Russia’s territorial defense battalions are finally here

Recently Russia’s MoD announced the formation of two territorial defense battalions as part of the series of exercises and readiness checks held August 25-31 across military districts.  As most know these checks are in preparation for the main show of this training year, Kavkaz-2016, and typically it is during the annual operational-strategic exercise when Russia’s military tries to muster the reserves.  The story of Russia’s reserve program, or lack thereof, is a rather interesting saga that I will discuss in this post.

This year, perhaps for the first time, the MoD announced that as part of the drills a territorial battalion of 500 reservists was formed as a naval infantry unit (likely with equipment from 810th naval infantry bde).  This battalion will practice basic elements of naval infantry and coastal defense, while in Novosibirsk the first motor rifle battalion of 400 reservists was assembled.  Both groups are civilians under contract as reservists. The first group was likely put together by the naval infantry brigade while the second group was organized by the Novosibirsk’s higher military command school.

August 29 TASS reported that a territorial defense regiment at full strength was formed in Stavropolskiy Kray.  This apparently is also a first alongside the battalions put together in Crimea and Novosibirsk.  The regiment’s equipment seems to have come from the 205th Separate Motorized Rifle Cossack Brigade in Budennovsk and it will participate in the annual exercise.  It’s unclear if this unit is part of the fledgling experimental reserve program (those who signed 3 year contracts) or from the general reserves mobilized regularly for operational-strategic exercises.

The Novosibirsk motor rifle unit (MoD website)

battalion 1

The appearance of these reservist based formations was announced as part of the ‘introduction’ of a new system to train and support reservists, or shall we say the system which has repeatedly been announced, and ordered multiple times, but refused to come into being.  Perhaps we are seeing the first inklings of Russia’s experimental reserve system coming alive?

The subject of reserves is more interesting than it may at first appear.  When Russia’s military underwent its tumultuous reform period from late 2008-2012 it setup a permanent standing army but without a reserve.  The reserve was a list of people on paper, but as I’ve commented from time to time: excel spreadsheets don’t fight.  You cannot summon civilians to a base full of equipment they’ve never seen, having not gone through basic training in years, and expect that mass to somehow become a fighting unit.  The mass mobilization army was slain, but the new standing army has been living without a functioning reserve.  The current reserve can work for basic territorial defense units, guarding a checkpoint, facility, but they cannot conduct combat operations.

This creates certain practical problems for our imagined high-end fights with NATO or any other conventional campaign requiring large numbers of troops.  How does Russia replace its losses in combat, and who defends Russia while its forces attack along a particular vector?  Territorial defense battalions are not intended to defend against a conventional force.  The Russian ground force is actually quite small if we consider the army, airborne VDV and naval infantry probably add up to north of ~300,000 troops for what is one eighth the world’s land mass.  That’s a lot of real estate to defend.

In order to supplement its maneuver units, Russia needs a reserve it can call up with some combat capability.  The self-evident manpower limitations offer practical explanations for why occupying large parts of Ukraine was never in the cards for the Russian military.  Taking over the Baltics, the contingency NATO officials have become fixated with of late, is also not as simple as it might seem in wargames.  Its not the invasion itself but the occupation part that always gets people – the U.S. has lots of experience in this department.

Why do I say Russia has no working reserve?  In his recent ruminations on the threat of hybrid warfare earlier this year, which for Russian leaders is shorthand for color revolutions and Western covert operations, Valery Gerasimov noted “The growth in hybrid threats dictates the urgency of increasing the effectiveness of territorial defense,” and “What is essential now is a scientific analysis of the forms and modes of employing multi-agency groupings, of the sequence of actions by the military and non-force constituent of territorial defense given the possible emergence of crisis situations in a matter of days and even hours.”  It seems the territorial defense concept is geared towards internal security, suppressing color revolutions and the like, rather than supporting the armed forces.  That’s great for managing domestic political stability etc, but it doesn’t quite solve the Army’s problem with respect to warfighting.

The naval infantry territorial defense battalion in Crimea (MoD website)

battalion 2.jpg

In the beginning…

Our story begins in May 7, 2012 when Vladimir Putin first ordered the creation of a national reserve for the armed forces, and the inauguration of a new system to train and mobilize reservists.  That order went into effect on January 1, 2013.  A subsequent order to sign up reservists and get this scheme going was signed on April 23, 2013.  According to the plan, prior to completing their military service soldiers would be offered a 3 year contract in the reserves, with a monthly payment ranging from 5,000-8,000 RUB per month.  The order stipulated that the pay should be attractive enough for soldiers to sign a reserve contract and the time of service could be renewed up to a certain age.

It is also worth noting also that in September 2011 the General Staff setup a department to lead the organization of territorial defense units across government agencies (its current head is Major-General Sergei Dudko), though its unclear if any territorial defense units were summoned between 2011-2016 so however was in charge of this section may have had an easy job.

Prior to this pilot program, in the early-mid 2000s, the practice of mustering reservists was a ‘check the box’ affair.  Perhaps the largest showing occurred during the Vostok-2010 exercise.  Those called up spent their time in camp without real refresh training or familiarization with new equipment.  One individual described it as an exercise that consisted largely of ten days attacking one’s own liver.  Back during the days of the the USSR reservists were looked down upon as lacking discipline or combat utility, referred to as ‘partisans’ by the officers who had to take them in during drilling cycles.

The Duma committee planned expenditures of 279.4 million in 2014, 288.3 mil in 2015 and 324.9 mil in 2016 for this initiative.  Let’s do the math on that: at the cheaper end in 2014 it would have bought you 4656 reservists, and at higher officer rates only 2910, so we can fix the range of reserves at somewhere safely below 4,500 i.e. less than two brigades worth. The new program’s budget came out of the MoD, which may have been its initial undoing.  However, Российская газета reported that even those paltry amounts were never allocated and the whole plan to muster reserves was shifted to 2016.  In short, nothing happened in 2013.

A great photo of one city’s government officials participating in reserve drills during the mid-2000s.  No doubt this is another aspect of the Russian military that has since changed.



We first see movement when Vladimir Putin signs an order on June 27, 2014 to implement the training and call-up plans for the reserve.  The crux of this order is essentially for the MoD to realize the previous orders.  According to this document, the reservists were to be assigned duties corresponding to their specialties, with readiness checks of the various command elements involved in the system – this means the officers that would form reserve units, the voenkomat that mobilizes them, and equipment storage bases to equip them.  In essence the order was for two types of checks, one for the system to call up reserves and one for the reservists themselves.  The idea was to energize the system ahead of the Vostok-2014 to be held that year.

In August 2014 Major-General Sergei Major-General Sergei Udin, head of mobilization command for the Western MD, explained that the number of reservists called up annually must increase due to the new equipment being fielded, which requires more training and certification.  For Vostok-2014 those called up were mostly lower ranking officers in the platoon/company commander range along with ensigns/sergeants.  According to him the selection of training sites was based on units that had entirely replaced or modernized their equipment.  The MoD approach was quite logical in terms of how they intended to carry out reserve drills.

The average time spent drilling was 15-25 days, and the pay ranged 450-600 RUB per day.  Various media reported the ages of those called up were 28-50, though the pay was listed differently as 8,000 for regulars and 20,000 for officers during their training.  The different types of checks to be conducted during this exercise were listed as: drills for the command staff in charge of the reserves, assembly for training as a readiness check or mustering to begin an actual exercise.  Given the reserve system was still largely nonexistent, 2014 probably saw mostly a check of the command staff assigned to taking in reservists along with some individuals called up to support various units.

Maybe in 2015?

Alexander Golts has followed this over the years and at the time he wrote that the military aspired to expand the 5,000 man program to 8,000 by 2015 if successful.  According to him, there was enough equipment in storage bases to arm perhaps 60 brigades (no doubt less now given how much equipment was given to DNR/LNR).  Lieutenant-General Vladimir Ostankov, suggested similar figures, but it seems the 5,000 strong reserve did not come to pass in 2014.

Based on the pay alone it was impossible to have that number of reservists with the funding allocated.  The deputy commander of the General Staff’s mobilization department, Yevgeni Burdinsky essentially said that the experiment to form 5,000 reservists would take place in 2015 and compared the concept to the system in Israel, albeit with a ‘different purpose.’  It’s unclear what that was supposed to mean, but its safe to say Russia does not have a reserve like Israel’s.

On February 5, 2015 Vladimir Putin signed another order stating that reservists would carry out drills not longer than two months, applicable to the MoD, MVD, various security structures and FSB.  Prior orders had yet to produce even an experimental reserve system.  Perhaps more interestingly, the FSB was listed alongside other government structures as though they have a reserve.  The timing itself was quite problematic.  Russian forces were headlong into a winter offensive in Ukraine engaged in what would become the battle of Debaltseve that month.  Unlike the obtuse political leadership, Russia’s MoD understood how the public might interpret a call up of reservists for drills given what was being shown on the news.  Hence the MoD supplemented the signed order with a statement emphasizing that this announcement had no connection to the ‘escalating situation in bordering regions of the Donbass.’

The official statement was a tacit acknowledgement of what most undoubtedly knew, Russian forces were fighting in Ukraine.  If the General Staff believed that the public was convinced otherwise, they would not feel the need to issue a clarification on why reservist drills were being ordered, explaining that it had nothing to do with the war Russia was not fighting.

By July 17, 2015 Vladimir Putin would sign yet another order, the purpose of which was to motivate the military to take his 2012 instructions seriously.  This document would once against tell the MoD to establish the reserve as part of the new/experimental system being introduced.  By implication, the Kremlin understood that the 5,000 pilot program never went anywhere and he was ordering the MoD to make it happen. The takeaway here is that Russia’s leader understands quite well when something has not materialized, but he cannot will it into being just by stamping documents with the presidential seal.  As anyone with defense experience knows, dealing with a military bureaucracy is sometimes like punching into a pillow.

Another photo of the Crimean territorial defense battalion (at least that is what TASS posted)

Crimean defense units.jpg

2016 – A great year to launch an experimental reserve program again

A snap exercise was called for June 14-22 in 2016 specifically to test the reserve system.  This event was organized for the command structures involved in calling up reservists, organizing them into units, and the various equipment storage bases designated to supply them.  This time Sergey Shoigu meant business when he ordered the exercise, looking to see whether the key components of the system (mobilization, command staff, equipment bases) could be readied to turn reservists into territorial defense battalions.  As in 2014, the intent was to prepare these elements for the main annual exercise.

It’s unclear what spurred the progress. The MoD either finally got the funding to realize these plans, or they got a talking to by Vladimir Putin about how 4 years in he expected to see a territorial battalion.  Aleksei Nikolski of Vedomosti did some good reporting on this call up, and Roger McDermott wrote a good summary of the snap exercise back in June for Jamestown.

Undoubtedly the idea is to show the senior leadership during Kavkaz-2016 that territorial defense battalions composed of reservists, which the Kremlin has ordered countless times now since 2012, have finally become a reality.  I have argued in several places that the absence of a reserve, an important bit of unfinished business from the military reforms, inherently limits Russia’s ability to sustain a large conventional conflict where it is on the offense.  After four years, the MoD seems to be getting after this problem.  Though the appearance of two battalions and a regiment is a watershed moment, its utility as a reserve for a force of over 300,000 is marginal.  Still we should note the increasing formation of territorial defense units as part of exercises as a growing trend.

Meanwhile the rest of the reserve is technically available for the basic tasks of being formed into territorial defense units.  They don’t need much and can fall in on older equipment.  However, Russia’s military has a long way to go in establishing the sort of manpower base for national defense that could free up the active duty force for large scale combat operations.  Having trained soldiers to replace combat losses in attrited brigades is another issue.  Without a capable reserve to backstop its armed forces, the Russian military will retain a degree of brittleness when it comes to large scale offensive operations.

As always comments or corrections are welcome. (don’t suffer in silence)