Russia is running out of soldiers. That’s why the Kremlin is trying every conceivable way to recruit new fighters for the war effort in Ukraine. It is looking for “real men up to 49”. Money serves as a lure. Will it be enough to replace the fallen and wounded?
Ukraine reports more than 40,000 fallen Russian soldiers, the U.S. intelligence agency CIA speaks of 15,000 Russians killed in the war, in U.S. government circles there is talk of at least 75,000 Russian soldiers killed or wounded. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. No one knows exactly how many Russians have fallen.
The fact is that the war is not a success for Moscow more than five months after it began. Nothing has come of the plan to overrun Ukraine within a few days or even hours. An end to the war is still not in sight. And for Russia, the question now is: Where will new, fresh soldiers come from? Tens of thousands are dead or wounded, others are tired and worn out after months of fighting.
Yet, according to the Global Firepower Index, Russia has the second strongest military in the world. “The Russian army can be assumed to have a troop strength of about 1.1 million, of which 450,000 are in the army. That, of course, is the largest component force in Russia. And there are sources that say that up to 75 percent of the Russian field army is deployed in Ukraine. That would be a tremendously high figure if it were true,” says Joachim Weber, a security and Russia expert from the University of Bonn, in the ntv podcast “Wieder was gelernt” (“Learned something again”).
Money as a lure
To increase troop strength even further, a general mobilization would be needed. Then, in principle, every adult Russian could be drafted. Moscow, however, denies such plans. Russian President Vladimir Putin would first have to put his country in an official state of war. But the Kremlin still speaks only of a “special military operation. As long as a state of war is not declared, Russia cannot call up its conscripts, Weber explains.
Russia has so far refrained from general mobilization and instead continues to rely on professional and temporary soldiers and mercenaries such as the Wagner Group. Russia’s 85 federal subjects, i.e. the individual regions and major cities of Russia, are trying to establish volunteer battalions – volunteers are to be made more palatable for military service via video messages, online job ads or simple advertising posters. The appeal is to patriotism, and the lure is relatively large sums of money.
Volunteer battalions throughout the country
In the Yaroslavl region north of Moscow, for example, volunteers are being lured into military service with one-time payments of the equivalent of 2,000 euros and 600 euros a month. As soon as the recruits are deployed in the war zone, they receive 2500 euros per month, reports the British think tank “Institute for the Study of War”. The offer is aimed at 20- to 50-year-olds. Dozens of residents of the region are said to have already joined the battalion. No wonder: The average monthly salary in Russia is only about 700 euros.
The city of Konakovo near Moscow is also trying to recruit volunteers with money. The city’s military commissioner says in a video message that there is a pay of 3400 to 6800 euros for at least three months on the front line.
The Perm region in the Ural foothills appeals to “real men up to 49” on a recruitment poster, enticing them with high pay, training and insurance. In addition, volunteers are to receive “combat veteran” status, promising their children preferential admission to universities, CNN reports. “Wanted are brave, courageous, confident, exceptional and well-rounded patriots of our nation.” One month of training is allotted before going to war.
Two volunteer battalions have been established in the autonomous republic of Mari El between the megacities of Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan, with a third to follow. The only requirement is that they must have completed the ninth grade of secondary school. The soldiers are to receive the equivalent of 5000 euros per month. If the soldier dies in the war, 84,000 euros would be paid to the family.
The special case of Chechnya
Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruler of Chechnya, plays a particularly important role in recruitment. Hardly any regional president has as much power in Russia as “Putin’s bloodhound.” Kadyrov sees his army as “Putin’s infantry troops.” However, he is not only recruiting Chechens for the war in Ukraine, but men from all over Russia. Volunteers are recruited with the equivalent of up to 6,000 euros for three months – in addition to the 53 euros a day paid by the Russian Defense Ministry. Training at the Russian University of Special Forces in Chechnya is said to last only a week, according to the New York Times. CNN reports as many as 8,000 Chechens have been deployed so far in this war.
“With the volunteer battalions, the Russians are trying to maintain and stabilize their troop strength. People have to come from somewhere to fill the gaps. The easiest way is to find volunteers. And there are probably quite a few people who believe the state propaganda and go to war perhaps out of a sense of adventure, but mainly for financial reasons,” analyzes expert Weber in the podcast.
According to CNN, analysts assume that more than 30,000 Russians could be mobilized via the volunteer recruitment route. Most would then be sent to the Donbass, they say.
“Reminiscent of darkest Stalin times”.
In the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk, Russia has so far waived bonuses for its soldiers. Here, pro-Russian men between 18 and 65 are being conscripted instead. And because they are Ukrainian citizens, Russia treats them with particular carelessness, according to military observers. With little or no training and old weapons, they are sent to the trenches, they say.
There are also reports that the FSB domestic intelligence service and the Wagner mercenary group are recruiting prisoners for the war effort in penal colonies. The “volunteers” are lured with a lot of money and the possibility of subsequent release.
“There is a massive attempt to mobilize below the threshold of an official mobilization. We hear about going into prisons, offering people there money and a release from prison. This is a recruitment strategy reminiscent of the darkest times of the Stalin era in World War II,” says Carlo Masala, a military expert from the Bundeswehr University in Munich, in the “Stern” podcast “Ukraine – The Situation.”
Professional soldiers, however, cannot be so easily replaced by prisoners or other volunteers, Kateryna Stepanenko of the “Institute for the Study of War” is quoted as saying by CNN. “It’s unlikely that short-term training will turn volunteers with no prior experience into effective soldiers.”
Recruiting by (almost) any means
In light of the Russian recruitment offensive, The New York Times writes of a “secret mobilization” that has long been underway. According to Joachim Weber, however, this term is “not quite correct yet,” since voluntariness is still preserved, at least in most cases. Except for the occupied territories. “Otherwise, this huge country is trying to use all kinds of measures to get people to sign a contract to then participate in a ‘special operation’ for four or five months, for example.” Russia’s recruitment policy, with isolated exceptions, is not yet at the point “where you threaten people and force them into military service,” Weber says.
Mass recruitment of volunteers can make up in numbers for the number of killed and wounded for a time, but it does not increase motivation in the troops, Weber says. High monetary payments are by no means a guarantee of high combat morale. This is what distinguishes Russian troops from Ukrainian troops, says the security expert on “Wieder was gelernt”.
General mobilization? “Ukraine one step further
The willingness of volunteers is much greater on the Ukrainian side. They want to defend their own country against the Russians. “Morale in the Russian army will not be high, except for chauvinist groups like Wagner, which consist of conviction killers, ultimately professional killers. They don’t need to motivate them, but that’s a minority.”
Security expert Weber describes most Russian soldiers as “more or less normal Russians who are led to believe other things.” Most of them, he says, do not know what it means to “fight fiercely for every street and every house.”
The situation could only change dramatically if Russia were to declare a general mobilization at some point. Then the equation would be “140 against 40 million inhabitants,” says Joachim Weber. Then “you could throw soldiers to the front on a completely different scale,” says the expert. The Ukrainians are already “one step ahead,” Weber clarifies. “They have conscripted all men of military age up to 60 from the very beginning.”