In 2023, regular spring conscription for military service in Russia started on April 1 and will end on July 15. The stated goal for this round of conscription is 147,000 soldiers, higher than the targets of 134,500 soldiers for spring 2022 and 120,000 soldiers for fall 2022. However, this number is comparable to the levels for 2016 and 2017, with goals of 155,000 and 142,000, respectively, during the spring conscription campaigns and 152,000 and 134,000, respectively, for the fall campaigns (TASS, March 30). Meanwhile, the effort for recruiting contracted soldiers into the regular forces and volunteers into the so called “volunteer formations” has also started, instead of the expected next wave of “partial mobilization” (Garant.ru, March 7; Ura.ru, March 10). Nevertheless, in the face of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Russia is still struggling with a severe lack of manpower, which can hardly be managed in conventional ways.
In an aim to recruit new contracted soldiers to fight in the war against Ukraine, the Russian Ministry of Defense even decreased the term of initial contracts from two years to one and completely eliminated the requirement of previous conscripted military service and/or professional education. Furthermore, the Ministry of Defense is trying to recruit foreign citizens. In this way, it also decreased the term of initial contracts from five years to one and made it easier for these foreign recruits to obtain Russian citizenship (Ric.mil.ru, May 10).
Despite the fragmented data regarding the ongoing recruitment of contracted soldiers, it is becoming apparent that all these efforts face significant difficulties as compared to pre-war years. For instance, Dmitry Medvedev—former president of Russian, one of Vladimir Putin’s closest cronies and deputy head of the Russian Security Council—announced two contradicting statistics in the past several weeks: On May 19, Medvedev said that 117,400 contracted soldiers and volunteers had joined the Russian Armed Forces; however, on June 1, he said that more than 134,000 people had been successfully recruited to the armed forces from January 1 to May 31 (RIA Novosti, May 19; Scrf.gov.ru, June 1).
Such an unusually fast dynamic may be explained by the fact that all Russian contracted soldiers, sergeants and noncommissioned officers (NCOs), who have been forced to stay in the army since the partial mobilization started in September 2022 despite expired or expiring contracts, are being compelled to sign new contracts in an aim to formalize their current status.
For comparison, during the five pre-war years, 2017–2021, the number of contracted soldiers, sergeants and NCOs in the Russian Armed Forces totaled about 400,000 (Interfax, April 6, 2017; Interfax, December 5, 2018; Rossiyskaya gazeta, March 25, 2020). The absolute majority of them served only one standard two-year contract and rarely signed contracts for another term. (The standard term for the second contract is three years, and the standard term for the third and successive contracts is five years.)
Therefore, the regular annual rotation of contracted soldiers, sergeants and NCOs may be conservatively estimated at 150,000. In truth, the real numbers may be even higher considering the known research of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia), which faces similar personnel problems as the regular army: 60 percent of soldiers and 30 percent of sergeants retired from military service even before the end of their first contract (Cyberleninka.ru, accessed June 8).
Consequently, the rotation of contracted soldiers in the Russian Armed Forces has been almost frozen, and there is a severe deficit of new recruits. This situation is confirmed by evidence from the Khanty-Mansiysk autonomous district, where the regional authorities cannot recruit enough contracted soldiers despite additional payments from the regional budget (Ura.ru, June 6). Moreover, some evidence points to the fact that recently recruited contracted personnel, such as tank crews, are assigned basic competences and tasks directly at the rear of Russian forces in the war zone (Mil.ru, June 2). It also confirms the continued significant deficit in manpower.
Overall, the paradoxical fact is that contracted military service may be considered the “safe place” for those Russians who want to avoid the war. For instance, the Russian Strategic Missile Forces completed its 2023 plan for recruiting contracted soldiers by June. They recruited 2,000 personnel, with 1,500 among them acting as conscripted soldiers and another 500 deciding to join these troops in the event that they are never sent to Ukraine (Mil.ru, June 1). The same may be true for other branches of the Russian Armed Forces, such as the navy or the air and space forces.
The term of volunteer military service starts at three months, and the Russian Ministry of Defense was able to recruit a fair amount of personnel in this regard. However, as of early June 2023, it seems that the idea of recruiting short-term volunteers and creating volunteer formations is beginning to be recognized as ineffective, or perhaps such efforts have been buried by the ministerial bureaucracy. Thus, currently, this form of recruitment is not being widely promoted anymore (Mil.ru, June 7; Gosuslugi.ru, accessed June 8).
At the same time, the Ministry of Defense is engaging in efforts to incorporate and place under its control different groups of mercenaries—or “volunteer organizations” as they are officially called—that are currently controlled by other political actors, including Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechen forces and Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagnerites. In this way, Russia’s defense officials are forcing these “organizations” to sign volunteer contracts with the Ministry of Defense by July 1 (TASS, June 10; Mil.ru, June 12). For his part, Kadyrov has already signed said agreement, while Prigozhin remains defiantly against such an arrangement (Ukrainska Pravda, June 12). In truth, these efforts reveal the ongoing inter-elite and inter-agency infighting within the Russian military apparatus as well as the bureaucratic games of power and resource control typical for authoritarian regimes during times of turbulence.
For the ongoing conscription campaign, the Eastern Military District has drafted 5,500 of the planned 10,000 recruits, or 55 percent of the stated goal, while some units of the Central Military District have received more than 50 percent of the expected new recruits. Therefore, one can estimate that, in total, between 75,000 and 80,000 of the announced goal of 147,000 soldiers were conscripted during April and May 2023 (Mil.ru, May 22; Mil.ru, June 6).
Ultimately, the Kremlin is running into the problem that only one month is left to recruit the remaining 45 percent of the planned amount for conscripted soldiers. And even if this goal is actually realized, it has become much more difficult for the Russian military leadership to maintain the current conscription system. All this means that Russia’s deficit in manpower will hardly be managed in a conventional way, and the Kremlin may be considering more radical moves such as full-scale mobilization, which would likely promise nothing but more turbulence domestically. Yet, in the face of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Moscow may resort to such desperate measures as its options on the battlefield become more limited.