While the precise consequences of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s so-called “march for justice” remain to be seen, the events starting on the night of June 23 and abruptly ending with a deal between Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin—seemingly brokered by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka—on June 24 will certainly disrupt Russian forces still fighting in Ukraine (T.me/concordgroup_official; T.me/tvrain, June 24). By some accounts, the Wagner Group chief’s reported exile to Belarus does not mean his Wagnerites are done in Ukraine. Even so, this uncertainty, and the instability caused by the events of the weekend, will have serious repercussions for Russia’s ongoing manpower shortages on the front—especially with the Kremlin considering a new wave of mobilization.
Since the beginning of winter last year, the Russian army has been regularly experiencing problems in manpower shortages on the Ukrainian frontlines (see EDM, March 20). At the end of December 2022, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced plans to increase the number of contract servicemen from 405,000 in December 2021 to 521,000 by the end of 2023. Adding to that, according to the Defense Ministry, the eventual desired number of military personnel in the Russian Armed Forces would be increased to 1.5 million, with 695,000 contract servicemen (RBC, December 21, 2022).
On June 10, Moscow reported that, to increase the effective use of volunteer formations in the united grouping of Russian forces in Ukraine, an order determining the procedures and service activities for volunteer organizations was signed (see EDM, June 12). The document specifies that volunteer units must sign contracts with the Ministry of Defense (MoD) by July 1. This will give the volunteer units the necessary legal status, as well as create uniform approaches to the organization of supply and fulfillment of their tasks. The order entitles all volunteers to sign individual contracts either with volunteer units or with the MoD as contract servicemen (TASS, June 10). The first volunteer units to sign such a contract were the Chechen Akhmat detachments (TASS, June 12).
In this approach, the Kremlin, in an uncomplicated way, is trying to achieve the goal of increasing the number of contract soldiers by simply transferring volunteers and private military companies (PMCs) under its management (T.me/mod_russia, June 13). This method includes not only PMCs and other volunteer unis but also prisoners who fight in the ranks of the Russian army under the gray legal scheme of “go to war for six months, receive a pardon.” Now, instead of this practice, contracts will be extended for a new, unspecified term, making these prisoners full-fledged servicemen in the Russian Armed Forces (Kommersant, June 13).
This raises questions as to the overall implications of such moves by the Russian MoD. Apart from the direct centralization of resource management, there is another purpose here—namely an attempt to postpone a broader wave of mobilization. However, even with these measures, another mobilization is inevitable as Russia has burned up nearly all its “excess” manpower in the battles in Donbas, primarily the inhabitants of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR/LPR). According to available data, which is based on rough estimates, as of mid-June 2023, some 140,000 people were forcibly mobilized in the DPR/LPR, of whom anywhere from 48,000 to 96,000 were sent to the Ukrainian front while the rest remained on the home front (Meduza, July 6, 2022).
At the same time, Colonel-General Yevgeny Burdinsky, head of the Main Organizational Mobilization Directorate of the Russian General Staff, released figures regarding mobilization in the separatist territories in the magazine, Military Commissariats of Russia. From November 10 to December 2, 2022, a Russian MoD commission carried out work on the inclusion of the military commissariats of the DPR/LPR into the Russian Armed Forces. An assessment of the main performance indicators of these commissariats supported the notion of their readiness to carry out assigned military tasks as intended. In total, 79,800 people have been called up for mobilization in the DPR/LPR, and about 2,000 vehicles have been delivered to these forces (Voenkom.ric.mil.ru, May 27).
Since December 2022, the question arises: What has happened to the nearly 80,000 mobilized recruits? (And this does not include the 35,000 military personnel of the 1st and 2nd army corps of the regular army.) In truth, most of the mobilized were lost during the storming of fortifications in Donbas, as well as in various cities, including Rubizhne, Popasna, Mariupol and others. The regular Russian army is using these units as the Red Army once used the population of the de-occupied territories, throwing them into attacks so recklessly that German soldiers nicknamed such formations Beutesoldaten, or “trophy soldiers.”
Furthermore, as the fighting in Ukraine became a war of attrition, in February 2023, other mobilized personnel, from the DPR/LRP as well as the Russian Far East, began to be used in the storming of Ukrainian fortifications in the Avdiivka and Vuhledar directions. These mobilized units were conscripted as part of Russia’s border and territorial defense forces and subsequently attached to combat units (Current Time TV, March 20). After suffering heavy casualties, many soldiers from these units complained that the Russian MoD “did not help them in any way.”
As a result of the redeployment of mobilized recruits to the combat zone from the border areas, the Russian leadership has been forced to use conscripts to guard the border. This in turn has reduced the effectiveness of the combat ranks in the area of their deployment (T.me/sashakots, June 3; RBC, June 6). This can be observed in the difficulty Russian forces have had in pushing back against recent border incursions into the Belgorod region.
In terms of the effects of mobilization, next in line is the Wagner Group. According to the human rights organization Russia Behind Bars, Wagner has recruited more than 50,000 prisoners, of whom more than 5,000 already received amnesty for their crimes this spring (Current Time TV, January 23). More recently, Prigozhin announced that 32,000 former prisoners fighting for Wagner have now returned to Russia, though these numbers were likely exaggerated (Meduza, June 18). In other words, it can be assumed that, beyond regular forces, a fairly large percentage of volunteer and PMC personnel have also been lost, whether as casualties on the battlefield or to the completion of their service contracts.
For his part, initially, Prigozhin was vehemently against signing any contract with the Russian MoD (Ukrainska Pravda, June 11). However, the Wagner chief eventually submitted a contract “of his own drafting” to the Russian military leadership—though, based on his “march on Moscow,” this may have been yet another defiant move against the Russian military apparatus (Twitter.com/DefenceHQ, June 20).
Given newly introduced laws regarding conscription and tightening its procedures (see EDM, June 12), it is logical to conclude that, toward the end of the summer, Russia will again face the choice of declaring a larger-scale mobilization. Thus, the Russian military leadership is trying to toe the line between assuaging the fears of the Russian population regarding its increased participation in the war and addressing severe personnel shortages in the armed forces. And with the potentially destabilizing effects of Prigozhin’s recent actions, Moscow will most likely find itself in a “lose-lose” situation, both in Ukraine and domestically, as early as this coming fall (see EDM, June 14, 2022).