War in Ukraine Coming Home to Russia, Making It Harder for Moscow to Fill the Ranks

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 64

Russian conscripts (Source: Reuters)

As Russian losses in Ukraine mount and resistance in the Russian army to being deployed there increases (Mediazona [1] [2], April 6), Moscow faces growing difficulties with mobilizing soldiers to fill the gaps. This problem is especially acute in places where the funerals of those who have died in combat are an ever more familiar part of life —such as in small non-Russian republics like Buryatia and Dagestan and smaller but predominantly ethnic-Russian areas far from Moscow. In those regions, no amount of state propaganda can hide the true costs of President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, which can depress locals’ willingness to take part. For now, no reliable figures exist on just how many potential soldiers are refusing to serve when drafted, but there are already clear indications that Moscow has been forced to shift to the vastly more expensive method of hiring “contract” soldiers, who can be dispatched somewhat more easily to Ukraine (see EDM, March 31, April 19).

The most dramatic form of draft resistance so far has taken the form of violent attacks on as many as five military commissariats responsible for carrying out the draft in Russia (T.Me/istories_media, April 21; Semnasem.org, April 18). The latest of these attacks, in the Middle Volga Republic of Mordovia, forced officials there to suspend the military call-up across that region. Whether that has happened anywhere else is unknown, but what is certain is that the fighting in Ukraine has now come home to Russia. And some Russian citizens, often far removed from the capitals, are expressing their anger at Putin’s policies in ways that are increasingly leaving the entire country on edge (The Moscow Times, April 22).

To no one’s surprise, Kremlin-controlled media outlets have not focused on these problems. Indeed, the authorities have been increasingly taking steps to hide just how many Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine (Kavkazr.com, April 20). But doing so effectively is proving difficult, given that the media has also been reporting about the shifting of forces from other parts of the Russian Federation, the use of troops from Syria and even from Russian peacekeepers in Karabakh, and complaints by ordinary Russians on social media. Those media stories, in turn are being gathered and analyzed by Ukrainian experts who, of course, have an interest in playing up such problems. Nonetheless, their meticulous citation of the Russian sources lend credibility to their reports about what is happening inside Russia (Apostrophe.ua, April 27).

Aleksey Izhak, a security analyst at Kyiv’s National Institute for Strategic Research, said that “Russians have been mobilized for victory,” but only on television and not in real life, “when it is necessary to really die.” A major reason for the Kremlin’s decision to avoid a general mobilization is the memory of 1917 in the minds of the Russian leadership. They know that, first, Russians were enthusiastic about the war, but then they turned the guns they received back on their leaders and overthrew two governments that supported the war against the will of the people. Putin and his entourage do not want to take that risk by dramatically increasing the size of the army or even officially declaring war, Izhak suggested (Apostrophe.ua, April 27).

But if losses mount and resistance both to the draft and to service in Ukraine increase, Izhak argued, Moscow will have little choice but to make a change. So far, it is trying to conduct “a hidden mobilization” by calling up reserves. But that only calls attention to just how serious the problem has become. And if the Kremlin is forced to begin a more general mobilization, Izhak said, it will have to “somehow sell it to the population.” According to him, Russia’s government is preparing to do that with the fires that had broken out in Bryansk and Belgorod—something, he contended, Moscow can and likely will use to justify general mobilization. But even that will not make things easy for the Kremlin: the government has talked so long about its victories that many Russians will view full mobilization as an acknowledgement of defeat (Apostrophe.ua, April 27).

The war in Ukraine has hit non-Russian republics and smaller predominantly ethnic-Russian regions far from Moscow harder than it has the cities because so many soldiers come from these places. As such, the number of bodies returning for funerals there is especially high. Dagestan in the North Caucasus leads in the number of combat deaths observers have been able to count, with 125; Buryatia in the Russian Far East is second, with 85; and those monitoring the situation say these numbers are swelling every day (Mediazona, April 25).

In both these areas and elsewhere, women, mothers, wives and children of draftees, and their friends have taken the lead in organizing anti-war protests. Indeed, what has come to be known as the Feminist Anti-War Resistance (better known under its Russian acronym FAS) now has more subscribers to its internet platforms than any other Russian anti-war groups (Semnasem.org, April 19). Not surprisingly, women in these republics and ones from there who are now forced to live abroad are among the most fearful about losses among men of their nationalities in Ukraine; therefore, they are also the most understanding and even supportive of those who seek not to serve there. Some openly call Russia the aggressor and even say what is going on is “a second Chechnya” that they want nothing to do with. Such views both reflect and help shape the attitudes of the men in those regions. And to judge from what they are now saying, Moscow is going to have far more trouble filling its draft this spring than ever before. (The Moscow Times, April 27; Baikal-journal.ru, April 28; New Times, April 29; Daptar.ru, Kasporav.ru, April 30).

Significantly for the future, the Russian draft objectors’ complaints are now being reproduced in global forums, including at the United Nations, ensuring that their worries and opposition will receive more attention and they feel less alone in opposing Putin’s war. Several days ago, Syres Bolyaen, a member of the Erzyan nation, now in forced emigration in Kyiv, took part as a member of the Ukrainian delegation in a UN discussion about the war. He denounced Moscow’s use of non-ethnic-Russians as cannon fodder. If his words reach ears back in Russia, they will likely make even more of the local population think twice about supporting the draft or being willing to be sent to the front lines (Svobodny Idel-Ural, May 1).