In Ukraine it was noticed by Ukrainian soldiers that many, if not most, of the Russian soldiers were in the army as contract (higher paid long term) soldiers and were from rural areas where jobs were scarce and poverty was increasing. Many of the military-age men had already served one or two years as conscripts. In the last year, military recruiters have been offering these veterans well-paid (by Russian standards) jobs as contract soldiers if they signed up for a few more years. Most of their pay could be sent directly to their families and there were substantial death or disability payments.
So far over 200,000 Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine and in many rural towns it is noticeable that many men recently died in Ukraine. That’s made it difficult for recruiters, who have obtained most of their best recruits from these rural areas, where many men are accustomed to hunting or fishing. That means recruits who already know how to shoot and move quietly in the countryside, and are in need of a better paying job. As more local men die in Ukraine, fewer are inclined to join the army. This is a problem because most of the rural population of Russia has been slowly declining. In 1970 rural areas held half the population but currently it is only 37 percent and continuing to decline. A century ago, most Russians lived in rural areas but the movement to urban areas has been relentless and continuous.
Men in urban areas have access to more news, better education and more jobs. The urban men were not interested in joining the army as contract soldiers. It was voters from urban areas that led the opposition conscription, but so far the best they could do was get the term of conscript service reduced to one year. The current conscript laws prohibit conscripts from serving in foreign wars. The government tried to present the Ukraine War as an internal Russian matter. The government passed laws to that effect but most Russians still considered the Ukraine War a foreign war that was off limits for conscripts.
To get around this the government provided more cash bonuses to induce conscripts to become contract soldiers. This made sense to conscripts from poor regions but the urban conscripts were not interested, and concentrated on surviving their unfortunate circumstances. For urban military-age men, particularly in the Moscow and St. Petersburg areas, rampant corruption in the conscription bureaucracy provides opportunities for those with money to avoid conscription or at least avoid service in a combat unit.
As Russian conscripts and newly acquired contract soldiers continued to suffer casualties in Ukraine, the quality of those troops and their willingness to fight declined. This was accelerated by the even greater decline in the number of combat officers available in Ukraine. Russian officers were also reluctant to have a promising military career cut short by untimely death in Ukraine while trying to lead reluctant troops. Ukrainian forces more frequently encountered Russian units that seemed reluctant to fight, or surrender. The Russian government tried to deal with the situation by making it a criminal offense to surrender to Ukrainian troops. This has led a growing number of reluctant and desperate Russian soldiers to desert and not return to Russia. This makes them stateless but still alive. This is not a new problem and the UN refugee agency will issue travel documents to the stateless. This allows Russian deserters to move around outside Russia but they still encounter problems finding a job while also learning a new language. It is possible to covertly contact friends and family via the Internet to let them know you are still alive but that’s about all you can do.
All this explains the poor morale and combat ineffectiveness of so many Russian troops in Ukraine. There are some elite commando or airborne units that will willingly fight but there are few of these units. Russian commanders have learned to use these units carefully because combat losses are not easy to replace. It takes months to train these elite troops, who are volunteers and there are fewer and fewer Russians volunteering to fight in Ukraine, even as a member of an elite unit. While all this limits the ability of the Russians to attack, most of their reluctant soldiers will operate on the defensive and take part in building defensive fortifications and planting landmines and other nasty surprises for any attackers. This is what the current Ukrainian offensive in the southeast has to deal with. Ukrainian forces make the most of this by using their long-range weapons, like artillery, guided rockets and aircraft delivered long range guided bombs or air-to-ground missiles to destroy Russian supply storage sites, transportation efforts and headquarters. This leaves a growing number of Russian units without ammunition or other supplies, even food. Many Russian troops still have their cellphones and can call home and complain about their increasingly desperate situation. It’s illegal for troops to report on their situation and illegal for Russian media to publish or broadcast it. This slows down but does prevent the bad news from spreading inside Russia. Most Russians still support their government or simply try to avoid the war news. For those Russians who are involved because they have friends or family members in the military or subject to being recruited or conscripted, the bad news is a useful additional incentive to avoid being sent to Ukraine to fight. Those who do go have little enthusiasm for fighting but will shoot back if cornered and attacked.