‘Full-scale war on the horizon’: new laws could add up to 5 million soldiers to Russia’s army

A breakdown of Russia’s new mobilisation and conscription laws

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‘Full-scale war on the horizon’: new laws could add up to 5 million soldiers to Russia’s army

Illustration: Novaya Gazeta Europe

During the last parliamentary session before the summer break, the Russian State Duma (lower house) adopted a package of bills that makes more ordinary Russians eligible for conscription. Andrey Kartapolov, co-author of the bills and chair of the Duma Defence Committee, said that the changes were being brought in to allow for general mobilisation and that the new law had been “written for the full-scale war already on the horizon”.

However, other deputies were eager to downplay the changes, with Senate speaker Valentina Matvienko insisting that “in essence, nothing has changed” and that the new law was simply giving citizens “more opportunities” to give back to their country.

Novaya Gazeta Europe considers what the new laws will change, investigates how the authorities are trying to fill the Russian military’s “demographic gap” and calculates how many Russians now find themselves at risk of receiving call up papers.

What’s сhanged

  • The upper age limit for regular conscription. The most significant change brought about by the new law is the raising of the age limit for mandatory military service. Whereas previously men had to serve between the age of 18 and 28, they can now be forced to serve until they are 31.
  • The upper age limit for mobilisation from the reserves. Until now, any Russian man under the age of 50 who had served in the military could be mobilised. That age has now been raised to 55, though the change will be implemented gradually, with the age limit increasing by one year annually, and could ultimately bring several million more people into the army.
  • The penalty for evading mandatory conscription. Under the new law, the fine for conscripted citizens who ignore summons to conscription offices is 30,000 rubles (€300) — 10 times higher than it was previously.
  • Tightened border control. Under the new law, anyone called up is forbidden from leaving the country from the moment their digital summons is issued. Previously, conscripts had to receive their summons in person from a draft officer before a travel ban would take effect.

What hasn’t changed

  • The lower age limit. The initial draft of the law proposed raising not only the upper age limit but also the lower age limit for conscription from 18 to 21 so that more would-be conscripts “could receive higher education” before serving. However, Duma deputies scrapped this part of the bill “given the current military-political situation”.
  • The protocol for current 27- to 30-year-olds. The new laws will not affect Russians currently in their late twenties; these men will be enrolled in the reserves according to the old rules, according to Kartapolov. The new rules will apply only to the younger generation and will come into effect on January 1, 2024.

Why the new legislation?

The bill’s authors claim that around 80,000 Russians age out of the mandatory conscription window without having actually done any military service, and that of these, “around 30,000” have no legal exemption.

The number of draft dodgers has increased since the invasion of Ukraine. As Novaya Gazeta Europe reported in October, the number of lawsuits challenging conscription also rose sharply last year. Enlistment offices fell far short of their quotas in 2022: of the 134,500 men who were called up, a third ultimately evaded the draft.

Human rights activists believe that the raising of the age limit is an attempt to “re-conscript” those who avoided mobilisation. The Russian army is in dire need of more personnel, military researcher Kirill Mikhailov told Novaya Gazeta Europe. It needs many more men even just to “adequately defend [the] areas [it already holds],” he said, recalling what happened in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine in 2022, when the Russian army was defeated “because it simply did not have enough troops”.

Meanwhile, raising the age limit for the reserves means that 4.8 million additional Russians will be eligible for mobilisation, returning the country’s reserve — in theory — to numbers it hasn’t seen in 17 years. This figure does not include men who have legitimate exemptions from mobilisation.

The country’s reserve has been shrinking since 1985, data from the Russian Monitor of Economics and Health of the Population show. The recruitment problems stem in large part from the demographic dip of the 1990s, when Russia’s birth rate plummeted, but this doesn’t explain the trend entirely. In 1989, when Soviet troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan, more than 80% of Russian 18-year-olds had already served in the army. By 1998, that percentage had fallen to 50% — and then to 40% in 2007 and 20% in 2012, when data was last collected.

For the last 30 years, contract soldiers have gradually been replacing conscripts in the Russian army. As early as 1996, then president of Russia Boris Yeltsin signed a decree promising that the complete transition from a conscription to a contract system would be complete by 2000. The 1998 economic crisis thwarted this plan, but the intention remained. As recently as 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that conscription was “gradually becoming a thing of the past.”

In 2014, professional soldiers in the Russian army outnumbered conscripts for the first time, the Defence Ministry reported.

But these days, plans to abolish conscription seem to have lost their appeal. Russian line formations — mostly infantry — must be staffed with professional soldiers and conscripts at a ratio of two to one, Mikhailov explained, so any increase in the number of professional soldiers requires an uptick in conscripts too. Last year, the number of professional soldiers in the army grew by 137,000.

Most likely, Mikhailov said, the Russian army is planning to grow in several ways: by expanding conscription, doubling down on recruitment efforts, compelling paramilitary formations to sign contracts with the Defence Ministry, and implementing further waves of mobilisation.

Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu regularly makes announcements about the military’s growing number of personnel and has estimated the army signs 1,336 new recruits each day. But the relatively small number of professional soldiers in the Russian army remains a problem. “There’s been progress”, Mikhailov said, “just not enough to win the war in Ukraine. Now officials are resorting to desperate measures”.

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