Putin Resorting to Drafted Soldiers in Ukraine Could Come at a High Price

The longer the war in Ukraine drags on, the more likely it becomes that Russian President Vladimir Putin may eventually resort to using conscript soldiers. But experts say that doing so could prove to be a very unpopular move among the Russian people, as well as come at a cost to the Russian military's strength.

"Russia has a serious manpower problem," Michael Kimmage, a history professor at the Catholic University of America and former member of the secretary's policy planning staff at the State Department, told Newsweek. "The attrition from the war has so far been very serious on the Russian side."

Since the beginning of Putin's invasion in late February, multiple reports have claimed Russia's military is suffering from low morale within its ranks. There have also been indications that Putin has turned to outside help for his invasion. In late March, an intelligence report from the United Kingdom said Russia had sent 1,000 mercenaries from the private Wagner Group into eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine's General Staff of the Armed Forces said last week that Russia has been conducting "forced mobilization" of troops in areas it occupies in the Donetsk region.

More recently, Russian conscripts made news when a military prosecutor announced on Tuesday that a dozen Russian officers had been prosecuted for sending around 600 conscript soldiers to fight in Ukraine, Interfax reported. Top Kremlin leaders reportedly didn't authorize the conscript deployment, and Putin had previously said in March that conscripts "do not and will not participate in hostilities" in Ukraine.

"Russia has gone to great lengths to avoid using conscripts in this campaign, for both political and organizational reasons," Yuri Zhukov, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, explained to Newsweek.

Russian soldiers patrol Mariupol
According to experts, Russian President Vladimir Putin could face negative political and strategic consequences should he decide to use conscript soldiers in Ukraine. In this photo, Russian soldiers are seen in Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 12. Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Zhukov said there are practical reasons for not using conscripts, noting such troops "are generally not well-suited for combat."

"The duration of their service is not long enough to acquire many important technical skills," he said. "Their morale is also generally lower than that of long-service professionals, who voluntarily signed contracts and knew what they were getting into. The risk of mass desertion and surrender is far higher in conscript-heavy armies."

Zhukov also said conscript deployment could damage the Kremlin's messaging about the war, which has been to consistently downplay the conflict.

"Using conscripts would also contradict the regime's characterization of the war in Ukraine as a limited 'special military operation,'" he said. "Public support for military operations in Ukraine is in part based on perceptions that victory could be achieved quickly and at low cost, without the need for full mobilization. The public may support full mobilization for a wider war against NATO, but it is far more difficult to explain the need for such a mobilization for a limited contingency operation against Ukraine."

When asked if Putin had knowledge of the 600 conscripts that Russia admitted to using, Zhukov said the public likely won't know for sure "until the relevant Russian government archives are declassified in about 70 years."

However, Kimmage said, "Misinformation, lies, confusion when it comes to using conscripts in the early stages of the war is more than possible; it is probable. Putin set unachievable goals for his military."

Kimmage described another scenario in which enlisting more conscripts could result in a youth backlash in Russia.

He said Putin "does not want young people in Moscow and Saint Petersburg to feel like they could get drafted. That might push them into active opposition to the war."

Putin still has other options before he might feel compelled to deploy drafted soldiers. Kimmage said the Russian president could turn to reservists or try to lure retired personnel back to the battlefield. Larger financial incentives could also be offered in an effort to restock the ranks.

"The big question is not whether Putin can juggle all this in the short term. He certainly can," Kimmage said. "The big question is whether Putin can achieve any of his political aims in Ukraine and whether he can defend against a Ukrainian counter-offensive with the military he currently has and with the piecemeal methods described above. That's very uncertain, and that's the bind he's in."

Newsweek reached out to the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment.