Operational / Strategic Military
- On 13 Mar 2023, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu’s proposal to raise the conscription age was accepted by the Russian State Duma. The proposal increases the age from 18-27 to 21-30 years of age for Russian men. An overlap period until 2026 will remain whilst the transition occurs. Shoigu previously stated the intent to professionalise and increase the total number of Russia’s fighting force from 1.1 million to 1.5 million by the end of 2023, therefore an increase of 400,000.
- A news agency based in the Urals of Russia reported on the increase and cited that regions are expected to produce 10,000 new conscripts by the end of the year. Regional officials are reportedly taking charge of the drafts with regional Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) recruitment offices now subordinate to them due to past issues with the organisation. According to the news agency, information campaigns will begin ahead of the Spring draft (commencing 1 April 2023, and the Autumn draft will commence on 1 October 2023), advertising the benefits of conscription service.
Russian news outlets have been reporting on regions preparing for the Spring draft for eligible men of conscription age. Source: @meduza_en
- During President Putin’s address to the nation on 23 February 2023, he reiterated Shoigu’s intent to increase Russia’s fighting force and professionalise it, rather than relying predominantly on conscription and reserve service. Whilst it is highly likely that this age-based amendment will negate the requirement for mass mobilisation by adjusting the recruitment pool by three years, it is highly likely that stealth-mobilisation efforts will continue. Although legally conscripts only serve for one year and cannot be sent abroad, Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine are legally considered part of Russia and therefore allow for conscripts to be deployed. Similarly, it is likely that conscripts will be pressured into extending their contracts, which is already reported to be occurring. It is possible that the three-year transition period signifies that Shoigu does not expect the conflict to continue longer than three years, and the extensive use of conscripts will likely be a somewhat sacrificed generation, which will phase out after 2026 allowing for population regeneration. According to the UK Ministry of Defence, in the last 12 months Russian forces as a whole have lost 200,000 men (60,000 of which are killed in action), which highly likely poses a serious difficulty to reconstitute not only the RFAF, but the male population as a whole. It is also possible that the raising from 18 to 21 years of age will allow students to complete their studies in order to make up for the ‘brain drain’ of the estimated 700,000 men who fled Russia at the beginning of the conflict.
- The reasons for changes to conscription law (rather than call another round of partial mobilisation to the scale seen in September 2022) is likely two-fold; conscription is already ingrained in the national psyche so it is likely that the majority of Russian men have mentally prepared for the reality, and information operations of an existential crisis to Russian culture will possibly make Russian men volunteer as an act of duty. Secondly, the age range and responsibility of all regions to contribute ensure the drafting of young and fit men from all over Russia, rather than drawing from an older reservist pool within targeted areas. Whilst it has been a widely seen RFAF tactic to use human wave attacks at scale on fronts such as Bakhmut and Vuhledar, it has not been successful and has drawn criticism from Russian mil-bloggers. It is possible that RFAF current fighting force numbers using stealth-mobilisation and those from September 2022 will sustain actions in the short term. However, President Putin’s and Shoigu’s intent to ‘professionalise’ the RFAF will likely start from conscription to ensure that future fighting forces are deployed with some concept of manoeuvre warfare. It is possible that training of conscripts will centre on new fighting doctrines (such as the previously reported ‘assault groupings’) that have been developed for Ukraine. It is also possible that this professionalisation is intended to suit future conflicts, regardless of the outcome in Ukraine.
- Regarding stealth-mobilisation efforts, forced mobilisation of convicts will highly likely continue, which had recently been taken over from Wagner by the Russian Ministry of Defence. According to the Ukrainian General Staff, a train of female convicts had been seen being transported to the Donetsk Oblast on 12 March, a likely indicator of Russian desperation to reconstitute its forces. Anecdotal reporting of forced mobilisation has steadily been increasing in the last 4 to 6 weeks and social media channels regularly post evidence of men being forced to volunteer. Men in Russian occupied areas of Ukraine are reportedly being mobilised and Russian universities are reportedly being prepared for use at short notice as mobilisation centres. The partial mobilisation order in September 2022 is still in legal effect, and therefore still allows for reservists to be called up. Social media channels regularly post paper draft orders, demonstrating its continuation. The largely paper-based system therefore has become a target of disruptive actions since the partial mobilisation, with ongoing criminal investigations into arson attacks on RFAF recruitment centres, which are largely paper-based; leading to an assumption by perpetrators that the destruction of paperwork will allow them to evade a draft. All these factors, and the deeply unpopular mobilisation of September 2022 (which led to the rare public acknowledgement of President Putin that there had been significant issues in its execution), have likely led to the deliberate change in conscription law.
Stories of forced mobilisation have continued long after the partial mobilisation of September 2022. Source: @ChrisO_wiki
- On 15 March a Russian Su-27 fighter jet collided with a United States (US) MQ-9 Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle (UAV) performing a routine flight. The US Airforce released footage of the incident which had been recorded via a live feed from the MQ-9. In the footage, a Russian Su-27 can be clearly seen dumping fuel on it before it clips the MQ-9s propeller, causing the Reaper to crash in the Black Sea.
- Polish President, Andrzej Duda, announced on 16 March that Poland will supply Ukraine with four MiG-29 fighter jets, and are reported to be delivered in the ‘next few days’, with more to follow after servicing.
Footage released by the United States Air Force of the Russian Su-27 colliding with a US MQ-9. Source: @Osinttechnical
- Although the MQ-9 was flying in international airspace above the Black Sea, it has been taken as a form of intrusion by Russia, who maintains it was in Russian airspace. Russia denied any involvement in striking the MQ-9, however, declassified footage released by the US Air Force, indicates otherwise. Whilst “buzzing”, the method of skirting international airspace borders or other military aircraft deliberately for provocation, is common, this is almost certainly an escalation on behalf of Russia. Based on previous examples of Russian escalation (such as the Kinzhal missiles used in the last reporting period) Russia is highly likely showing its growing frustration against Ukrainian NATO allies’ assets being used to assist in the defence. It is unlikely though that the same collision would have occurred had a manned US aircraft been present. For this reason, whilst there is angry hyperbole from both sides, this will highly unlikely result in further action outside of Diplomatic channels. Turkey is currently the only NATO ally that has Naval access in the Black Sea and is currently providing escort to the grain ships transiting as part of Turkish brokered negotiations. It is possible retrieval of the downed MQ-9 will be enabled by Turkish Naval assets. However, it is possible that Russia (knowing it can exploit its Naval access to the Black Sea through the Black Sea Fleet), will attempt to retrieve the MQ-9 in order to retrieve data or to reverse engineer it for its own manufacturing purposes, and was possibly the purpose of the collision. It is highly likely though, that the US has planned for such an eventuality and ensured that nothing of intelligence value will be available should Russia be successful in retrieving it. However, it is still possible that any self-denial system did not function as intended, if one had been installed, and therefore there still remains the risk of technical and intelligence compromise.
- President Zelensky has been requesting fighter jets since the beginning of the conflict, and his allies have been gradually increasing the pressure since. Although it has not been stated as yet exactly how many are being donated, Slovenia is reportedly going to contribute a portion of its MiG-29s too. It’s likely that the MiG-29s will arrive ahead of the anticipated spring counter-offensive – which will highly likely be used in airstrikes on high value targets in Russian occupied areas such as command and control locations and ammunition storage and logistic nodes. For the most part, UAF has used to great effect precision guided munitions contributing to the Russian difficulty in logistic supply to the front line. However, more fighter jets for Ukraine will highly likely further threaten Russian logistic nodes and ammunition depots further in-depth, likely pushing them back to within Russian borders, making resupply longer and less timely. Given the length of the Russian frontline, this will likely exacerbate the current difficulties in resupply. Soviet-era jets are most desirable for Ukraine, as their donations are easily utilised by UAF, having the same jet in current use, therefore not requiring further training, and having the logistic and servicing capability to manage them. The provision of these jets by Poland (and possibly soon, Slovenia) indicate that a deal has likely been made with the United Kingdom and/or the US to provide security assistance to counteract the reduction in available fighter jets. This will likely be seen by Russia as escalatory, to some extent beyond the provision of hardware. NATO allies are likely to be perceived by Russia as functioning on a war footing. It is almost certain though, that these are being provided under the agreement that they will not be used within the borders of the Russian Federation to avoid any Russian escalations with NATO allies.
The continuation of the conflict in Ukraine is highly likely to create pressure on President Putin to deliver tangible outcomes to present to the Russian population to ensure their support. The downing of the US MQ-9 is highly likely being portrayed in the Russian media as a successful example of protecting its borders, playing into Russian information operations. When coupled with the upcoming Spring draft for its conscripts there is highly likely a deliberate action to instil a sense of duty and nurture complicity amongst its forces. It is likely that Russian rhetoric regarding its borders, be they historical or physical will increase into the next reporting period, to the benefit of the Spring draft. The provision of fighter jets, and the close proximity of US prestige UAV assets supporting Ukraine in this reporting period alone, were highly likely not expected by President Putin, nor by the Russian population. As such, maintaining combat effectiveness in spite of increasing strategic isolation is likely creating a desperate situation, forcing an escalation of events and the widening of RFAF recruitment to counter Western relationships and interoperability. What Russia lacks in effective strategic partners and a well sustained Defence Industry, it likely makes up for in risk-taking, domestic information dominance and sheer population numbers.