Streetwise Professor

May 19, 2014

If Russian Troops Do Withdraw, It Will Be a Concession to Military & Demographic Reality, Not A Change in Putin’s Black Heart

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 6:04 pm

Before heading off to China, Putin announced that Russian troops currently deployed at the Ukraine border would return to their bases after spring training exercises.

Funny that, given that a couple of weeks ago he said that they had already withdrawn.

But never mind that little detail. Even after suppressing guffaws at the “training exercises” crock, you must recognize that Putin is not making any concession to the international community, or responding to international pressure, or having some deep change of heart over the prudence and justice of invading Ukraine. He is just bowing to a reality that readers of SWP should know well: the Russian military’s software/meatware problem.

The Russian military is still highly dependent on conscripts, despite efforts to increase the percentage of professional kontraktniki in the ranks. Due to demographic problems, and the scourge of dedovshchina, a few years back the Russians cut the term of conscript service from two years to one. These terms ended on 31 March, and new conscripts began to enter service on 1 April.

The terms of conscripts can be extended, but doing so for more than a couple of months is impractical. Draftees already pissed off at having to serve a one year sentence (and it is effectively a sentence to hard labor and corporal punishment, on the best of days) would likely become downright mutinous at the prospect of an extended term. (Inquiring minds want to know: has any genius journalist thought to try to determine if many of the 2013 class has indeed been held over?) Thus, it has been known for some time that after mid-May virtually all Russian units (with a few limited exceptions) would be unavailable for operations, let alone for offensive operations that might last some time. The deployed units would have to be pulled back, ┬áthe old conscripts mustered out, and the new conscripts mustered in and integrated with their units, a process that would take several months. (And it’s not like the newbies would be more of a danger to the Ukrainians than themselves after even a few months.)

And lo and behold. It’s mid-May, and Putin announces that the units will return to their bases.

This is not a coincidence, comrades. This is a military necessity. Therefore, read nothing into this about Putin’s intentions. Nothing. He is bowing to the fundamental fact that despite all the rubles he’s blown on hardware, the Russian military is severely hobbled by its archaic conscription-dependent mobilization model, the lack of warm bodies to fill the ranks, and the consequences of dysfunction in the barracks.

He has no ┬áchoice in this matter whatsoever. He is making lemonade out of lemons. Don’t be fooled. (But alas, many-including many in the markets, apparently-are being fooled. And badly.)

Some units, notably the VDV (airborne units), GRU spetznas, and air force units are less dependent on the conscription cycle. So watch to see whether these units also withdraw. I note that the Russians have deployed additional air force units to Belarus, and have announced a major air force exercise that just so happens to be scheduled for the date of the Ukrainian elections next Sunday. If airborne, GRU, and air force units remain deployed near the border, you can be doubly sure that Vlad is just biding his time while rotation process proceeds. I predict he will use the air force to maintain the pressure on Ukraine. The big exercise next week is part of that.

One moral of this story. Most commentary on Putin’s withdrawal order is tripe because it betrays not the slightest understanding of the realities of the Russian military. Anyone who does understand the constraints under which Putin is operating discounts the possibility that the withdrawal signals anything about Putin’s intentions or his assessment of the situation on the ground in Ukraine.

To be sure, that situation is not great, from the Russian perspective. There has been no great upswell of popular sentiment for secession or annexation even in the Donbas. (Who could have expected such from typically apathetic Sovoks?) Even the “commander” of the forces in the “People’s Republic of Donetsk”, the simultaneously sinister and comical Strelkov, was reduced to ranting about the failure of the locals to rally to the cause, and to call for women to take up arms. A motley collection of Sovok psychopaths, stiffened by some GRU cadres, is holding onto limited gains in places like Slovyansk. But although Donbas is not under Ukrainian control, it is not under Russian control either.

But if anything, that would provide an impetus for Putin to substitute Russian military intervention for a failed insurrection. I always discounted the possibility of an invasion, because even if the invasion succeeded the occupation would soon turn into a nightmarish quagmire. But Putin has used the threat of invasion (which can’t be discounted entirely despite its military insanity because one can’t discount that Putin is insane) to keep the pressure on Ukraine. If he is easing off on that pressure, it is not because he wants to. It’s because he has to.

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1 Comment »

  1. Those GRU cadres are like WMDs.

    Comment by So? — May 19, 2014 @ 7:55 pm

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