Russian State Mobilization: Moving the Country on to a War Footing

Western leaders are unable to interpret Russian signals correctly, hence the constant sense of surprise. A more sophisticated understanding of mobilization would help shape more effective policies for dealing with Russia.

Research paper Published 20 May 2016 Updated 18 May 2023
Russia's top military officials hold a press conference on Syria at the National Defence Control Centre of the Russian Federation in Moscow on 2 December 2015. Photo: Getty Images.

Russia’s top military officials hold a press conference on Syria at the National Defence Control Centre of the Russian Federation in Moscow on 2 December 2015. Photo: Getty Images.

  • The term mobilizatsiya – ‘mobilization’ – features increasingly prominently in the Russian policy discussion. It describes a coordinated attempt on the part of the state to address an array of evolving security threats – in both narrow and broad senses – to Russia. In part, this reflects a widespread debate about the looming possibility, perhaps even inevitability, of war.
  • In the view of many Russian officials, politicians and experts, the international system is becoming increasingly unstable, with ‘hotspots’ emerging in many regions – including in Russia’s immediate neighbourhood. There is thus concern at the prospect of a 21st century of wider international instability and an ‘arc of crisis’ around Russia. Specific perceived threats include emergent international competition for resources, an international arms race that is well under way, and the possibility of a US-led attempt at regime change in Russia.
  • Russian state mobilization prioritizes security concerns in strategic thinking, with economic and other issues subsumed into them. It entails the implementation of emergency measures designed to test the Russian system of power and prepare it to meet the threats identified by the leadership. Mobilization is thus primarily about readiness.
  • Mobilization measures include substantial investments in arms procurement, in improved conditions of service in the armed forces and defence industry, and in command-and-control systems and enhanced coordination between ministries. They also entail an intense programme of exercises involving the domestic security services and the armed forces.
  • The mobilization programme faces ongoing problems – due both to the scale of measures required and to the challenges of balancing priorities at a time of economic stagnation, even recession. In particular, there appears to be an unresolved internal debate over force structure, with some voices in government and the military advocating the maintenance of a large cadre of reservists (i.e. a variant on the old-style mass-mobilization approach) and others emphasizing the development of a smaller professional force at constant combat-readiness.
  • The presence of competing visions of mobilization is an inefficient use of resources. It impedes the development of coherent policies, as plans and reforms often meet resistance from vested interests. In effect, the current reality of Russian mobilization is more like ‘mobilization, with difficulty’. None the less, for all the challenges involved, mobilization represents a significant longer-term trend in Russian strategic power creation.
  • The West can do little to prevent Russian mobilization per se, but a more sophisticated assessment of the process and its implications would aid the development of more effective policies of deterrence and dialogue. Understanding the nature of this mobilization should help to inform planning at NATO’s Warsaw summit in July 2016, an event that will play a key role in shaping the Alliance’s ongoing strategy for dealing with a more muscular Russia. In particular, NATO needs to recognize that Russia’s current mobilization efforts are not yet complete and will likely continue to affect Russia’s military effectiveness, posture and strategy through 2017–20.