As fall approaches, rumors have been picking up in Russia regarding a potential new wave of mobilization. At the same time, pro-Kremlin analysts and propagandists assert that the current methods of military recruitment should suffice to meet the manpower demands on the front (The Moscow Times, July 3; Meduza, September 14). Russian propaganda has long denied the ongoing nature of mobilization, despite evidence to the contrary. However, an increasing number of experts loyal to the Kremlin are now openly acknowledging this fact.
Prominent Russian military expert Alexander Artamonov, for example, bluntly stated that mobilization is already underway. This is being done on a voluntary basis, as participants are well-compensated. He also noted that Russia’s “mobilization reserve” consists of two million individuals under the age of 35 who could easily be called upon if necessary (YouTube, September 3).
The Telegram channel “Nezygar,” closely linked to the Presidential Administration, takes a slightly more pessimistic view. It acknowledges that “quantitative indicators for recruiting volunteers for the [special military operation] have not reached the required figure of 400,000 people,” though it considers the intermediate results to be satisfactory. Pro-Kremlin analysts also assert that the focus will shift to the fall conscription starting October 1. They note that the pool of potential conscripts will expand due to the recent increase in the conscription age (see EDM, July 27; T.me/russica2, September 5).
Russian officials are determined to avoid repeating the mistakes of the first wave of mobilization. That effort led to a significant exodus of potential conscripts. Andrey Kartapolov, head of the Russian State Duma’s Defense Committee, announced the upcoming rotation of mobilized servicemen who will be replaced by volunteer contract soldiers. In this, he emphasized, “Russia currently has no need for a new partial mobilization” (Тopwar.ru, September 9).
However, in practice, most contract soldiers are still the same mobilized conscripts. Over the past few months, media reports of Russian conscripts being coerced into signing contracts have re-surfaced. According to Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Maliar, Russian commanders resort to blackmail and threats against subordinates if they refuse to sign contracts (Focus.ua, July 14). Independent Russian media also corroborate this information. Investigative journalists note that conscripts are encouraged to sign contracts after a few months of service. Those who decline are threatened with eventual mobilization (Holod.media, July 27).
Another way to bolster the Russian army without officially announcing a new wave of mobilization could be the continued co-opting of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s recruitment methods. In early September 2023, the Russian Defense Ministry proposed placing all prisoners in the country’s correctional facilities on a “special military registry.” This registration is planned to take place directly within Russia’s prisons, bypassing the need to report to military commissariats (RBC, September 6).
It seems that efforts to replenish the army with mercenaries and criminals are failing to solve the problems at the front. According to data from the US-based Institute for the Study of War and Ukrainian military sources, Russia is grappling with a shortage of modern military equipment and drones as well as manpower in Ukraine. Specifically, due to difficulties in evacuating the wounded from the frontlines, some personnel are refusing to carry out their combat duties. This is compounded by a lack of coordination among the various private military companies still operating in Ukraine (24tv.ua, September 11).
Mobilizing more people to the front carries the risk of increased social discontent within Russia. While most of Russian society has accepted the war as an inevitability, in practice, the majority wishes to avoid directly participating and holds a negative view of those that do. In early August 2023, a group of young people in Zabaykalsky krai assaulted a “veteran of the special operation,” accusing him of killing children and stripping him of his medals (Gazeta.ru, August 6). A month later, Russian military analysts began lamenting that such incidents were “becoming disturbingly common in Russia.”
Most often, it is the representatives of minority groups who confront veterans of the “special military operation.” According to Russian military sources, on September 3, individuals of “Caucasian nationality” assaulted a returning war veteran in the Rostov region. In early August, two “participants of the special military operation” were beaten to death in Tuapse. Previously, in the Chelyabinsk region, a native of Tajikistan killed a “participant of the special operation” due to his military record (Тopwar.ru, September 6).
As a result, the Kremlin finds itself in a challenging situation. It must balance the need to continuously replenish the army to prevent a collapse on the front with the imperative of avoiding excessive militarization of the population. Such a development could further exacerbate growing social tensions.
The Kremlin’s primary hope appears to be that the West will seek opportunities for peaceful negotiations with Moscow even if it means compromising on Ukraine’s interests. Such views are increasingly echoed in Russian propaganda. While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was previously portrayed as “Washington’s puppet,” propagandists are now attempting to depict him as the one “blackmailing the West” and obstructing the conflict’s peaceful resolution (Vz.ru, August 31).
Moscow also places hope in the upcoming US presidential elections. Some Russian officials anticipate that the new administration in Washington will cease supporting Ukraine (Life.ru, July 18).
Until then, Moscow has chosen the tactic of gradually replenishing the army through semi-voluntary means. However, if expectations are not met, the Kremlin will face a serious dilemma—likely in the form of sustained military failures or widespread social discontent. Both outcomes are highly undesirable for the Vladimir Putin regime.