo provider in the world. Maxar is profitable with sales nearly two billion dollars a year from clients like Google, news organizations and governments needing a steady and reliable supply of satellite photos covering customer specified areas. After the 2014 Russian attack on Ukraine, both nations could track the actual progress of the fighting via these commercial satellite photos. Also available were photos of rear area facilities. Russia made it a crime for Russians to access these commercial photos and made it more difficult for Russians to access Western web sites. Technically, it was a crime for the average Russian to view these photos. Most of these photos were high resolution and showed which tanks were operational and which were destroyed and abandoned.
Another curious aspect of this was that the Ukrainians, despite having the same or often better tanks as the Russians, did not use many of them in the defensive battles in the first weeks of the war. That was because the Ukrainians had analyzed their experience since 2014 with Russian tanks in Donbas and before the 2022 invasion were already requesting and receiving Western portable anti-tank systems. Ukraine had developed some of its own but they were not as portable or easy to use as the Western models. The Ukrainians also had a better sense of what the Russian BTGs (Battalion Task Groups) could do and how best to defeat them. Many Western intelligence agencies disagreed with this and were more inclined to believe the Russian press releases. Once the invasion started, it soon became obvious that the Ukrainian assessment was correct. As the fighting continued more of the Ukrainian assessments turned out to be very accurate compared to NATO analyses.
One of the more shocking Ukrainian assessments was that the Russians would run out of soldiers because morale was low before the war and got worse once the magnitude of the Russian defeat became known to the Russian public. That news took longer to Reach most Russians because of the censorship. By May the Russian army was visibly shrinking from casualties (nearly 100,000 Russian soldiers killed, wounded, captured or deserted.) That’s nearly 40 percent of the Russian ground forces and few Russians were willing to join the army, either as a conscript or volunteer.
Desperate measures were required and the Russian government has employed most of them. They lowered the standards for conscripts, allowing unfit Russians to join. That did not work out well. Russia then loosened the qualifications for volunteers, allowing men up to 50 years old to join. Russia also spent a lot of scarce cash on a program to form battalions in dozens of regions where bonuses and high pay were offered to military veterans who would join the local battalion and enter combat with other locals. This had some success, especially in poor rural areas. These new volunteers still required at least two months of training to prepare them for what they would face in Ukraine. Russia also had to supply armored vehicles and artillery for these battalions, most of them to be organized as BTGs. None of these new regional units has been in combat and most won’t be until August or September.
Another mobilization effort was declaring a medical emergency and calling up medical personnel to deal with a national health crisis in the form of all the casualties Russia is suffering in Ukraine. Another mobilization is actually a program to hire more mechanics and vehicle maintainers as contractors. All of these contractors must be paid well and on time and kept out of combat.
Russia also has access to combat ready forces in the form of Wagner Group military contractors. Wagner is selective about who they accept and pay the highest rates any Russian military personnel in Ukraine get. Wagner has apparently created an economy grade contractor that has fewer qualifications for the job and is paid less, but enough to make it attractive pay. Wagner Group personnel are now the only ones available to make crucial attacks and even that is often not enough. The Ukrainian forces have proved to be far more resourceful, skilled and determined that the Russians expected.
Russia was aware that they might encounter problems if they did not have a Western style reserve force. Efforts were made. Back in 2010 Russia declared that it was establishing a Western style military reserve system, composed of troops who are fully trained to begin with, then regularly refresh that training, and are capable of being quickly mobilized and operating as effectively as full-time troops. This is a big departure from over a century of using less well-trained reservists.
The new system was to be operational by 2016, and resemble the reserve system currently used in the United States and other Western nations. The new reserve system is more expensive than the Soviet era one, where you didn’t have to pay former soldiers to be available for mobilization. The new reservists get regular refresher training to keep their military skills current. The new reserve system is voluntary. Officers and troops sign three-year contracts and are paid from few thousand to over six thousand dollars a year for about a month of active service plus an obligation to maintain military skills and be ready to get called up and spend a few months or more than a year on active duty.
In the United States reservists comprise 45 percent of the 1.1 million trained military personnel available. Russia knew they could never afford that many, but might be able to eventually afford up to 100,000 reservists. Russia mentioned the American National Guard as the model for their reserve system. The National Guard provides a local force of trained part-time soldiers who can be used for natural disasters, and also perform as well as active-duty troops in combat. This is possible because the reservists have, on average, more years of military experience than the active-duty troops.
The reality was that by 2020 Russia had only 6,000 paid reservists, mainly because of money shortages. Worse, the old, involuntary “national emergency” reserve system that recalled people who had left the military up to five years ago did not work. This involuntary reserve is still the law but all it could purportedly do is keep track where the five years’ worth of reservists are currently living. That tracking system has not worked because, in post-Soviet Union Russia people are free to move without telling anyone. Before 1991 the Soviet police state strictly monitored and controlled who lived where. Those who ignored it were outlaws and that was a very small percentage of former soldiers. It’s estimated that the 2020 involuntary reserve would probably contact less than ten percent of the million men technically available. Most of these men had only one year of conscript service and their military skills faded fast.
All these plans were made when the Russian economy was booming. That meant there was money available to pay the reservists. But by 2016, when the system was supposed to be fully operational it wasn’t. Mainly it was about money. In 2014 the Russian economy was hit by two financial disasters. First the price of oil fell from a hundred dollars a barrel to less than thirty dollars. Oil and gas exports are a major source of government revenue. Added to that in 2014 Russia got hit with some serious economic sanctions in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Another key item the Russians were unable to mobilize was popular support for the war. The government calls the war a defensive measure to protect Ukraine, and Russia, from Western aggression. That sort of worked for a while but soon faded as troops fighting in Ukraine reported back to family and friends what was really going on. The Russians were the invaders and the Ukrainians the patriotic defenders of their homes and families.