Poorly Trained Russian Militias Causing Tension Among Regular Forces—ISW

Russian military forces are likely to experience "greater tensions" with militia groups operating on Moscow's behalf in the eastern Donbas region, according to a new assessment.

Militant groups have operated in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine since 2014, and they are currently fighting against Kyiv's forces in the highly contested areas. The Russian defense ministry confirmed on Sunday that the militias would be formally integrated into Russian conventional forces, according to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War think tank (ISW).

Moscow's "decision to reorganize" militias into the Russian armed forces during its new offensive likely shows the Russian defense ministry doesn't understand "the scale of the underlying challenges" it faces, according to the ISW.

"This reorganization may upset and demoralize proxy elements that have enjoyed a great deal of independence as irregular militants for nine years and may risk alienating them amidst the offensive for Donbas," the think tank said on Monday.

Russian Soldier in Donetsk
A Russian serviceman in front of a school that was shelled on April 30 in Donetsk, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. The Russian armed forces are being integrated with Moscow-backed militias in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, according to the ISW. YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images

Moscow-backed separatists have controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, the historically industrial regions of Ukraine, for nearly a decade. The regions, which became known as "statelets," were formally recognized as independent by Russia just days before the full-scale invasion got underway last year.

They were also the focus of Russian activity after the first month of the full-scale invasion in February last year, after Moscow pulled back from Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. Luhansk and Donetsk, which are largely Russian-speaking, were two of the four regions then declared as annexed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 30, 2022.

It has been widely argued by Ukrainian and Western sources in recent weeks that Russian forces were preparing for a renewed offensive in Luhansk and Donetsk to coincide with the first anniversary of the invasion on February 24, 2023.

But these militia forces, now being fitted into Russia's armed forces, are weary of "receiving unequal treatment from the Kremlin," according to the ISW. Russia's conventional forces have accused Luhansk and Donetsk militant formations of "abuse and discrimination in turn," the think tank added.

"Russian forces have suffered from their own shortcomings in unit cohesion and will likely face greater tensions with the proxy militias that were not trained to professional standards," the ISW evaluated.

This "untimely" restructuring may "reduce cohesion" between the militia and conventional forces in the Donbas region, the ISW argued.

Russia needs militia units to hold positions across western Donetsk and Luhansk for its armed forces to push forward on the front lines, the ISW said, although it added the militant forces "have not been historically effective."

The think tank had previously identified influential Russian "milbloggers" who had argued Donetsk and Luhansk's militant commanders were better placed to combat Ukrainian forces than Russian military leaders.

The "milbloggers" argued that militant figures in the Donbas "have practical experience fighting Ukraine and are better than the 'real' Russian commanders," despite a lack of formal military education, the ISW said on Saturday.

The Russian defense ministry has been contacted for comment.