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As far as I can tell, Ukraine mobilized less than 500 thousand people for the war effort. But given that the war is an existential crisis for the nation, why didn’t they mobilize a few million men in an effort similar to World War 2?

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    aa.com.tr/ru/мир/… Zelensky has claimed to raise a one million men strong army. I wonder if that was an overstatement, or whether 500 thousands is an understatement (there are other ways to enlist people other than mobilization)
    – alamar
    Aug 22, 2023 at 14:55
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    Ukraine had enormous army, by some estimate 600-750k as of end of summer 2022. Arguably, they may have mobilized less than 500k draftees as you state, but on top of that they had free will fighters + foreign mercenaries + nationalist battalions, which could easily add up to the above stated figure of 600-750k. Many of those are not alive or seriously injured. The flow of draftees, turning up at free will, come to a trickle now and mobilizers resorted to snatching people from the streets tactic. Increasing this practice in scale will most likely turn against them.
    – zmechanic
    Aug 23, 2023 at 10:00
  • Most of the people who are recruited are probably specialists. For this reason, a friend of mine cannot return to Russia as he knows how to drive a tank, so he believes if he is back in Russia there is a good chance that he would be recruited and used in actual fighting on the front.
    – Tom
    Aug 23, 2023 at 11:27

4 Answers 4

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Unless they tell us...

But at a guess there are a number of reasons.

(debunking) if they'd sacrificed 2-3 million people...

Well, yes, but maybe if they took that kind of approach, to their own people, support for the war would collapse?

Wagner's Bakhmut's convicts did not have a choice and they were convicts, serving long terms for violent crimes. Not going to be winning the sympathy votes, are they?

Wars need sacrifice to win, but throwing away lives risks collapsing the will of the soldiers and the larger population. This is what nearly happened to the French (in 1917) and did happen to the Germans (in 1918).

(debunking) But Russia mobilized 20+% of men in WW2...

From Hitler's announcements in Mein Kampf about lebensraum and race it is clear that the Nazis consider the Slavs untermenschen, good to be killed at will for the good of the master race. For Russia, and Ukraine, in WW2 surrender, to the Nazis, is not an option, as the Nazis will at best starve you once you do. There is a whole plan of colonizing Ukraine's rich farming land - Germany is land-poor - by starving the locals out of existence. So extreme mobilization can be sustained: they don't have a choice.

Not to mention those happy little NKVDs and Gulags, for those who failed to see the light.

And... would the West continue supporting Ukraine if its government publicly put it in place things like summary executions for deserters and draft-dodgers, to achieve Russia's WW2 degree of coercion? My thinking is no: sympathy for the country would dwindle very quickly. So there is also a very real risk there too.

500k is quite a lot out of 40M

Especially with different age demographics than in WW2.

This war may also last years. If you mobilize everyone at the same time, it might be very difficult to sustain that, economically, for that duration.

Ukraine's recruitment process says 2 things:

  1. you have to report for assessment

The subpoena does not guarantee that men will be sent to the army...According to him (Roman Horbach, head of the personnel department of the command headquarters of the Ground Forces), in most cases today, citizens are called to the territorial recruitment centers in order to clarify their military registration data.

  1. you may very well not be sent to the front, as they need specialists, not just warm bodies.

Horbach noted that they are currently mobilizing those who can work with new types of weapons that are being transferred to Ukraine by Western partners.

"Today we need specialists both for new types of weapons provided by partners and to replenish losses. First of all, we are mobilizing personnel in certain accounting and military specialties", - Gorbach insists.

From 1. you see that they are not closing the door on upping the numbers, later. And 2. gives you an idea why they are prioritizing.

They also have issues with training bottlenecks and equipment, arguing for a longer, less concentrated-in-time effort:

In December Ukraine’s top soldier, Valery Zaluzhny, told The Economist there was no immediate need for massive mobilisation; his main problems were armour and munitions. Sources within the general staff insist that is still the case. Moreover, there are natural limits to the numbers of soldiers Ukraine can absorb, says Viktor Kevlyuk, a reserve colonel. “You can’t mobilise 6,000 if your training ranges can hold only 3,000,” he says.

We'll see the numbers once this mess is over. Sadly, looks like both will be at it for a while. WW1 UK enlistment (never draft, though it was very coercive as time went on), gradually took down all sorts of limits on who could serve: minimum height requirements went down year by year. This, Ukraine, is only 18months in.

Modern equipment is just mostly harder to use effectively than WW2, let alone WW1, gear so throwing bodies at the problem just doesn't work as well as before.

Last, warfare is changing in nature

The Economist reports that the front line is just very much more sparsely manned than it was during WW2. Packing anymore men together in an age of drones, satellites and precision long range ammo just gets more of them killed, without significant military advantage.

This jeopardy is reflected in a curiously sparse battlefield. In Ukraine some 350,000 Russian troops are arrayed on a front line stretching 1,200km (750 miles)—around 300 men per km and, at times last year, less than half that. That is around a tenth of the average for the same area in the second world war, notes Christopher Lawrence, head of the Dupuy Institute, which collects such data. Battalions of several hundred men fill areas that would once have been covered by brigades of a few thousand.

(incidentally, though that is not relevant to the question here, that article posits that this incapacity to mass troops may be one factor in limiting offensive action: the by-the-book 3x local numerical advantages needed by attacking forces remains out of reach)

They may also be hitting the limits, short term at least, of what their population is willing to do.

Another difference is over who is being called up. In the first wave most of the recruits were voluntary; queues outside draft offices were a frequent sight. Now officials are recruiting from a much less enthusiastic crowd.

Which dovetails with my first point: if the Ukrainian government gains a reputation for being willfully wasteful with their soldiers' lives, as this question seems to suggest ought to win the war, then support will be at risk. By the soldiers, by the draftees, by the larger population. Giving into Russia will seem a better choice.

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  • With regards to the support by the draftees - I'm reminded of Canada having (Multiple - there is another that happened in 1944) Conscription Crisis moments when trying to conscript for WW1 and WW2. If you're drafting 404,385 people to be liable for military service, but which 385,510 sought exemption, you've got a problem...that trying to solve by having soldiers enforce the conscription making your mobilization hampered even more. Aug 23, 2023 at 1:53
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    Ability to train and equip is likely to be key. Russia has employed almost human wave tactics with untrained ex-convicts (and had a lot of trouble with equipment shortages and poor training), but Ukraine has tried to better train and protect its soldiers (sensible if you want to maintain patriotic enthusiasm rather than rule by fear). However, some statistical analysis would be nice to provide a factual answer (although maybe that's asking too much till after the war.)
    – Stuart F
    Aug 23, 2023 at 8:08
  • This is an unexpected revelation on the third way of Ukrainian offense which at this point mostly consisted not just of human but of manned Bradley and MRAP wave tactics.
    – alamar
    Aug 23, 2023 at 13:47
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    I'm hinting at the fact we are seeing an unhealthy amount of psy ops claims seeping into the discussion today. Such as killing the enemy's fighters 5 to 1 or them conveniently attacking you in human waves.
    – alamar
    Aug 23, 2023 at 15:24
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    @Grault NKVD was not Nazi. It was communist, or Soviet, if you prefer. Aug 29, 2023 at 6:54
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To fight a war, you also need money and equipment, not just soldiers. The Ukrainian GDP is the worst in Europe; the country is by all means in bankruptcy. That it had not collapsed is only because the west (US, UK and the EU) is financing it. Most likely they would go immediately bankrupt if they were mobilising significantly more people, not to mention that they would not be able to equip them. If it goes bankrupt, e.g. if it cannot pay pensions or health care any more, the population would quickly turn against the leaders.

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    The Soviet Union was very efficient in suppressing any alternative views other than those of Stalin: NKVD, Gulag camps, exterminations, ethnic cleansing, etc. There was no possibility to turn massively against the central decisions in the 1940's. It also did not have that extensive social system as Ukraine today. Aug 22, 2023 at 14:47
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    Soviet Union in early 40s was a country of young men. Ukraine is a country with aged population (Russia also, but Ukraine moreso).
    – alamar
    Aug 22, 2023 at 14:57
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    @AdamGyenge And it was communist. For all the economic inefficiencies that communist economies have, maintaining a large wellfare state with a tenth of the money you'd need in a capitalist country is definitely feasible.
    – Rekesoft
    Aug 23, 2023 at 9:39
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    @Rekesoft Communist in USSR style or welfare state. You need to pick one. Aug 23, 2023 at 11:18
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    @Rekesoft And of course, let's not forget that even with all that, USSR would have crashed without support from the West; they were burning through material at a rapid pace and couldn't possibly sustain the war effort. The weird thing is, both WW1 and WW2 have shown pretty decisively that totalitarian regimes suck at resource allocation and wartime supply and production - but people still took the opposite lesson, because everyone still keeps replaying and internalizing Nazi and Fascist propaganda. In reality, even in the UK, more direct control of the economy meant much lower efficiency.
    – Luaan
    Aug 25, 2023 at 7:22
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Modern warfare isn't quite like WW1/WW2 warfare. We have better weapons and better techniques.

The elite troops of WW1/WW2 that tore apart the war-long defensive lines use simplified "primitive" versions of modern standard infantry tactics, things like covering fire and leap frogging and combined arms being bread-and-butter today.

In comparison, most WW1/WW2 armies where thrown en-mass into meat grinders in basically frontal assaults. It was amazingly inefficient in terms of human lives.

A smaller, better trained force can both have fewer casualties and be more effective at claiming territory. And that is what Ukraine is doing.

Moscow has 3-4x the number of people reaching age 18 that Ukraine has per year. If Ukraine attempts to win this war via mass attrition, losing 1 soldier for every soldier Moscow throws into the blender, they will bleed out rapidly and collapse.

Ukraine has to maintain a large kill ratio to stay in the war (let alone win), or win the war rapidly before Moscow can match their conscription rate.

And, as best we can tell, Ukraine has been doing this. Since the start of open hostilities in the Moscow-Ukraine war in 2013, Ukraine has transformed their army using western/NATO style training and tactics, together with some amazing home-grown "regional defence" systems.

They spent nearly a decade producing veterans trained in modern infantry warfare and defence, and provided local autonomy to defend each region if it was attacked. And it worked in the initial invasion -- Moscow took insanely lopsided casualties as its ability to project force very far from a railhead caused their supply lines to collapse under relatively light pressure.

Ukraine is attempting to maintain the same high level of professionalism and training in its military while bulking its army up. This means maintaining a 5:1 kill ratio in battles against Moscow's invasion forces, plus training up large numbers of specialists (drones, tanks, APCs, artillery, mechanics, technicians) for the flood of Moscow and NATO-provided weaponry.

Mass conscription -- another million poorly trained cannon fodder -- would be marginally useful, but mostly result in a million dead Ukrainians for a few km of territory, and it would deplete the pool of people that can be trained to be modern professional troops, and would cause a massive dent in the Ukrainian economy.

At this point, Ukraine appears to be successfully bleeding Moscow out. It is better armed than it was at the start of the war, Moscow is worse armed, and its people are more motivated to fight than prior to the war. Its supply of weaponry continues to improve in quantity and quality, its troop numbers are staying steady or increasing, and it is pushing Moscows lines back at multiple locations simultaneously while holding onto a large mobile reserve to drop like a hammer if any of the invaders lines crack.

Currently there are roughly 1 million people under arms in the Ukraine, but that includes regional defence forces and civil police not on the front lines. Full mobilization would bring this up to about 7 million. Maintaining the current forces requires 20% of Ukraine's GDP, which doesn't include external supplies of arms. If you wanted to expand the 500,000-odd primary force to 5 million at current quality rates, you'd need to spend more than 100% of Ukraine's GDP on it and increase external supplies 10 fold.

Ukraine appears to be training and supplying high-quality troops at the highest rate it can sustain. An attempt to increase numbers beyond what it has would require that it cut corners and send troops with significantly worse training into the bloodbath.

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    This answers seems to be a bit outdated as by now it’s clear that the counter offensive has failed. Ukraine will likely never gain back Mariupol (let alone Crimea) at the current pace of counter attacks. Aug 23, 2023 at 14:23
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    Never say never, but it is highly unlikely that Ukraine has any eyebrow-raising "kill ratio". It would require extreme evidence to assume it's anything better than 1:1.
    – alamar
    Aug 23, 2023 at 14:57
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    Things like primitive tactics do not gel all that well: US ground doctrine is based on Wehrmacht tank tactics. Do you think leap frogging is new? Really? It was part of basic German tank manuals. 5-1 ratio? I doubt that is the case here, on offense. Esp. not against anti-personnel mines. Another thing missing is that Ukraine's army, in Aug 23, is not the army in Feb 22: many more soldiers, but many of the veterans of 2014-2021 are probably casualties by now (even more true of Russia). There are certainly some nuggets of insight here, but smothered in all sorts of dubious claims. Aug 23, 2023 at 15:24
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    @JonathanReez It's clear the offensive has not gone to plan. Too early to tell if it has failed: ISW (which oftens seems to talk up Ukraine, true), says that they are observing very little presence of Russian reserves when countering Ukrainian pressure points. It may be that every able RU is already at the front, making countering a hypothetical future breakthrough problematic. Remember how Wagner drove around unchallenged? It's not looking good, no, but really too early to call and expectations in May were very overblown (like this answer). Let's see when it stops. Aug 23, 2023 at 15:30
  • Just a reminder that Russian army is in so bad shape now, that Kremlin puts a lot of resources into hidden propaganda that "Ukrainian counter offensive has failed"
    – Sergey
    Aug 24, 2023 at 9:39
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Because they couldn't properly arm any more.

Arguably, if Ukraine got a better support in terms of military equipment and ammo, it would have a chance to mobilize more soldiers, train and arm them properly, and then regain their land back in a quick offensive. This wouldn't necessary mean more total losses, as the war would be over sooner.

Especially getting large quantities of fighter jets (to achieve air dominance) and long-range artillery/missile systems early on in the conflict would have turned the situation to Ukraine's favour, most probably without additional causalities. It would saved enough civilian lives to compensate for lives lost in combat, even if that would mean to mobilize significantly more soldiers.

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    1. How would they use the jets early on in the conflict if training for F-16 takes 6-12 months? 2. How would they feed them, and what would have happened with the few remaining enterprises where those people work? The economy would be even shittier than now, and I think Ukraine cannot allow a total economic collapse for itself. Aug 23, 2023 at 8:22
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    @AdamGyenge 12 months from the start of the war is February 2023. They could have been using jets for 6 months now. And for sure being able to protect grain silos of Odessa would improve the economy. Let's be honest: nobody wanted to arm Ukrainians until they proved that they were ready to stand up to the aggression with whatever little gear they had, paying with their lives for having gear inferior to Russia. Aug 24, 2023 at 9:56
  • Jets are a waste of metal in a heavy air defenses environment. The West isn't keen to see their aircraft shot down and plundered for possible tech extraction. Russia's air force is basically sitting idle because of Ukraine's air defenses, which are their own technology from before the split.
    – Therac
    Aug 24, 2023 at 15:34
  • @Therac Russia's air force is sitting idle because they are defending against the Ukrainian counteroffensive, and you don't really need jets to defend against an army which doesn't have a significant air force. Aug 25, 2023 at 8:24

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