Russia's New Soldiers Unprepared For Battle That Awaits Them

Last week, Russia began mobilizing tens of thousands of what appear to be poorly trained, under-equipped men to send to war in Ukraine. Even if the Kremlin proves capable of putting its oft-cited target of 300,000 fresh forces in uniform, the new call-ups are unlikely to swing the war's momentum back in Moscow's favor.

"I think they're setting themselves up for another disaster," Lt. General Russel Honoré (U.S. Army, ret.) told Newsweek. "Putin has already sent in the best units he has to offer, and it wasn't enough. When you have to start pulling guys off the street to try to stabilize the situation, it comes off looking like an act of desperation."

Although the new call-ups have frequently been referred to as "reservists," in many cases their only military experience consists of one year spent as a conscript soldier in the Russian army, often a decade or more in the past.

"In the U.S. Army, we devote at least twelve weeks to teaching new soldiers the basics, and then it takes several months to train them as units," Honoré explained. "But if you look at the Russian way, I think they're going to put them in boots and link them up with officers that will move them to the front without adequate preparation. The effectiveness of those units on the battlefield will be very questionable."

Russian mobilization billboard
Young Russians in Saint Petersburg walk in front of a billboard promoting contract army service with the slogan "Serving Russia is a real job" on September 29, 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin's announced a nationwide "partial mobilization" on September 21. OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via GETTY IMAGES

The Russian army has been so short on manpower that many of its soldiers in Ukraine have not been rotated out for recuperation since crossing the border back in February. Experts say Putin's "partial mobilization" is unlikely to address many of the myriad issues endemic to its military.

"These guys do not fix the fundamental problems that are wrong with Russian strategy and planning at the operational level," George Barros of the Institute for the Study of War told Newsweek.

"They're not going to get the Russians air superiority; they're not going to fix the command and control issues; they're not going to fix the logistics problems; they're not going to fix the cohesion problems," Barros said. "In fact, bringing in thousands of poorly trained, poorly motivated guys is probably only going to exacerbate unit-cohesion problems."

Russian analysts also see the reality that, unless the call-ups first receive the necessary training and equipment, they are not likely to survive for long in a confrontation with the experienced, motivated, increasingly well-armed Ukrainian troops they may soon find themselves facing.

"Among the reservists, there is a wide range of people," Vladislav Shurygin, a Russian military expert, told Newsweek. "Those who have recent experience fighting in Syria, or who left the army after serving as special forces soldiers only one year ago, may be ready to deploy to the front after only two or three weeks of preparation."

Judging from the publicly available evidence, however, many of Russia's recent call-ups do not fit this rough-and-ready description.

On September 23, Belarusian journalist Tedeusz Giczan posted a video of mobilized Russians on Sakhalin Island.

"Of course, not all of the men being called up are young," Shurygin said. "Some of them finished their service over 15 years ago. They will need several months of preparation, and they deserve to get it."

"These are our best and most worthy people," he added. "When the Motherland called, they did not run away. They must be trained and fully equipped to go to the front — not as cannon fodder, but as real fighters."

Despite Shurygin's hopes that his fellow citizens will not be sent into battle unprepared, videos circulating on social media suggest that newly mobilized Russians could start arriving in Ukraine en masse as early as next week. Vladimir Putin turned to "partial mobilization" only after his army was routed from its positions in the Kharkiv region in early September. As Ukraine pushes forward with counteroffensive operations in both the eastern Donbas and southern Kherson regions, Russia appears likely to throw new call-ups into the fight before they are ready.

In a widely shared clip, a Russian officer advised new call-ups to arm themselves with tampons as a first-aid remedy against gunshot wounds.

"These new people will not be any good for counterattack or advance, but if you want to fill in the second line of defense to try to prevent any sort of Ukrainian breakthrough, mixing them in with undermanned, experienced units could be at least somewhat effective," Dmitry Gorenburg of the Center for Naval Analysis told Newsweek.

"It doesn't take that much knowledge or capability to sit in a trench and fire a rifle in the right direction," he added.

While these additional forces are unlikely to provide the Russian military with sufficient strength to roll back recent Ukrainian advances, they may well be just enough to slow down future Ukrainian counterattacks.

"The scale and rapidity of the Russian defeat in Kharkiv was caused largely by a lack of personnel," Gorenburg said. "Where the Russian army has adequate manning, we're not seeing such rapid Ukrainian advances."

Given the sheer quantity of manpower Russia is sifting through in search of minimally capable soldiers, the Kremlin may well run out of legitimacy before it runs out of potential new conscripts.

"Barring some kind of black swan regime change event in Russia," Gorenburg said, "this war will still be a long one."