Russian offensive in Ukraine
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Why Russia does not have enough soldiers to secure its borders

Moscow’s massive deployment to the war in Ukraine has left its perimeters unprotected, increasing its vulnerability

A motorcycle rider crosses a damaged tank in Izium.
A motorcycle rider crosses a damaged tank in Izium.Getty

After the successful offensives of the Ukrainian troops in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions, Russian politicians have begun to talk about mass mobilization. Official representatives deny that it will happen, but Russia has been frantically seeking cannon fodder for the war in Ukraine for some months now. Sending reinforcements to the war front may influence its plans along its extensive borders, which extend 60,932 kilometers (37,861 miles). Russia’s global ambitions are out of step with its economy, geography and demographics. Russian President Vladimir Putin is faced with a dilemma: admit defeat or order a general mobilization. The latter could be risky, since the people could easily turn their weapons against the Kremlin, as has happened before in Russian history.

On August 26, the Russian president signed a decree increasing the number of members of the armed forces by 137,000. This will bring the number of military personnel to 1,150,628 soldiers. The Kremlin has also forced state corporations and oligarchs to form their own private militaries to add to the thousands of mercenaries already fighting in Ukraine. Russian provinces have formed about 40 battalions of so-called volunteers, whose equipment and salary they finance. For volunteers, the maximum age has been raised (in some provinces up to 60 years), and health requirements have been eased. Since the volunteer forces are still not enough, private paramilitary companies have recruited prisoners. The head of the Caucasian republic of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has called on all regions to fully mobilize. A covert mobilization is already taking place.

Why does Russia not have enough soldiers? On the eve of the war in Ukraine, the official workforce of the Russian army was four times that of the Ukrainian army, although it is possible that the actual number of Russian forces was considerably lower.

To invade Ukraine, Russia deployed units from its four military districts, with a total of up to 250,000 people, but units from the western district bore the brunt of the fighting and paid a heavy price for it. In its daily report on September 13, the British Ministry of Defense noted that the First Tank Army suffered heavy losses early in the invasion and was withdrawn from the Kharkiv region after the Ukrainian offensive. “With 1 GTA and other WEMD Formations severely degraded, Russia’s conventional force designed to counter NATO is severely weakened. It will likely take years for Russia to rebuild this capability.” Finland’s entry into NATO means that the organization’s border with Russia has increased by 1,272 kilometers (790 miles). Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has said that Sweden and Finland’s joining NATO requires the formation of 12 new military units and formations.

Although many units from Russia’s eastern district, the most powerful of the four existing districts, were sent to the front, the Kremlin cannot move troops from the east to the west of the country, as it did with the Siberian divisions in World War II. Russia has not yet signed a peace treaty with Japan, with whom it has a territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands. Tokyo has increased its military budget, which Moscow will be forced to take into account.

In addition, Russia has to send troops to the 4,209-kilometer-long (2,615 mile) border with China. In 1969, the Sino-Soviet split sparked a border conflict near Zhenbao (Damanski) Island on the Ussuri (Wusuli) river near Manchuria. Between 1991 and 2008, the territorial conflicts between China and Russia were resolved, but the Chinese have not forgotten that the Russian empire annexed its territories in the Far East. On the other hand, the emigration from Siberia to the center of Russia has depopulated enormous extensions of land, where Chinese have replaced Russians. The situation is currently peaceful, but under these conditions, only the Russian military can guarantee Russia’s sovereignty in Siberia and the Far East. Russia and China are partners today, but they are not allies. China’s military budget in 2019 was $177 billion to Russia’s $46 billion.

The transfer of a significant military contingent from the eastern district to Ukraine would weaken Russia’s defenses in the Far East and Siberia. The Chinese might be tempted to recover what they lost. The central military district borders Kazakhstan (7,548 kilometers, 4,690 miles of border). The Taliban’s ascent to power in Afghanistan, and the border problems between Central Asian states, mean that Russia has to keep enough troops there to contain threats. The Taliban’s incursion into Central Asia threatens not only the countries of the region, but also the Russian Muslim republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.

In Georgia and Moldova, there is also talk of recovering seceded territories. The southern Russian military district sent its most capable units to Ukraine: the 58th Combined Arms Army, which has combat experience in Chechnya and Georgia. As a result, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), of which Russia and Armenia are members, could not fulfill its obligation to respond to Armenia’s request for help. Azerbaijan decided that it was time to act. On the night of September 13, Baku troops opened fire on the territory of Armenia. Russia is the guarantor of security in the region, but it is currently busy with the war in Ukraine. Officially, the Russian armed forces should be capable of simultaneously solving tasks in two armed conflicts without resorting to new mobilizations. In reality, Russia has been unable to manage the confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the war in Ukraine at the same time.

Behind Azerbaijan is Turkey, which has an ambivalent relationship with Russia and is beginning to assert its intention to dominate the southern Caucasus. Turkish military power in the Caucasus already surpasses the Russian presence. Russia cannot send all of its forces to Ukraine, which is slowly matching Russia’s technical capabilities thanks to Western arms supplies. The very fact that Ukraine has resisted, in the cruelest war that has taken place in Europe since 1945, is already a defeat for Putin. Apart from mobilization or recognition of defeat, the Russian president has a third option: to use nuclear weapons. But that solution would go beyond the Russian-Ukrainian war, bringing about a global catastrophe.

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