15 May 2023

How past reforms are affecting the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine

While much of the world’s focus during the past decade has been on the Russian military’s technological advances, its invasion of Ukraine has shown how having soldiers on the ground is still a crucial element for waging war.

In a new report, FOI researcher Jonas Kjellén examines Russian military manning and organisational reforms since the fall of the Soviet Union, and how they help explain the difficulties the country has faced during the first year of the "special military operation" in Ukraine.

Young men in military uniforms on Red Square in Moscow against the background of the Kremlin.

Young men in military uniforms on Red Square in Moscow against the background of the Kremlin. Photo: Shutterstock

Since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the operation has been marked by repeated failures. To outside observers the underperformance of the Russian Armed Forces has been surprising.

The usual explanation for these defeats relies on one of two arguments: either Russian military capabilities have been greatly overstated or its operation into Ukraine lacked proper planning and leadership.

In his new report Bringing the Soldier back in – Russian military manning, manpower, and mobilization in the light of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Kjellén suggests a third reason why the invasion has not gone according to Moscow’s plan.

“The result of several reforms since the fall of the Soviet Union has been that Russia’s armed forces are simply not designed to wage the type of war that the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has become,” he says.

Series of reforms

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian army has undergone a series of reorganisations and structural reforms. Over the intervening decades, it has evolved from the massive army designed to fight a prolonged, large-scale conflict into a smaller, better-educated and equipped force, more focused on attracting and training contract soldiers than mobilising loads of conscripts and reserves.

“The result of these reforms has been that the capability to raise and support a large army for conventional warfare in Europe has been gradually dismantled in favour of a small high-readiness, professional force,” Kjellén explains.

The report focuses on reforms implemented in 2009-2012 under then-Minister of Defence Anatoly Serdyukov, and Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov. These reforms targeted three specific areas starting with structural changes, followed by social reforms, and ending in a comprehensive rearmament that modernised the entire military inventory and laid the foundation for how the military operates today.

Focus on contract soldiers

While mandatory conscription has historically been the principal way for Russia to recruit soldiers, the army has over the course of the post-Soviet period moved towards reducing mandatory military training and instead focused on recruiting contract soldiers.

This new structure may have been suitable in a post-Cold War world, and even proven successful in other recent Russian military operations such as the 2014 annexation of Crimea, its direct involvement in Syria civil war in 2015 and social unrest that rocked Kazakhstan in 2022.

However, the past year has shown starkly how the military’s current organisational structure fails to meet the needs and challenges of a large-scale ground invasion like the one the war against Ukraine has become, Kjellén says.

“In Ukraine the Russian armed forces was handed a task that it was neither cut out or properly prepared for,” he says.

Issues with supply lines and logistics, along with poorly trained and undisciplined soldiers has contributed to the image of failure. Over the past year, the Russian armed forces have suffered significant losses.

The Ministry of Defence is now tasked with the challenging task of further increasing the number of soldiers between 2023-26, Kjellén says.