STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images
- Recent changes to Russian conscription law indicate Moscow is preparing for a long war in Ukraine.
- The changes make it easier to call up new troops and harder for Russians to avoid those call-ups.
- Beyond a need for manpower, the changes may reflect the Kremlin’s embrace of more heavy-handed rule.
The Kremlin expected a short war and a quick victory when it ordered Russian forces to invade Ukraine in February 2022. But Russian leaders appear to preparing for a long and bloody fight, judging by a series of new measures related to military conscription.
“Russia is taking, step by step, the necessary legal mechanisms that they need to do to transition the economy and transition the country to something that approaches, potentially, a wartime footing,” Dara Massicot, an expert on the Russian military at the RAND Corporation think tank, said during an event hosted by Georgetown University in April.
The Russian government is “methodically stepping through a process to go over to a higher readiness and protracted war,” Massicot added.
For example, lawmakers amended Russia’s conscription law in April to allow the government to send digital draft notices that will be valid upon being posted rather than paper summonses that had to be signed by the recipient to be valid. Those who receive summonses and fail to appear at recruitment offices will face a variety of penalties, such as not being allowed to register a car or to leave the country.
A Russian army recruitment station in Moscow in April.
Vlad Karkov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Since late 2022, Russia has made several “of these esoteric legislative changes, where it’s tightening penalties on draft evasion, essentially putting a stop-loss in place for everybody,” Massicot said. “No one can actually leave the military right now unless they’re medically discharged.”
Massicot believes that the Kremlin is trying to avoid a repeat of the “partial mobilization” fiasco in 2022, when Russia attempted to conscript 300,000 men. That prompted hundreds of thousands of educated or affluent young Russians flee abroad, decimating the country’s intellectual capital. It also called up thousands of Russian unsuited for or exempt from military service, leading to a rare admission from Putin that “mistakes” were made.
For those who stayed in Russia, the process was chaotic. “They couldn’t find people,” Massicot said. “They were mobilizing the wrong people because they had a quota-incentive system. They just passed mistakes up the chain until the chain fixed it and kicked things back down.”
The government has now shifted the burden of complying with conscription laws on to the individual citizen. “If you don’t comply, all these penalties come on you,” Massicot said. “If you don’t report, you lose your driver’s license. There are all sorts of issues that go on with your electronic pay.”
Russians depart from Moscow in October after being called up in Moscow’s partial mobilization.
Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Russia has suffered 100,000 casualties — including 20,000 dead — in just 15 months, according to US intelligence estimates.
The dismal performance of Russia’s military has forced Moscow to rely masses of poorly trained and armed troops, including mercenaries and paroled inmates, to simply overwhelm outnumbered Ukrainian forces, an approach that has had mixed success and is adding to already heavy losses.
If the war drags on, this will create an unsustainable need for manpower. Russia has tried voluntary incentives, such as enlistment bonuses, and pay for draftees that in some cases is higher than for their officers. But these inducements threaten to consume a defense budget that must already replace thousands of destroyed armored vehicles and scores of aircraft.
With Russia now sending troops into battle in tanks from the 1940s, even high pay may not generate much enthusiasm among conscripts and potential enlistees.
Beyond the need for cannon fodder, the new laws may reflect the Kremlin’s embrace of more heavy-handed rule — returning to a kind of governance that some Russians would rather forget.
Dmitry Medvedev tours Russia’s biggest tank factory.
That can be seen in gestures by some Russian leaders — like Dmitry Medvedev touring a tank factory in a black leather trench coat and reading a World War II-era telegram from Stalin to exhort the leaders of defense firms.
“That’s political theater,” Massicot said of Medvedev’s antics, “but the legislative changes are actually really troubling.”
“It shows that they’re marching along this process to click over more authorities to the federal government,” Massicot added. “In Russia, mobilization and martial law actually go hand-in-hand. You can’t necessarily have one without the other, at least in terms of how they conceptualize it doctrinally.”
Nonetheless, the clampdown on draft evasion won’t necessarily eliminate it.
“Do I think that people could still get out of Russia if they know the right border guard, if they’re willing to bribe, or if they’re willing to go through a porous part of the border?” Massicot said. “If they’re motivated to do so and they have the resources, yes.”
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.