Ukraine: Desperate for Recruits, Russia Launches a ‘Stealth Mobilization’

Leery of a national draft for the Ukraine war, the Kremlin is offering cash bonuses and employing strong arm tactics.

Four Russian veterans of the war in Ukraine recently published short videos online to complain about what they called their shabby treatment after returning to the Russian region of Chechnya, after six weeks on the battlefield.

One claimed to have been denied a promised payment of nearly $2,000. Another grumbled that a local hospital declined to remove shrapnel lodged in his body.

Their public pleas for help got results, but not the kind they were hoping for. Instead, an aide to Ramzan Kadyrov, the autocrat who runs Chechnya, berated them at length on television as ingrates and forced them to recant. “I was paid much more than they promised,” said Nikolai Lipa, the young Russian who had claimed that he had been cheated.

Ordinarily, these sort of complaints might be ignored, but the swift rebuke underscores how Russian officials want to stamp out any criticism about military service in Ukraine. They need more soldiers, desperately, and are already using what some analysts call a ‘‘stealth mobilization’’ to bring in new recruits without resorting to a politically risky national draft.

To make up the manpower shortfall, the Kremlin is relying on a combination of impoverished ethnic minorities, Ukrainians from the separatist territories, mercenaries and militarized National Guard units to fight the war, and promising hefty cash incentives for volunteers.

“Russia has a problem with recruitment and mobilization,” said Kamil Galeev, an independent Russian analyst and former fellow at The Wilson Center in Washington. “It is basically desperate to get more men using any means possible.”

The numbers of battlefield dead and wounded are closely held secrets on both sides. The British military recently estimated the number of dead Russians at 25,000, with tens of thousands more wounded, out of an invasion force of 300,000, including support units.

Yet, President Vladimir V. Putin hobbled the mobilization effort from the beginning, experts said, by refusing to put Russia on a war footing that would have allowed the military to start calling up reserves. Hence, the Kremlin has tried to glue together replacement battalions through other means.

Avoiding a draft for all adult males allows the Kremlin to maintain the fiction that the war is a limited “special military operation,” while also minimizing the risk of the kind of public backlash that spurred the end of previous Russian military debacles, like the one in Afghanistan and the first Chechen war.

The public outcry after Chechnya prompted Russia to ban the use on the battlefield of raw recruits, men aged 18-27 who are required to complete a year of mandatory military service. The revelations that hundreds were deployed in Ukraine anyway, including some of the sailors who died when the Ukrainians sank the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, prompted the very outrage from parents that the Kremlin had sought to avoid.

Numerous analysts have raised doubts about how long Russia can sustain its offensive in Ukraine without a general mobilization. Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence colonel who went from being a military leader for the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to a frequent critic of Kremlin military strategy, has said that Russia cannot possibly conquer the entire country without one.

But the Kremlin seems determined to avoid taking such a drastic step. Instead, recruitment offices have resorted to calling reservists repeatedly to offer cash incentives for short deployments. Online want ads placed by the regional recruitment offices of the Ministry of Defense also overflow with thousands of postings for those with military specialties. Recent listings on global job sites like Head Hunter included units looking for combat engineers, anyone who could operate a grenade launcher and even the commander for a parachute squadron.

The salaries offered to some volunteers, which can range between $2,000 and $6,000 a month, are far more than the average monthly salary in Russia of about $700. Prewar contracts for privates sometimes were as paltry as around $200 a month.

Enthusiasm for the war inspires some volunteers, experts noted, while workers in industrial regions hit by factory closings because of sanctions might also find the money attractive.

“Mostly, of course, it is a way of earning money,” said Sergei Krivenko, director of the Russian human rights organization Citizen Army Law. Many, especially older volunteers, have substantial debts, he and others said. A May law scrapped the age limit of 40 for contract soldiers.

Such piecemeal efforts sustain the war, but do not address the fundamental manpower deficit, analysts said. While Ukraine faces similar problems, what it lacks in professional soldiers it compensates for in enthusiastic volunteers, they said.

The online Russian ads avoid mentioning Ukraine, and the short-term offers, often three months, are meant to play down the risks of never coming home. “It may be that it is necessary to get them into the army, and when they are already in the army, figure out what to do,” said Mr. Galeev.

The high death toll among soldiers from poorer republics populated by ethnic minorities, like Dagestan in the Caucasus and Buryatia in southern Siberia, indicate that they fill the front ranks in disproportionate numbers. Statistics, compiled by MediaZona, an independent news outlet, from public sources, show 225 dead in Dagestan through June, along with 185 in Buryatia, compared to nine from Moscow and 30 from St. Petersburg.

Minority conscripts in particular are pressured to sign contracts. “They tell them that if they return to their hometown, they will not find any job, so it is better to stay in the army to earn money,” said Vladimir Budaev, a spokesman for the Free Buryatia Foundation, an antiwar group abroad for the Buryats, an Indigenous minority.

Units from Rosgvardia, the militarized National Guard, have been deployed to Ukraine, and it apparently has sufficient numbers for rotations. But there do not seem to be enough regular soldiers for rotations. A group of about 15 women from Buryatia recently posted a video online complaining that their male relatives and friends had been deployed without leave since January.

In 2013, Mr. Kadyrov, Chechnya’s strongman ruler, established a private training institute now called the Russian University of Special Forces. Given his role in helping to defeat Chechen separatists, Mr. Kadyrov has long been granted wider latitude than any other regional leader to field his own armed men. Since the war, he has used his training center as a vehicle to recruit not just Chechens, but men throughout Russia.

Reports have also emerged from Chechnya that war critics or men arrested for petty crimes are often beaten, then forced to either sign a contract to fight in Ukraine or pay a bribe.

Mr. Kadyrov has pledged to pay almost $6,000 to volunteers who sign a three-month contract, supplementing the $53 a day promised by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Mr. Kadyrov’s aide, Mogamed Daudov, while berating the four men who produced the video complaining about their treatment, claimed that they were the only four who expressed dissatisfaction out of what he said were more than 3,200 volunteers deployed to Ukraine from Chechnya.

Other volunteers featured on Chechen television have praised exercises in shooting, urban warfare and other techniques. By all accounts, however, the training lasts about a week, which analysts consider woefully inadequate.

One longstanding taboo is being tossed aside in the quest for soldiers.

The authorities in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia have announced that they will form regiments made up entirely of men from the region, apparently in hopes that local nationalism would inspire more volunteers. The military has avoided that kind of recruitment since czarist times out of fear of fostering separatist movements.

In the battle for Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, the Russian military has done away with niceties like cash bonuses. Conscription is mandatory for men aged between 18 and 65 in areas under Russian control, and frontline fighters there are mainly local conscripts.

Since they are Ukrainian citizens, the thousands of dead and wounded have minimal impact in Russia, so the Kremlin is particularly cavalier about their casualties, experts say.

Some have been grabbed right off the streets and dispatched to the trenches with little or no training and vintage guns, military analysts and relatives have said. “It is the colonial model of locals being used as cannon fodder,” Mr. Galeev said.

The ombudsman for the Donetsk People’s Republic, a pseudo-statelet created by Russia, wrote on his Telegram channel in early June that 2,061 of its men had been killed and 8,509 wounded from a force of 20,000 at the start of the invasion, a staggering percentage.

The riskiest technical operations on the battlefield are often assigned to experienced mercenaries under contract to Wagner or similar private commercial operations, analysts said. Wagner gained prominence as the organization deployed to help implement Russian foreign policy goals in Syria and various African nations.

It too has reportedly been casting about for willing recruits. In St. Petersburg, Wagner convinced several dozen prisoners to sign six-month contracts to fight in exchange for about $4,000 and amnesty if they come back alive, according to the independent news outlet Important Stories.

The armies of many countries faced with similar gaps in manpower and other problems might have collapsed, said Johan Norberg, one of the authors of a recent report on the war called “A Rude Awakening,” by the Swedish Defense Research Agency.

“All these groups are unlikely to contribute to a decisive Russian win,” he said, referring to those recruited. “But they can help maintain Russia’s current positions and possibly allow for some minor tactical advances, for example, in Donbas.”