Russia Calling 100,000 Reservists to Active Duty and Moving Wagner Group From Syria to Deal With Ukraine Manpower Crunch

AP Photo/Andrew Marienko

Last Friday, the operations director of the Russian General Staff, Sergei Rudskoy, gave an otherworldly “update” on the status of the “special military operation” or “limited incursion” or anything but a war going on in Ukraine. In that update, he claimed that Russia had never tried to capture Kiev (pronounced “Keef” if you work for NPR or are named Christiane Amanpour). The Russian Army was not, contrary to popular belief, getting drubbed outside Kiev; it was just holding the Ukrainians in place as the master plan unfolded in Donbas (see Russia’s General Staff Claims Invasion Objectives ‘Mainly Accomplished’ and Phase II of Ukraine Invasion Is Starting).


There were some glaring contradictions with that story. The most obvious one is that Russia has committed about 75% of its maneuver units to the invasion, according to Western intelligence estimates.

The Russian troops in the north are locked in close combat with the Ukrainians, and I would doubt that the troops or the leaders at brigade and lower echelons have the training or skills to conduct a withdrawal while in contact. To carry out the strategy the general staff described, the troops now in combat in northern Ukraine will have to be pulled off the line and break contact with Ukrainian forces; they will then need to move back into Russia, reconstitute themselves, and be pushed into action of the Donbas front. This would be a herculean challenge for a real army, much less for the barking shambles that the Russian Army has revealed itself to be.

The Russians have had to dig deep to keep the war in Ukraine going. Occupation troops have been pulled out of Georgia, Transnistria, and Armenia to serve in Ukraine. This has led to unhappy results in Armenia as Russia is discovering There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Russia’s fixation on Ukraine and the lackluster performance of the Russian Army could very well set off a new series of wars as Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan relitigate the outcomes of the last wars they fought involving Russia.

To make matters worse, this is taking place in the shadow of April 1. April 1 is when the biannual class of draftees begins to report to the equivalent of local draft boards. It is also when the previous year’s draftees start being released from active duty.


Now we have a partial answer to how the Russians think they can square the circle.

Below is a brief explanation of how the Russian draft system works.

The Russian Armed Forces conscript men semi-annually, with the fall draft lasting from October 1 until December 31 and the spring draft running from April 1 until July 15.[3] In 2022, the Kremlin announced the spring draft early on February 18.[4] The draft affects all men aged 18 to 27 years old, though some conscripts can be as young as 16 years old.[5] Russian conscripts typically serve one year.[6] The annual conscription pool of all Russian military-aged men is approximately 1.2 million people, though only about half are compelled to present themselves at their local military commissariat (voenkomat). The Russian General Staff reported conscripting 127,000 people for the fall 2021 draft and 134,000 people in spring 2021 out of 672,000 summoned men.[7] The number of conscripts is relatively consistent year on year, with 263,000 in 2020 and 267,000 in 2019.[8] Approximately 261,000 conscripts from 2021 are currently serving across Russian units, with the fall 2021 conscripts entering their third month of training.

[3] https://www dot; https://www dot

[4] http://publication dot; https://nv. Dot ua/world/geopolitics/rossiya-prodolzhaet-styagivat-voyska-k-granice-s-ukrainoy-analitik-cit-na-radio-nv-50205189.html; https://vk dot

[5] https://www dot; http://www. Dot

[6] http://www dot

[7] https://www dot; https://ria dot ru/20210930/trebovaniya-1752464085.html

[8] https://iz dot ru/1036012/2020-07-16/v-rossii-zavershilsia-vesennii-prizyv; https://tvzvezda dot ru/news/202012311053-F2LZR.html; https://iz dot ru/960313/video/osennii-prizyv-v-armiiu-zavershaetsia-v-rossii

In essence, Russia brings in about a quarter-million conscripts each year in two tranches, one from April 1-July 15, the second from October 1-December 31. They are drafted for 12-months. As best as I can determine, the draftees get 12-weeks of training: four weeks of basic soldier skills and eight weeks of unit training at progressively higher echelons culminating in a company-level exercise. By comparison, a US Army infantryman goes through 22-weeks of basic/advanced training before joining a unit.


When a draftee joins a unit, they have nine months remaining on active duty. There is also a personnel churn as a unit will have 100% turnover of its conscript force every year. If you were ever stationed in Korea, you know what that looks like. It is not unheard of for Russian Army units to be tasked with helping harvest crops, so even the nine months a soldier is in a unit may not be devoted to military activities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin can extend the active-duty term of draftees. That would require him to abandon the “special military operation” bullsh** and admit that he’s kicked over a hornet’s nest in Ukraine. I can’t even speculate on how that plays out or where Russian public opinion stands on the war or Putin’s pain tolerance to bucking public opinion. April 1 will give us a good indication of the latter. If you read my classic essay A Dozen Russian Troops Refuse to Go to Ukraine and Show Us That Russia’s Government Looks a Lot Like Ours, it will come as no shock to you that the Russian draft is a system that can be “hacked.” About 40% of Russian conscripts come from single-parent homes or orphanages and will show up. What the other 60% does remains to be seen. We do have a hint from Russia’s past.

By the late 1980s chronic corruption in the military induction process had been exacerbated by the war in Afghanistan and became an important target of the anticorruption campaign. Despite the reduction of draft deferments after 1985, draft evasion remained a serious problem. A senior Estonian official reportedly was arrested in July 1987 for accepting bribes from conscripts seeking to avoid service in Afghanistan. Since mid-i986, Pravda and the Komsomol (Young Communist League) press in several non-Russian republics have reported incidents of bribery by parents to ensure that their sons do not serve in Afghanistan. Draft evasion fed popular resentment of elite groups, who were better able to bribe their children out of military service.

Each year over 2 million eighteen-year-olds reported to voenkomat induction commissions. They have reported in the spring and the fall depending on whether their birthdays were in the first or second half of the year. Based on quotas assigned by the General Staff’s Main Organization and Mobilization Directorate, the voenkomat either assigned recruits to one of the armed services or granted deferments.

Assignments were based on the physical attributes, education, skills, and political background of individual conscripts. The services that required technical abilities or high reliability, therefore, received conscripts with the highest qualifications. For example, the Airborne Troops accepted only recruits that had been fully trained in parachute jumping by DOSAAF. By contrast, the Ground Forces and the Rear Services have had to take less qualified inductees. Overall, however, 90 percent of servicemen have had a secondary education.

The voenkomaty granted about one-quarter of eighteen year -old men deferments from service because of ill health or family hardship. Eighteen-year-olds were also exempted from service if they were enrolled in a higher education institution. They were required, however, to participate in the reserve officer training program of that institution. Those who had participated in such training programs could serve as little as a year of active duty after graduation.


The bottom line is that during the era of the USSR, draft avoidance and outright evasion were very, very common. The more privileged got deferments to go to college or, I suspect, were able to show they were not physically fit for duty (does this sound familiar); the poor kids just ignored the law preferring the risk of arrest to serving in the Red Army.

The second part of the strategy calls up 100K reservists, allegedly with combat experience. The best the reserve has to offer is already in combat. Russia had to carry out a limited reserve call-up to carry out the Ukraine invasion.

The Russian cadre-and-reserve units concentrated around Ukraine before the invasion almost certainly required a significant reserve call-up to fill out. As the ground offensive in Ukraine stalls, the Russian military likely faces a requirement for a new reserve call up to fill out additional units and replace individual losses in these units. There is reporting as of March 5 that 3,000 individual replacements are being mobilized across the Russian border from Kharkiv to replace combat losses in Russian units.[25]


The “combat experience” claim is total crap. The last time the Russian Army was at war (other than the 2014 bullying of Ukraine) was in Georgia for 12 days in August 2008. Someone who was a draftee for that war is now about 33 years old. If you go back to the First (December 1994 to August 1996) and Second (August 1999 to May 2000) Chechen Wars, reservists who served in those wars will mostly be 40 to 46 years old. And they’ve been out of the game for 14-20 years. Another important thing to remember is that the Russian reserve forces are not the “one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer” troops like in our own Army Reserve and National Guard.

The Russian reserve has over two million former conscripts and contract servicemen on paper, but few are actively trained or prepared for war.[11] Historically, only 10 percent of reservists receive refresher training after completing their initial term of service.[12] Russia lacks the administrative and financial capacity to train reservists on an ongoing basis. According to a 2019 RAND analysis, Russia only had 4,000 to 5,000 troops in what would be considered an active reserve in the Western sense, meaning soldiers attending regular monthly and annual training.[13] Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has repeatedly stated that the Russian Armed Forces hoped to have 80,000-100,000 active reserve members.[14]

[11] https://www dot; dot ru/articles/population-ru/military;





My assessment is that the Russian Army calling up a large number of reservists is not going to do a lot for combat effectiveness beyond filling spaces in the ranks.

The second part of the Russian General Staff’s “Hail, Mary” approach is part real and part psyops, but mostly psyops.

NOTE: as a matter of technical accuracy, there is no such business entity as the “Wagner Group.” The details of its organization can be found in this Foreign Policy article. I’m using the term to refer to a network of private military companies that provide troops to the Russian government as a proxy force.

When we last encountered the Wagner Group, they were torturing prisoners and abusing women and children when they weren’t getting their asses shredded by American artillery and air power (see Three Hundred Dead and Wounded Russians Are a Reminder of US Airpower in Syria).

I rate this as psyops because 1,000 men in a war the size of that in Ukraine is insignificant. The Russians are trying to scare Ukrainians out of the fight by bringing in these alleged supermen with combat experience. There are three problems with bringing Wagner Group mercenaries from Syria to Ukraine.

First, as we’ve seen in Azerbaijan (and will see in Georgia and Moldova), moving troops from one theater to another creates a vacuum soon filled by someone. I’ve seen no evidence that the Wagner Group has been particularly effective in Syria, but they are the face of the Russian government there. If they are pulled out, it demonstrates Russian weakness, in general, and its lack of commitment to the Syrian adventure. Someone will step in to fill that gap.

Second, the experience the Wagner Group has acquired in Syria will not translate easily to the geographical or tactical environment they are going to face in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Army is not Syrian villagers.


Third, not that Russia really cares about the niceties of international law, but using Wagner Group mercenaries in a combat role places those men outside of the protection of the Geneva Conventions. Under the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, captured Wagner Group members are not lawful combatants and may be treated as criminal defendants. The Russian Army can use them to secure rear area facilities, escort convoys, or perform other combat support tasks, but their use in combat operations is forbidden. The Russian government may not care about this, but my guess is that the mercenaries will. The only workaround is to involuntarily muster them into the Russian Army and deal with the fallout from that. I also suspect they won’t really want to be in the convoy escort business.

Russia is now confronted with a major problem in prosecuting the illegal attack on Ukraine. It seems unlikely that the Russian Army has enough levers to pull to create sufficient combat power to pull off even the significantly reduced mission the General Staff presented last week. The frontier areas have been stripped of troops, and we are already witnessing the instability developing. The new class of draftees will not be ready for deployment to Ukraine until July, even as the current class is demobilized. The 100,000-man call-up of reservists, in my opinion, creates more of a political problem for how Putin can spin the war in Ukraine than it solves the operational problem of too-much-mission-too-few-troops. The men called up will have been away from the military for some time, they will probably be unhappy about the call-up, and their families will also be unhappy. Their families will be more unhappy when they get a call on their loved one’s cell phone from some Ukrainian soldier letting them know their loved one is dead.


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