Russia is Running Out of Options to Recruit More Soldiers

Russia's retreat following Ukraine's counteroffensive has focused minds both in Moscow and Western capitals on what Vladimir Putin will do next to replenish his depleted forces.

Ukraine estimates more than 50,000 Russian troops have died during the war and while other tallies put it much lower, the Kremlin has been forced to find new ways to replenish its troops including recruiting from prisons and homeless shelters.

In the face of Ukraine's counteroffensive pro-Kremlin bloggers and some television pundits have upped their calls for mobilization which would force Russian citizens to fight.

Putin has so far resisted a full mobilization, which would present a number of challenges.

Part of the problem is the Kremlin's description of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine as a "special military operation" which gives Russian troops an opt-out at the end of their contracts.

Declaring mobilization would not only be unpopular, particularly in the biggest cities of Moscow and St Petersburg; it would require declaring the military operation a war, which an admission that the invasion was not going to plan.

"Putin certainly has a problem. This is one of those rare occasions where in terms of propaganda presentation they have boxed themselves into a corner," said Keir Giles, senior consulting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia program at London's Chatham House think tank.

Russian soldiers
A soldier of Russian Rosguardia (National Guard) with an attached letter Z, a symbol of the Russian military, at a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in St. Petersburg on April 26, 2022. Vladimir Putin faces pressure to mobilize his population as his forces face a manpower crisis in Ukraine. Dmitri Lovetsky/Getty Images

"If you frame it as a special military operation and then you say 'actually we are at war' and actually mobilize, that in itself is an admission of failure, which is something that they have not done," he told Newsweek.

"It doesn't matter how you package why it was a failure, it's still the case that that is a setback, which can't be explained away," he said.

"They would have to say for the first time 'we are not winning.' That does not mean they can't do a partial mobilization by stealth," Giles said, referring to the Kremlin calling up reserves with particular grades of service obligation.

"In a way that has already been happening. If you look at people being called up from other arms of service and put on the frontline not in accordance with their specialization, that is kind of a covert mobilization," he added. "That we can expect to continue."

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied it is planning mobilization although Newsweek reported in May how Russian government institutions were recruiting staff for "wartime mobilization specialists."

The U.S. think tank, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said on Thursday that Russia is "responding to the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast by doubling down on crypto-mobilization rather than setting conditions for general mobilization."

It added: "Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called on all federal subjects to initiate 'self-mobilization' and not wait on the Kremlin to declare martial law. Kadyrov claimed that each federal subject must prove its readiness to help Russia by recruiting at least 1,000 servicemen instead of delivering speeches and conducting fruitless public events."

The ISW also said that Kremlin officials and state media, who have not previously made country-wide recruitment calls, have tasked local officials and outlets to generate forces.

Some previous methods to boost troop numbers in Ukraine have included desperate measures. The homelessness charity Nochlezhka told Newsweek last month that staff from the St Petersburg's Frunzensky district administration turned up a shelter to persuade people to join the armed forces.

Meanwhile, Britain's Ministry of Defence said on Friday that Kremlin-linked Russian private military company the Wagner Group has been trying to recruit Russian convicts for service since at least July.

The British defence officials added that Russian military academies are shortening training courses and bringing cadets' graduation dates forwards, saying they were likely being deployed to support the war.

According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Russia has even begun recruiting sick and injured soldiers from hospitals to replace its losses.

Online recruitment

A Kyiv organization fighting the Kremlin's hidden mobilization efforts has said Russia is likely to step up an online recruitment drive in a desperate bid to get more troops to the frontline using classified advert platforms.

The Foundation of Ukrainian War Victims said that since the start of the war, more than 50,000 Russians have been deployed to Ukraine after being recruited, in particular through HeadHunter.ru, Avito.ru, and Superjob.ru. It got the figure analyzing vacancy views, applications and job offers.

"In March we estimated that Russia could recruit up to 10,000 people per month online," Yuriy Mukhin, a board member of the foundation fighting the Kremlin's hidden mobilization efforts told Newsweek from Kyiv, "it is a very effective way to mobilize."

He is concerned that facing a manpower crisis following Ukraine's gains in its counteroffensive, the Russian government would seek to nationalize online services, which would give it an audience of tens of millions to promote its war effort.

"If it does this, then they could be used to increase and speed up recruitment," he said, "they're trying to monopolize this industry. I think it's one of the threats we have now."

Mukhin said that analysis by his foundation highlighted shadow mobilization in which there were 142 different recruiters for military vacancies, in most cases military units themselves.

Online classified advertisements for soldiers are on websites and mobile apps that have tens of millions of users, an audience similar to state television channels.

Monthly salaries to entice troops ranged from 45,000 rubles ($750) up to 500,000 rubles ($8,300). The highest contracts were offered in the Kaluga and Karelia regions as Russia focused its drive for soldiers on the more economically deprived areas of the country.

"The average salary is 140,000 rubles ($2,350) which clearly shows these people will be deployed to Ukraine as this salary level has never been paid to ordinary Russian soldiers staying within the country," Mukhin said.

Mukhin said most vacancies call for soldiers for a military unit in a city, for example, Saratov, or St Petersburg. "What we're seeing is that they recruit them officially to these military units in the regions and then they deploy them to Ukraine."

The Foundation of Ukrainian War Victims has sued Prosus, an Amsterdam-listed company that owned Avito, which admitted in March that it carried military adverts.

In May, Prosus announced it will sell its stake in Avito, which Mukhin says no longer lists military jobs, although he is concerned about listings on Headhunter and Superjob.

Newsweek has reached out to the Kremlin, Headhunter, Prosus and Superjob for comment.