Forces: Russia Tries to Rev Up Recruiting


December 20, 2023: At the end of 2023 Vladimir Putin ordered the military to increase active duty troops to 1.32 million. This involves finding another 170,000 recruits. If you include civilian military employees, the Russian military now have 2.2 million personnel. That’s 1.5 percent of the Russian population. At the beginning of 2023 there were purportedly 1.15 million Russian military personnel. By the end of 2023, Russian personnel losses in Ukraine had grown to over a million, of which at least half were permanent losses, mostly dead but also prisoners, missing and those discharged because of disabling wounds. About 40% of Russian casualties are dead compared to only 20% of Ukrainian casualties because the Russians in this war get no battlefield medical treatment whatever, though even in World War Two they did have at least minimal battle treatment, largely by dragging wounded off the battlefield (by female soldiers) to medics. Wounded soldiers in freezing conditions die of exposure or shock within about an hour unless they are carried to shelter, but that is not happening for Russians in this war. Prospective recruits know this.

Putin wants to replace those losses and increase the size of the military. To that he has to depend mostly on volunteers and former soldiers, or reservists. Then there are the conscripts, young men who are obliged to spend one year in the military. Once that year is over, these men are eligible to become reservists or, now that the military service law has changed, subject to mobilization to supply the military with more troops.

Mandatory conscript service brings in nearly 300,000 new troops a year. Half these men are called up between April and July while the other have are called up during the last few months of the year. This has been the way it has been done for over a century. Conscription gives Russia some badly needed military manpower but there is a catch. Conscripts only serve for one year and nominally cannot be sent into a foreign combat zone. Russian public will not tolerate tinkering with the 12-month limit and the post-communist Russian government lacks the coercive power to overcome that. Conscripts have been sent to the Ukraine war, but an uneasy de facto compromise has arisen that they can only be used in non-combat roles.

Since Putin ordered Ukraine invaded in February 2022, he has clashed with Russian attitudes towards conscription and lost. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the communist rule was replaced by democracy and frequent opinion polls. There were no professional politicians to make the new democracy work. There were former Soviet officials trying to get elected to powerful positions. More than ever before, these new political candidates had to pay close attention to public opinion. Former KGB officer Putin got elected once and managed to change the rules to keep him in office for as long as he likes or can survive. Putin also put all Russian media under state control. The catch was that successful dictators, and Putin is one, pay attention to public opinion because if too many of your subjects get too angry, it’s the end for the supreme leader. Russians experienced this in 1991 and even zealots like Putin must pay heed. Push the Russian people too far and they will push back.

Putin’s solution is to make the most of a bad situation. Conscripts currently get a few weeks of training followed by service doing any work they can handle. This allows many of the volunteer, or contract, soldiers to go to Ukraine, where the Russian personnel situation is desperate. Training for the conscripts ties up the few remaining military training facilities all the time, as almost all the pre-war training staff were sent to the Ukraine after the war started and became casualties themselves. Russian non-commissioned officers are basically useless because 70 years of the Red Army predecessor of the current Russian army destroyed their role as trainers and leaders of more junior enlisted men, and all attempts to revive an effective non-com system since 1991 have failed.

This makes it impossible to provide training for the contract soldiers or older men, former conscripts, mobilized into the military for as long as the government can get away with it. Few Russian men serve in Ukraine voluntarily and most are coerced or tricked into volunteering, with a few persuaded by offers of high pay, which they rarely get, or are convicts spending six months in Ukraine to get a full pardon. Putin’s alleged plan is to obey the law about not sending conscripts into battle, and hope to later persuade them, after their discharge, to volunteer for some form of mobilization. Putin lacks sufficient internal security forces to overcome a lot of public opposition to his seriously unpopular or illegal schemes, so he has to be resourceful.

The fighting in Ukraine crippled the Russian ground forces and destroyed most of the modern equipment Putin had managed to manufacture since the early 2000s. Economic sanctions reduced the amount of money he has available for military operations. Sanctions have also increased the percentage of Russians living below the poverty line. Putin embarrassed himself in Ukrainian because he initially boasted that the victory in Ukraine would be quick and relatively painless because the Ukrainians were not willing or able to fight and most accepted the Putin view that Ukraine was actually part of Russia that got confused and lost their way. The Ukrainians were better prepared, armed, and motivated to defeat the invading Russians. Putin’s response was that it was NATO forces that inflicted all those casualties on Russian troops. That fiction worked for a short while because state-controlled media had been pushing the idea that NATO was conspiring to destroy Russia. That fable faded as the months of defeats went by and Russians were told by returning wounded soldiers that Ukrainians were fighting back and simply doing so more effectively than anyone expected. Many Russians have family, friends, or contacts in Ukraine and that, added to what Russian soldiers who had returned Ukraine said put an end to the blame NATO. Putin propagandists had to come up with a new explanation for the mess in Ukraine and he came up with a reheated version of the; NATO is trying to destroy Russia, explanation for the mess in Ukraine.

Russia has a problem with the fact that for over a year Russian soldiers have been fighting in another country and getting killed or wounded in large numbers. Russia had not been invaded and Putin sought to portray it as a successful Russian defense of the homeland. Once more, Russians eventually see through that disinformation by paying attention to Ukrainian media which makes no mention of plans to invade Russia, only efforts to get Russian soldiers out of Ukraine. Putin also tried, with some success, to persuade people in nations supporting Ukraine with weapons and money that Ukraine is not worth the expense because of a growing list of Russian short shelf-life disinformation.

Russia has few allies or foreign supporters and most of these, like Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Cuba have little to give. China could provide lots of tangible support but prefers not to because China believes the Ukrainian operation was a stupid idea and does not want to get hit with sanctions for providing military support for Russia. China and India both advise Putin to just get out of Ukraine and out from under all those sanctions before long-term damage is done to Russia.

Putin is working on what he agrees are needed reforms so that the next time Russian troops are in combat they will perform better and perhaps even win. There have been several rounds of unsuccessful military reforms since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. One of the major causes of that collapse was their unaffordable and largely ineffective armed forces. In post-Soviet Russia there were far fewer restrictions on criticizing the military. Most Russians had a very negative attitude towards conscription and the reforms underway because of the Ukraine War disaster were seen as typical of several previous efforts to remedy problems that continue to resist any fundamental change.

The new plan calls for a massive training program to replace all the officers lost in the first few months of 2022’s fighting. The immediate problem with that is all the officer instructors were sent to the front in March and April 2022 where they too became casualties. Next is another serious problem that few want to discuss, corruption. Even in wartime, especially during the recent fighting, corruption was still a problem. Officers and other government officials continued to put their own financial gain above the need to equip the troops with what they needed to survive and win. There have been several corruption scandals in Russia since the Ukraine War began. The military’s corruption is rooted in political corruption at the highest levels including Putin and his cronies, and inevitably drifted downward until even supply sergeants routinely steal back and sell gear issued to new troops when they are outside their barracks just before leaving for the front. Russia is descending into a Third World state known as a resource kleptocracy but run by a for-real gangster confederacy. Only with nuclear and biological weapons from before the Soviet Union collapsed.

By late 2022 over half of Russian military personnel were volunteers (serving on contracts) or career officers. The ability of the military to hold onto those contract (“contrakti”) soldiers was always weakened if there were a lot of casualties or too much chance of being sent to a combat zone. Volunteering to be a contract soldier used to be considered a smart move because the Russian economy had been increasingly weak over the last decade. After the fighting began in Ukraine, the contract soldiers suffered as much as the conscripts and junior officers did.

The result of this was contract troops refusing to renew contracts. Most of the combat units sent into Ukraine were composed of contract troops who were killed in large numbers. When the survivors got back to Russia, either because of wounds or because many combat battalions returned because of heavy losses, there was a sudden shortage of contract soldiers. That was because most contract troops were near the end of their two-to-three-year contracts and refused to renew. The army had signed up many soldiers for the new (since 2016) short term (six to twelve month) contracts for former soldiers, or conscripts willing to try it, and found that there were far fewer vets willing to sign these short contracts because, so few recent short-term contract soldiers had survived service in Ukraine.

The government then tried to solve this reluctant contract soldier problem by changing the contracts so that contract soldiers had to remain in the army for as long as the fighting continued. Realizing that it was a death sentence if they were sent back to Ukraine, many contract soldiers simply refused to go. There were so many men refusing to go that the government backed off from threats to prosecute the reluctant contrakti.

At this point the Russian armed forces have dire and apparently unsolvable manpower problems. They are taking ghastly casualties making suicidal attacks during winter with their front-line troops knowing very well what is happening. The survivors make certain other troops know it too. They have no junior officers to lead and make sacrifices with them because most officer training staff were killed in 2022 and the rest cannot produce replacements fast enough. At this point almost all prospective contrakti recruits know how little training, support, medical treatment, and effective equipment they will get, and how few of them will survive.

Both sides are being forced into mostly drone wars – the Russians for simple lack of manpower and the Ukrainians for lack of artillery shells and rockets, and lack of American support due to Congressional deadlock over funding.




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