Drained of troops, Russia revives volunteer recruitment
March 14, 2023
Russia has returned to its previously unsuccessful recruitment of volunteer fighters in what looks to be an attempt to avoid ordering a second wave of mobilization.
Telegram channels are once again advertising enlistment into existing volunteer battalions after ending such recruitment calls in the wake of mobilization last September. Likewise, a number of officials throughout Russia’s regions have set up mobile enlistment centers to attract potential volunteer fighters for contract service, a tactic that was also observed during the previous volunteer recruitment campaign between late May 2022 and September 2022. In a particularly bizarre move, a psychiatrist based in Moscow is allegedly urging suicidal men to enlist in the military.

It is worth remembering that last summer the Kremlin ordered Russian regions to form volunteer battalions to participate in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine as a way to avoid declaring mobilization. According to Russian media reports at that time, regional officials were recruiting men up to 50 years old for six-month contracts and offering them lucrative salaries. However, this campaign failed to deliver the desired number of volunteer troops, which, along with large casualties and military defeats, explains why the Kremlin decided to launch a partial mobilization on September 21.

Now ultranationalist social media networks in Russia are renewing efforts to advertise recruitment for the Wagner private military, which has set up dozens of enlistment centers across the country. Likewise, Ukrainian officials have observed Russian occupation officials registering male teenagers born in 2006 from occupied Luhansk for military service. They also report that military recruitment centers in occupied Donetsk have received instructions to verify the personal details of reserve officers under 65 years of age, as well as soldiers, sergeants, and warrant officers under the age of 50. Similar so-called “crypto-mobilization” tactics have been widely employed by Russian officials in occupied Ukrainian territories throughout the war.

A journalist from The Moscow Times called the Wagner recruitment hotline posing as a potential volunteer, and discovered that the private army has lowered its recruitment standards. When the journalist told a Wagner recruiter that they were undergoing treatment for a nervous breakdown, the recruiter advised the journalist to evaluate their mental state and if there were no problems, the mercenary group would consider their application.

Although Wagner officially does not recruit individuals "who have serious illnesses that interfere with their ability to perform tasks, who suffer from drug addiction, or those who have recovered from hepatitis B and C," according to documents sent to The Moscow Times, the private military company does not require volunteers to provide proof of their mental health, nor are medical exams conducted during recruitment.

Likewise, recruiters on the Russian social media website VKontakte publicly state that requirements for volunteer fighters have been lowered “in order to get rid of unnecessary bureaucracy,” according to The Moscow Times.

Back in early February, Wagner announced that it was stopping recruitment of prisoners to fight in Ukraine, explaining the decision was due to “excessively high efficiency” of its initial recruitment drive. The private army first began recruiting convicts late last summer, including those sentenced for murder and other serious criminal offenses. Prigozhin promised pardons – a rare occurrence in Russia – to those who survived six months on the frontlines in Ukraine. Media reports indicate that Putin has secretly pardoned a number of convicts. Western and Ukraine officials say that Russia is using the convicts as cannon fodder to overwhelm Ukrainian forces.

Although Wagner does not publish how many convicts have joined its ranks since the start of the war, according to independent news outlet Mediazona, the country’s prison population dropped by over 23,000 between September and October 2022, the sharpest drop in over a decade, suggesting that recruited prisoners account for some portion of that number. However, Judith Pallot, a scholar on Russia’s prison system, argues that inmate recruitment estimates based on Russian federal prison figures — such as those used by Mediazona – should be treated with an abundance of caution given the government’s tendency to manipulate official data.

The Institute for the Study of War writes that the revived volunteer recruitment drive likely indicates that Russia is running out of combat-ready reserves to continue its offensive operations in Eastern Ukraine, in particular the battle over the city of Bakhmut. These campaigns were previously used when the Russian military ran out of reserves during an offensive in May 2022. But Russian pro-war military bloggers believe now, just as back in the summer of 2022, that only large-scale mobilization can help Moscow achieve its objectives.

The military analyst Michael Kofman told The Kyiv Independent that Russia’s initial wave of mobilization has been largely reduced. Some of these reservists were sent immediately to the frontlines last fall with little to no training, while the rest filled out brigades after preparation. “There isn't a second Russian army of another 150,000 troops on the horizon,” said Kofman.

The return of voluntary recruitment campaigns suggests that the Kremlin is unlikely to launch another mobilization wave before summer 2023, according to the Institute for the Study of War, primarily because the regular spring conscription cycle begins in April. Putin appears to either have delayed or reconsidered announcing a second mobilization in January and was considering a "silent mobilization" to avoid social unrest similar to the protests that broke out in late September and early October.

Russian military recruitment centers have the capacity to prepare and generate around 130,000 conscripts per bi-annual cycle, writes the Institute for the Study of War. This limits the Kremlin’s ability to mobilize more reservists. If a second wave of mobilization was announced now, the spring conscription cycle would have to be delayed.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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