Russian military officials are proposing a sweeping restructuring of the country’s armed forces, including raising the draft age, as the toll from Moscow’s 10-month-old invasion of Ukraine continues to mount.
The suggestions, announced Earlier this week by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the size of Russia’s armed forces would increase by around 30 percent to 1.5 million troops, and would amount to a reversal of reforms implemented more than a decade ago aimed at upgrading its Soviet-era force structure modernize.
They also amount to acknowledgment of the systemic problems that Russia’s military continues to face, problems highlighted by the bitter conflict in Ukraine.
According to public estimates by Western secret services and the military, Russia has recorded more than 100,000 dead and wounded in Ukraine since February. The last time Moscow announced an official death toll was in September, when Shoigu announced that 5,937 soldiers had been killed in the war.
To replenish its forces in Ukraine, the Kremlin announced in September a mobilization campaign aimed at bringing together 300,000 men – mostly reservists and those with military experience – to support the fight.
The mobilization order was separate from the regular, biannual call-up, which puts between 120,000 and 140,000 men into service twice a year. These conscripts serve for one year.
According to current law, the draft is aimed at men between the ages of 18 and 27. These soldiers may not be sent abroad or into active combat.
On December 21, speaking at a year-end conference with senior military officials as well as President Vladimir Putin, Shoigu called for raising the age range for conscripts to 21-30 years and he stated that Russia needs a total force of 1.5 million to ” to ensure the fulfillment of tasks to ensure the security of Russia”.
He gave no timeframe for when that would happen.
Currently, Russia’s military has a total of about 1.1 million soldiers.
With conscripts barred from serving in Ukraine, officials have turned to volunteer soldiers — “kontraktniki” — to run the war. Before the February 24 invasion, Russia had a total of about 400,000 contract soldiers, including about 150,000 in the ground forces.
Private military company Vagner Group also has around 50,000 troops stationed in Ukraine, most of whom are believed to be inmates recruited from Russian prisons with promises of early release, according to the UK Defense Ministry.
The expanded Russian armed forces will include 695,000 contract soldiers, Shoigu said, of whom 521,000 are expected to be on duty by the end of 2023.
Shoigu also proposed a major reorganization of the force structure, particularly in the Western Military District, whose forces face those of NATO member states.
Other changes would place some air force units under ground forces command, and existing infantry, naval, and airborne brigades would be converted into direct divisions similar to those that existed under Soviet structures.
If enacted, the proposed reforms would reverse a number of changes made by Shoigu’s predecessor, Anatoly Serdyukov, after the 2008 war in Georgia, which highlighted glaring problems in the Russian military.
Among other things, Serdyukov’s changes dismantled the structure of the Soviet-era armed forces, moving away from large divisions towards more mobile and largely self-sufficient brigades, and attempted to improve the interoperability of different branches.
Dara Massicot, a researcher on Russia’s armed forces at RAND Corp., a US think tank, called the proposals a “substantial” reorganization and partial reversal of the Serdyukov reforms.
“The force structure was only part of the reforms,” she told RFE/RL. “So on that front, yeah, it’s a big setback. But the other principles are still there: modern equipment, professional military service, new weapons, etc.”
But the shift away from brigade structure back to emphasizing divisions was a nod to thinking of older officer corps familiar with Soviet structure.
“They have always opposed brigades and large reductions in ground forces,” she said.
The mobilization order announced by President Vladimir Putin in September shook Russian society, triggering a wave of emigration of men and women fleeing the prospect of being attacked and sent to war.
Human rights activists say Shoigu’s changes only serve to further “militarize” Russian society.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a reform. There’s really not a whiff of reform here,” Aleksei Tabalov, who heads the rights group Conscript School, said in an interview with Current time. “True reform would be the creation of a fully professional army in which there would be no place for conscription.”
“There are two stated goals: maintaining offensive operations in Ukraine and military resistance to NATO enlargement. These are the two goals that are loudly proclaimed and for which the life of Russian society is actually directed further. ” he added.
“Militarization, raising the draft age, increasing the army, increasing military spending; everything is now subordinated to military purposes.”