Mobilization Shows 'Many Problems Russia Faces' in Ukraine: ISW

For many who are following the war in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin's partial mobilization of the armed forces is an admission that the Kremlin's campaign isn't going to plan.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, said the announcement on September 21 "reflected many problems Russia faces in its faltering invasion of Ukraine that Moscow is unlikely to be able to resolve in the coming months."

Over the space of a few days in early to mid-September, the Ukrainian armed forces inflicted a humiliating defeat on Moscow, reclaiming some 3,000 square miles of Russian-occupied territory in the south of the country.

As Kyiv's soldiers raised their blue and yellow flags in towns and villages that had been occupied for six months, the disorganization of Russian troops and Moscow's weakness in holding on to territory became obvious.

Vladimir Putin
President Vladimir Putin, photographed in Berlin on October 19, 2016. The Institute for the Study of War said his partial mobilization might "sustain the current levels of Russian military manpower in 2023 by offsetting Russian casualties." Adam Berry/Getty Images

That could explain why four occupied territories—Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia—are about to hold referendums to join Russia, although Putin himself has not drawn a connection between the two events.

The votes have been described as a "sham" and are unlikely to be recognized by the international community. Yet once these territories have been annexed, Moscow will feel justified in treating Kyiv's strikes on the regions as an attack on Russia itself—and responding accordingly.

Military experts have questioned whether the partial mobilization will turn the tide of the war, however. According to the ISW, Putin's order to mobilize reservists "will not generate significant usable Russian combat power for months."

The think tank believes the partial mobilization might "sustain the current levels of Russian military manpower in 2023 by offsetting Russian casualties," but it casts doubt even on that.

On September 21, Russia's defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said his country's death toll in Ukraine was 5,937 troops—a number far smaller than those indicated by Western and Ukrainian sources. In August, the Pentagon estimated that 80,000 Russian troops had been injured or killed in Ukraine since the invasion on February 24.

Ukraine Map
An ISW assessment of Russia's offensive campaign, as of September 21. Institute for the Study of War and AEI's Critical Threats Project

It's also unclear how well-prepared these new troops will be. The ISW said: "Russian reserves are poorly trained to begin with and receive no refresher training once their conscription period is completed.

"Russian mandatory military service is only one year, which gives conscripts little time to learn how to be soldiers, to begin with. The absence of refresher training after that initial period accelerates the degradation of learned soldier skills over time.

"Shoigu referred to the intent of calling up reservists with 'combat experience,' but very few Russian reservists other than those now serving in Ukraine have any combat experience."

We also don't know for sure how many reservists are left in the pool available to the Kremlin.

"The Russian military likely called up the most combat-ready reserves in that pre-war mobilization effort, which suggests that the current partial mobilization will begin by drawing on less combat-ready personnel from the outset," the ISW wrote.

If this is the case, the partial mobilization won't shift the tide of the war and "will thus not deprive Ukraine of the opportunity to liberate more of its occupied territory into and through the winter," according to the ISW.

The announcement was also met with some resistance in Russia. Searches and prices for flights out of the country have reportedly skyrocketed, more than 1,300 people have been arrested for taking part in anti-war protests and the Russian stock market crashed.

While the world speculated on the consequences of Putin's announcement, Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations around Lyman, in the Donetsk region, according to the ISW.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian forces conducted strikes north and east of Kherson City "as part of an operational-level interdiction campaign against Russian logistics, military, and transportation assets in Kherson Oblast," the ISW reported, though "Ukrainian military officials maintained operational silence regarding Ukrainian ground attacks in Kherson Oblast."