The true organizational state of the Russian Armed Forces has been a “black box” since the start of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The exact number of troops at the Kremlin’s disposal is unclear, and the mix of contracted soldiers, volunteers, and prisoners on the battlefield makes any accurate estimate extremely difficult. As of mid-December, the reported number of contracted soldiers and volunteers who officially joined the armed forces in 2023 stands at 490,000. The Russian military leadership planned that this number would reach 521,000 before year’s end. At the same time, the officially declared number of Russian troops in the combat zone is 244,000 (Kremlin.ru, December 14; Kremlin.ru, December 19). The high rate of casualties on the Ukrainian battlefield, a significant number of Russian military-age men fleeing the country, and growing domestic discontent over the lack of leave for front-line soldiers cast doubts as to the veracity of Moscow’s alleged success in its recruitment efforts.
Recruitment Numbers for Contracted Soldiers and Volunteers Since January 1, 2023
|Number of Recruits
The linear dynamics of Russia’s military recruitment was explained earlier and continues to follow the same general pattern (see EDM, September 28; November 16). A significant portion of the officially reported statistics on newly recruited contracted soldiers come from existing conscripts whose contracts have expired for 15 months, since September 2022. In addition, the Kremlin counts many volunteers and prisoners who signed short-term contracts, for less than 12 months, and then signed new contracts as fresh recruits. In this way, they are being “double-counted” during the calendar year. The inclusion of volunteers and prisoners in these statistics remains dubious, as combat formations of prisoners (e.g., “Storm-Z” units) and volunteer formations are separated from the regular army. As a result, the true number of those who actually signed initial contracts with the Russian Armed Forces during 2023 remains unclear, but it is definitely several times lower than 490,000.
Russia’s more “creative” means of military recruitment have also struggled to maintain pace. For example, Moscow has continued to recruit labor migrants, primarily from Central Asia, to shore up its manpower deficits on the front. The Kremlin has access to hundreds of thousands of labor migrants and has offered additional monthly payments to attract more “volunteers.” Yet, Moscow’s coercive methods only managed to recruit 22,000 soldiers between January 1 and November 15. The Moscow authorities even organized police raids in an aim to forcibly recruit more migrants for military service (Mos.ru, November 15; Contract.mos.ru, accessed December 20, 2023; Agents.media, November 24; Bbc.com/Russian, December 1).
In contrast, the declared number of 244,000 Russian troops deployed in the combat zone is likely more reflective of reality. There is growing evidence, however, of severe understaffing for regular military units. Daily combat operations are consistently conducted by small tactical groups that rarely exceed the size of a platoon (about 30 soldiers) and are usually even smaller. Some officers of the 70th Motor Rifle Division have been replenished with captain-lieutenants from the Russian Navy’s ranks (T.me/vanek_nikolaev, December 2). The 25th Combined Arms Army, which was formed this summer, has been partially reinforced with military personnel from other ground force units and even from other branches of the Russian military (Vk.com, June 5). A Russian prisoner of war who served as a contracted soldier at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome revealed in a recent interview that he was recruited to the ground forces and sent to the front with minimal training (Youtube.com/dmytrokarpenko, December 7). Another Russian prisoner of war recently claimed that he commanded a motor-rifle platoon that consisted of only eight soldiers (Youtube.com/VolodymyrZolkin, December 10).
All this testifies to the fact that Moscow’s military recruitment efforts over the past year have done little to reverse the trend of growing manpower deficits on the front. The “horizontal” recruitment of military personnel from other branches of the armed forces who are not directly participating in the war together with the recruitment of prisoners and those Russians suffering from poverty and unemployment have been the main sources of the Kremlin’s “new” recruits (Istories.media, November 2).
The understaffing of military units remains a systemic problem for the Russian Armed Forces. The Kremlin will presumably continue to report inflated statistics in an effort to save face with an increasingly frustrated domestic population. The Russian military leadership has promised to increase the number of contracted soldiers to 745,000 by the end of 2024, up from 695,000 by the end of 2026 as was planned last year (Kremlin.ru, December 21, 2022; Kremlin.ru, December 19). Consequently, the Russian Ministry of Defense is either doomed to develop further tricks for manipulating recruitment statistics or plans to reach 745,000 only on paper to justify further increases to the defense budget. This approach may correlate with the growing number of Russian generals needed to command the increased number of military units (Publication.pravo.gov.ru, December 6). These units will likely remain permanently understaffed but would serve as “evidence” for the Kremlin’s claims of success in its military recruitment efforts.