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Kremlin needs more soldiers for its Ukraine war

Sergey Satanovskiy
June 30, 2022

Russia's government needs to patch holes in the army to further its war against Ukraine. A general mobilization has not yet been declared, but efforts to recruit soldiers are being intensified — in a number of ways.

A Russian soldier holding a rifle, photographed against a blue and white sky with a wall and trees away in the background
Russia's government has launched a drive to enlist more soldiersImage: AP/dpa/picture alliance

Five months into Russia's war on Ukraine, the government has still not decreed a widely predicted general mobilization of the population. Professional and contract soldiers are fighting alongside members of private security and military companies. Men recruited from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine have also been deployed. But, instead of drafting troops through a general mobilization, Russian recruiting offices seem to be intensifying their efforts to attract regular soldiers. Various sources report that they are also targeting conscripts.

Alexander, who doesn't want to give his real name for security reasons, is a veteran. He hasn't lived in Russia for years, but his passport still shows his registered address in Russia, where his parents still live. A summons from the local draft board recently arrived there, addressed to him.

"I've been listed at the draft office for more than 20 years, since I was a soldier in the army," Alexander said. "I'm a veteran, and I don't know what this is in connection with. It's probably a covert mobilization." He himself opposes Russia's invasion of Ukraine. If he were still in Russia and had received a summons like that, he said, he would try to leave the country as soon as possible.

Two soldiers photographed against a bright blue sky, standing holding rifles in front of a small industrial building and a line of electricity pylons
Russian soldiers on deployment in Ukraine, guarding the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant on the Dnipro riverImage: AP/dpa/picture alliance

It seems that more and more Russians who have served in the military and have combat experience are receiving summonses. It's the main topic of discussion on VK, a Russian social network, where people are sharing advice on how best to respond. "My son went to the office on June 14," wrote Anna, a member of a women's group in Arkhangelsk. "They looked at his ID cards and asked if he wanted a contract. Then they let him go."

Seeking regular soldiers

Alexander Gorbachev is a lawyer and human rights activist who advises conscripts. Since the beginning of the invasion, and in the past month especially, he has observed a greater drive to recruit regular soldiers, who join the army for a limited period. "Previously, only conscripts and men who volunteered were offered contracts," he said. "You didn't have mass calls and summonses."

Now, though, it seems that the search for conscripts to serve on limited contracts is being stepped up, according to Oksana Paramonova, the head of the human rights organization Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg. She said the recruiters had started to use unusual methods.

In Russia, men aged 18 to 27 are legally obliged to do 12 months of military service. Exceptions are made for those who cannot serve for health reasons. Students are also able to defer for the duration of their studies. Conscripts' rights have often been violated in the past, but Paramonova said there had been some unprecedented cases this year. She said students in their final year had been called up without their remaining deferment period taken into account. People whose health issues would normally prohibit them from serving have also been called up, she said, citing numerous complaints to the Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg hotline.

Map of Ukraine with the areas annexed and currently controlled by Russia differently shaded

Workplace summonses

Paramonova said the authorities were now contacting companies directly with a list of employees they are summoning. This was not a usual practice in the past. According to Russian law, a summons received at the workplace cannot be ignored. However, Paramonova said, the draft offices do not force anyone to sign a contract.

The exception is the Russian Federation's republic of Chechnya. The Insider, a Russian-language online paper, recently reported that authorities in the republic use kidnapping, torture and criminal proceedings to force men to go to the front.

Soldiers' Mothers confirms that such practices are not common in other parts of Russia. "There are instances where there is no direct psychological pressure," Paramonova said, "but potential contractors are deceived about the pay, benefits and working conditions." She said many callers to the hotline had complained that the terms of their contracts were not being honored — but it often turns out that the soldiers didn't read them closely before they signed.

Unprecedented compensation

In many cases, people don't even need to be coerced into going to war. At present, it is not uncommon to see lines outside mobile conscription offices. At the end of May, President Vladimir Putin abolished the age limit for military service. Now even people over 40 can enlist — and many do.

Three men in jeans and jackets wait in line with their hands in their pockets, in front of a wall with posters in Cyrillic
The "people's republics" of Donetsk (above) and Luhansk declared general mobilization at the start of Russia's invasionImage: Alexander Ryumin/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

The pay is a big incentive. A great many advertisements have been placed as part of the effort to recruit soldiers. People who sign contracts will receive a salary of 200,000 rubles (€3,500/$3,700). This is five times the average Russian salary. In peacetime, Alexander Gorbachev, the usual monthly pay for soldiers had been 25,000 rubles.

Advertisements do not make clear whether the money is for deployment to a war zone. At the end of one description, the advertisement says: "During the conduct of the special military operation, a contract may be entered into for four months or longer." "Special military operation" is the term Russia uses for its war against Ukraine.

"There is no covert mobilization in the sense of a forced call-up to participate in combat operations in Ukraine," said Oleg Ignatov, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. Many international media outlets and military officials had expected Putin to announce a general mobilization on May 9. This did not happen, but Ignatov said it could not be ruled out for the future. So far, he said, the decision has probably been sidestepped for political reasons. He said that could quickly turn passive supporters of the war into active opponents. And Russia's leadership is wary of fomenting popular discontent.

So far, Ignatov said, Russia's superior artillery power has compensated for deficiencies in the infantry during the advance in Donbas. In his view, however, Russia's military is insufficient to take the cities of Dnipro, Odesa or Kyiv. "We don't know how far Russia wants to go in Ukraine," he said. "But it is not stepping away from its goals and policies. If it finds itself backed into a corner, it may also declare a general mobilization."

This article was originally written in Russian.

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