By early 2023, after several years of effort, Russia had established twelve VOIN (“fighter”) centers. One more was to open in 2024. VOIN is used to expose teenagers to military life by giving them military uniforms, regular military orientation and some training to prepare them for joining the military via conscription or volunteering. The VOIN training for teenagers also includes a lot of education (indoctrination) about the importance of patriotism and preparing to defend Russia. This is one of the reasons Russia never refers to their invasion of Ukraine as an invasion. According to the government the fighting in Ukraine is a Russian internal matter to suppress separatist activity by some people in southern Russia that call themselves Ukrainians and are fighting to create an independent country called Ukraine. Since 2022, VOIN centers also train Russian army reservists headed for Ukraine. Recently, the number of reservists called up has overwhelmed the VOIN system and reservists are sent to Ukraine without any preparation. Losses are higher for these reservists.
The Russian government complains that the Ukrainians, which it calls separatists, have been a problem for a long time but that now they have massive military support from NATO countries. This fits the government claim that the NATO defensive alliance against Russian aggression is a Western conspiracy to surround and subjugate Russia. For centuries Ukrainians have been fighting Russian efforts to turn them into Russians. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Ukraine finally became independent. Russia wants Ukraine back as part of Russia.
Russia also revealed a list of several former parts of the ex-Soviet Union, who are now neighboring countries, that they want to make part of Russia. Some of those neighbors are NATO members. Ukraine wants to join NATO, and NATO agrees, but only after the Russian invaders have been expelled. So far, the Ukrainian resistance has killed about 300,000 Russian soldiers and destroyed most modern Russian tanks. In response Russia took thousands of 1960s-era T-62 tanks out of storage and sent them to Ukraine to provide more targets for Ukrainian tanks and anti-tank weapons. A growing number of the Ukrainian tanks are Western models which have demonstrated a clear superiority over any Russian tank they encounter.
Defeats and losses in Ukraine are downplayed by Russian media. The government explains, but cannot prove, that the fighting is taking longer because of NATO support that this is supposed to include the NATO troops doing a lot of the fighting. No captured NATO soldiers have been revealed because there aren’t any.
Many Russians, including the teenagers and especially Russians who have served in Ukraine, are dubious about their government’s claims about a purported NATO plot to conquer Russia. There are older Russians who remember why the Soviet Union fell apart. It wasn’t because of NATO aggression; it was because most citizens of the Soviet Union saw that the Soviet Union was a failed dictatorship that was not helping the people of Russia. That resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union, something the Soviets could not suppress with persuasion, threats or the use of armed force. The people had made up their minds and the security forces refused to fight Russians over this. The Soviet Union lost half its population to newly formed nations, including Ukraine, which was one of most prosperous regions of the Union and few Ukrainians wanted to remain under Russian domination. This is why a lot of the VOIN training for teenagers is ideological, stressing the importance of preserving Mother Russia above all else.
Another function of VOIN is to train army reservists in combat techniques before they are activated. Most of these reservists will be called up to fight in Ukraine and VOIN concentrates on that because the VOIN training is likely all that they’ll ever get. Most of these men know what is going on in Ukraine and are not enthusiastic about going there and dying. For Russian troops in Ukraine, morale has been low for some time and that is visible in the reluctance for Russian attacks to move forward with much determination. Even in the defense, Russian troops are more interested in retreating to Russia than in halting the growing number of Ukrainian attacks. There have been growing incidences of Russian troops deliberately seeking an opportunity to surrender to the Ukrainians. Since the invasion began in early 2022, Ukraine has lost about a third as many troops as Russia. In the last year, Ukraine has been losing proportionately less than before because Ukrainian morale and combat ability has improved, and the Russians have suffered because of that.
VOIN centers are important because historically, newly conscripted Russians received nothing like the months of basic and advanced training Western recruits received. The results were more effective Western soldiers and Russian leaders agree Russia should provide the same training and increase the proportion of volunteer, or contract, veterans to the military, especially the army. It was too expensive, as was extensive training for recruits. Typically, new recruits get a week or so of orientation, as in how to wear the uniform and recognize different ranks and how to respond to them. The recruits are quickly sent off to a unit, where they are supposed to receive “on the job” training but rarely do. Traditionally this was even done in wartime when civilians suddenly in uniform had to cope, and survive, as best they could.
In general, VOIN is an effort to deal with the lack of training new recruits receive and the lack of training reservists, many of them are veterans of active service. Russia wants and needs to replace their poorly trained and easily killed troops with ones that have had some training to avoid or reduce that problem with some training these troops had never received before. Whether they actually do is subject to traditional Russian corruption and official “Potemkin Village” games by superior officers.
The VOIN training for teenagers is an enhanced version of the familiarization training many, but not all, high school boys have received. Russia wants to make VOIN available everywhere without making it too expensive to maintain everywhere. That will take a considerable effort which Russia probably can’t afford.