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Mass Matters: Understanding Russia’s Military Conduct and the Threat it Poses

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On February 17, 2024, Avdiivka, a key Ukrainian stronghold situated on the Eastern frontline in the Donetsk region, fell under the control of Russian armed forces.


Mass Matters: Understanding Russia’s Military Conduct and the Threat it Poses

On February 17, 2024, Avdiivka, a key Ukrainian stronghold situated on the Eastern frontline in the Donetsk region, fell under the control of Russian armed forces. After a decade-long defense of the city and facing intensified attacks since October 2023, the newly appointed Ukrainian army chief, Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky, ordered the withdrawal to prevent encirclement and minimize further casualties. What remains is yet another Ukrainian city reduced to ruins, reminiscent of the devastation of the two world wars. This military conquest has been hailed in Russian media as a significant triumph, drawing parallels with the success achieved at Bakhmut in May 2023. The strategic and psychological ramifications of the fall of these two cities are now open for debate: do they signify a notable breakthrough and a major setback for Ukraine, or are they merely Pyrrhic victories lacking substantial strategic importance, yet crucial for sustaining Russian support for the ongoing war effort?

However, this commentary serves another purpose. We will delve into the concept of ‘mass’ in Russia’s military practice. Russian forces attacking Avdiivka enjoyed a manpower advantage of 7:1. Recent estimates by RUSI experts Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds suggest an overwhelming manpower potential of Russia’s Operational Group of Forces, totaling approximately 470,000 Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil, accompanied by a formidable array of artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, and helicopters. We view this numerical advantage not only as a critical aspect of Russia’s military strategy but also as a broader concept characterizing Russia’s military mentality. Furthermore, as we consider the Russian military as a reflection of Russian society, we regard “mass” as characteristic of the Russian state, shaping its organization and behavior. For instance, Maja Wolny, a Polish writer, characterized Russia in her magnificent book “The train towards the Imperium, traveling through contemporary Russia”: “Size always matters in this country; everything must be correspondingly large, expansive, and majestic. This reflects the perspective of the Empire, which always strives for growth, expansion, annexation.” Therefore, it is imperative to assess the true significance of ‘mass’. We will do this by examining the concept combining both military and sociological perspectives.


1. Mass as an Organizing Principle in East and West

In military history, the concept of mass, or numerical superiority, has long been regarded as one of the most crucial factors determining victory. With the advent of the French Revolution, the introduction of the levée en masse, a policy of mass conscription, ushered in a new era characterized by the mobilization of vast reserve forces and the accumulation of a formidable arsenal of stocked material and weaponry. This marked a significant shift in military strategy and state policy, necessitating the active participation of entire societies in the war effort. The age of total war, if not absolute war, was born.

It is important to note that the organization and management of armies co-evolve with the societies in which they exist. Throughout the 19th century, the rise of the mass army coincided with the emergence of forces such as nationalism and mass ideologies, alongside the growing influence of industrialization and capitalism, the democratization of societies, and the impact of innovation and scientific discoveries. Ultimately, these factors contributed to the catastrophic events of the First and Second World Wars, leaving Europe devastated, impoverished, and morally depleted,.

During the latter half of the 20th century, however, Western Europe underwent a process of demobilization, which stood in stark contrast to the trajectory of the Soviet Union, symbolizing the end of the era dominated by mass armies. Western armed forces transitioned towards civilianization, mirroring civilian organizational structures, while societies in the West pursued demilitarization. Consequently, small, highly technological, all-volunteer forces, initially modeled after the Anglo-Saxon format, emerged. Despite facing the formidable conventional forces of the Soviet Union, Western strategists believed that a more streamlined and efficient approach focusing on superior command and control, lethality, and information technology, emphasizing technology and maneuverability over sheer numerical strength, could potentially outmaneuver the Soviet forces in the event of a conflict. Whether this assumption would have held true remains uncertain. Fortunately, due to the diplomatic efforts of figures like Gorbachev and Reagan, this potential confrontation was averted, sparing the need for a battlefield test.

With the conclusion of the Cold War and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, Western trends that had been underway since the 1970s gained momentum. The processes of demilitarization and professionalization culminated in the downsizing of Western armed forces, a concept vividly captured by Jean-Dominique Merchet in his book “Sommes-nous prêts pour la guerre?” [Are we ready to wage war?] as “Bonsai Armies”. These Bonsai Armies are professional forces highly skilled at executing various tasks required in modern warfare with precision and excellence. However, their compact size leaves them ill-equipped to effectively counter potential geopolitical adversaries in high-intensity conflicts that traditionally relied on the mass army concept. Concurrently, amidst the trajectory of modernization, progress, and prosperity, Western societies struggle to comprehend the wars of the past, let alone conflicts on the doorstep of Europe.

Russia has followed a distinct trajectory since the end of the Cold War. While there were attempts to transition to a professional army, conservative forces within the country together with the dysfunctions of the state, including the ubiquitous corruption, ultimately hindered the reform and modernization process. This phenomenon was extensively studied in our 2004 doctoral dissertation :“The All-Volunteer Force in the Russian Mirror: Transformation without Change.” Despite the reform efforts and reorganizations announced loudly since 2008, particularly under the leadership of Defense Ministers Anatoly Serdyukov (2007-2012) and Sergei Shoigu (2012- ), it appears that the fundamental nature of the Russian armed forces remains unchanged. In essence, Russia’s military structure still mirrors that of a mass army, increasingly leaning on Soviet traditions. This sobering reality is underscored by the tragic lessons learned from the battles of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, emblematic of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.


2. The Russian Mass Army under examination

It would be an exaggeration and, in fact, a dangerous oversimplification to characterize the Russian armed forces as merely a traditional 19th-century mass army. Russia’s adept use of information warfare, electronic warfare, drones, and its formidable nuclear arsenal elevate it to the status of a significant military power. However, despite these advancements, we still recognize mass as a fundamental organizing principle of Russian military strategy. With that in mind, it might be instructive to examine the mass army in its ideal form by outlining the following features:

  •  Size: It is a vast army, with quantity and extensive growth being fundamental attributes.
  • Societal Participation: There is significant societal involvement in the army through conscription during peacetime and mobilization of reserves during wartime.
  • Homogeneity: There is a high degree of uniformity among soldiers, with minimal social differentiation. Nearly all soldiers have combat roles, with the infantry soldier serving as the archetypal military figure.
  • Professional Nucleus: A small core of professional soldiers is surrounded by a mass of mobilized civilians.
  • Undifferentiated Functions: Military functions are less specialized and primarily combat-oriented, setting the military apart from civilian society.
  • Authoritarianism: Authority is based on dominance, with subordinates expected to follow explicit orders without explanation. Threats and negative sanctions are commonly employed.
  • Institutionalized Profession: The military profession is viewed traditionally, emphasizing vocation, patriotism, dedication, and sacrifice. Military personnel perceive themselves as distinct from civilians, often considering themselves superior. General interests take precedence over individual concerns, and military life becomes a pervasive aspect of identity.
  • Internal Autonomy: The army enjoys significant internal autonomy, with minimal external oversight or control.

It is important to note that size is only a partial representation of the essence of the mass army. Its true essence lies in its ability to maintain its size despite the challenges of warfare: the attrition caused by harsh campaign conditions, the temptation for individuals to desert, and the firepower of the enemy. This underscores the significance of political motivation and the impact of the state on its citizens as a crucial component of the mass army.

Clearly, Putin’s autocratic state, especially when it monopolizes the dissemination of information and controls institutions of state repression, may be more adept at managing a mass army than a democratic state that, in principle, prioritizes the rights of its citizens over those of the state.

Furthermore, Russia’s mass army is accompanied by a specific mentality and organizational culture defined by four basic characteristics or stances: pain, patriarchy, patrimonialism, and patriotism. These stances, observed individually, relate respectively to the individual’s stoic acceptance of suffering, the machismo-like bravado within peer groups, the traditional legitimization of authority within the institution, and the demand for national loyalty and love for the country by the state. Each characteristic contributes to the multi-layered formal military culture of Russia.

While elaborating on each cultural stance is beyond the scope of this discussion, it is noteworthy that within Russia’s military culture, loss, sacrifice, and suffering are highly rewarded. This fosters a ‘cult of the soldier-hero,’ where scarcity and desolation are integral to the soldier’s life, and high levels of mortality and violence are accepted as natural consequences.


3. The Russian mass army and the threat it poses

I recall my research on Russian military reform and organizational culture during the 1990s and early 2000s, during which I once held a somewhat condescending view of Russia’s failure to adapt to the ‘laws of modernization,’ seeming to prioritize the past over the future. I equated Russia’s struggles with military professionalization to its attempts at democratization and its hesitant embrace of a market economy. Moreover, I was both startled and intrigued by the dysfunctions and at times criminal behavior within Russia’s military organization. It was a false perspective, one that proved not only misguided but also perilous.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine serve as a stark reminder of its effectiveness as a military force, capable of adapting to the rigors of the battlefield despite internal dysfunctions and questionable behavior. This resilience is often underestimated in the West, positioning Russia as a formidable adversary and a significant threat. It is crucial neither to underestimate nor to idealize the Russian armed forces. Instead, we must recognize them for what they are, without surprises. The central question persists: How do we prepare ourselves to confront this declared opponent? Do we have the stamina? Do we have the endurance? Do we have the will to fight? These are questions that each of us—as soldiers, politicians, or citizens of the democratic world—must grapple with. Let’s commence this endeavor by examining practical ways to support the Ukrainian forces on the Eastern frontline in the Donetsk region.


4. Consulted sources and Complemented reading

I have incorporated insights from my doctoral dissertation titled ‘The All-Volunteer Force in the Russian Mirror: Transformation without Change,’ which is readily accessible online: The all-volunteer force in the Russian mirror: transformation without change — the University of Groningen research portal (

Additionally, I recommend the following sources, which I have consulted:

(Photo credit:  Presidential Press and Information Office, Wikimedia Commons)