On September 26, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev announced that the Russian Armed Forces have recruited more than 325,000 contracted soldiers since January 1. Based on earlier declarations, the Ministry of Defense is trying to hit the target of 521,000 contracted soldiers by the end of 2023 at any cost (see EDM, March 20). This was the promise Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu publicly gave President Vladimir Putin in December 2022 (Kremlin.ru, December 21, 2022; RBC, September 26). The high number of losses in Ukraine, as well as the over 200,000 Russian men who fled mobilization last year, cast doubts on Moscow’s ability to reach that goal (Novayagazeta.eu, October 3, 2022).
The bureaucratic competition for contracted soldiers means Russian military officials must turn a few tricks on paper. Such an approach hardly improves the actual state of Russian manpower in Ukraine. The Russian High Command thus has a difficult choice to make: to increase the number of drafted soldiers and recruit more contracted soldiers from among them, announce the next wave of partial mobilization or implement martial law and total mobilization.
The exponential growth in recruiting made public by Medvedev, Putin and Shoigu in recent months is rather unusual. The table below includes a number of dates from this year when these leaders announced increases in the recruitment of contracted soldiers.
|June 1||June 13||June 22||August 3||September 3||September 15||September 26|
For these statistics to be accurate, it would mean that the number of contracted soldiers recruited daily increased from 1,383 in late May to 2,273 in late September. For comparison, only 50,000 new contracted soldiers were recruited for all of 2019 (Rossiyskaya gazeta, December 12, 2019). Such an increase seems impossible, though there is a simple explanation.
Most of the newly recruited contracted soldiers come from the following groups:
- Previously contracted soldiers with expired or expiring contracts have been forced to sign new ones. This group is estimated to total somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 (see EDM, June 12).
- Those recruits most recently mobilized have been manipulated into becoming formally contracted soldiers. This group is estimated to reach at least several tens of thousands (media, August 16);
- Volunteers (including former mercenaries) and prisoners who signed short-term contracts for three, six or nine months have been forced to sign new, longer-term contracts by. This group, too, numbers several tens of thousands. Due to signing these additional contracts, this group may have been counted twice by the Ministry of Defense (BBC News Russian, May 3; ru, June 12; Verstka.media, July 20; V1.ru, August 30).
Money is the main motivating factor for these groups to capitulate to Moscow’s pressure. Although the Kremlin claims that last year’s “partial mobilization” is over, extensive recruiting efforts among the Russian population are ongoing (Meduza, November 1, 2022). The main target of these efforts are lower-class, middle-age Russian men, labor migrants without Russian citizenship and non-Russian ethnic groups. At times, these groups are forced to agree to vague contract terms and are sent to the front well before they are ready. As such, some newly recruited soldiers seek to sign contracts with the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces, Navy or Air Force in an attempt to avoid being sent to Ukraine (Mil.ru, June 1; Mil.ru, July 10; Mil.ru, July 11; Holod.media, July 27; Mil.ru, August 7; Mil.ru, August 17; Dalnegorsk-mo.ru, accessed September 28).
Given the Kremlin’s creative counting methods, the true number of newly recruited contracted soldiers is unknown. It is, nevertheless, hard to believe that they number in the hundreds of thousands. For example, the dispatch of no more than 120 newly contracted soldiers from the Amursk and Khabarovsk regions in July 2023 was considered a significant event by the leadership of the 35th Combined Arms Army in the Eastern Military District (Mil.ru, July 4). In August 2023, only three tanks needed to be added to the tank squadron in the Sverdlovsk region due to the low number of newly contracted soldiers (Mil.ru, August 19). Even the efforts to form a new 25th Combined Arms Army required the involvement of regional and local officials throughout Russia to track down willing contracted soldiers in other military units (Vk.ru, June 13).
Russian military officials remain stubborn in hitting the target of 521,000 contracted soldiers by the end of 2023. Moscow may pursue several options in the hopes of achieving this goal. First, it could move to significantly increase the number of soldiers drafted during the upcoming conscription campaign in October 2023. More contracted soldiers could then be recruited from among the draftees with promises of money and a free university education. Second, the Kremlin might officially launch future waves of mobilization. Third, it may implement a combination of these two approaches. Fourth, Moscow could finally decree total mobilization and institute martial law. This option would likely be a last resort, as such a radical approach could trigger widespread discontent in the Russian population.