RIGA, Latvia — Russia is scrambling to recruit men to fight in Ukraine after major losses in the early months of the war left the army stretched thin and some soldiers disenchanted.
Instead, the military has embarked on a campaign to expand the ranks of active soldiers who have voluntarily signed contracts by cold-calling eligible men and trying to reactivate reservists.
“These efforts represent a form of shadow mobilization. These are piecemeal efforts that allow the Russian military to sustain itself in the war, but do not address the fundamental deficit in manpower,” wrote Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a think tank in Virginia, in a recent analysis.
Just a few weeks after the Feb. 24 invasion, online job sites began advertising thousands of positions offered by the Defense Ministry, which is looking for all kinds of service members, from antitank grenadiers to drivers and reconnaissance snipers. The listings, which were first reported by the BBC Russian service, are republished or updated every few days.
In a recruiting ad posted in Rostov-on-Don, just a few hundred miles away from Ukraine, a deep voice narrates: “Test the limits of your abilities! No, screw the limits, are you ready to break yourself every day?” The action-packed ad continues: “You’ve decided to prove something to yourself. You are trying to detect an enemy in every shadow because if there is no enemy, there is no fight, and if there is no fight, there is no victory.”
Recruitment efforts have been particularly obvious in St. Petersburg, where an inflated figure of a smiling, uniformed officer waved at passersby earlier this month, beckoning them into an enlistment office to learn more about the perks of serving in a professional army.
Job listings and recruitment fliers offer a modest base pay that can go up to $3,500 to 4,000 a month with bonuses. Each day of combat, for instance, yields extra pay of about $55. These sums eclipse the Russian median salary of about $600 a month and, together with low-interest mortgages and various other subsidies, can be appealing, especially in a shrinking economy.
Russia is also conducting its spring draft, which seeks to conscript about 130,000 men between the ages of 18 and 27 by mid-July. By law, conscripts can’t be sent into battle unless they undergo at least four months of training, and the Kremlin has repeatedly vowed that the conscripts won’t be sent to Ukraine at all. But there have been at least two officially confirmed cases where hundreds of inexperienced soldiers ended up in the war zone.
Recruiters across the country have also been calling eligible men to promote contract military service.
Nikita Yuferev, a municipal lawmaker from St. Petersburg, got such a call in late May. “[The caller] explained that her task was simply to call and inform: ‘They gave me a list, and I call up the district’s residents. Those of conscription age,’ she said,” Yuferev recounted. The recruiter told Yuferev that she couldn’t disclose compensation or other details of the proposed employment over the phone and offered him to come to the station in person.
“At the end of our conversation, she told me verbatim: ‘Before going to an appointment, you need to think carefully. I am not persuading you. This is a very big decision in your life,’” Yuferev added.
Dmitry, who provided only his first name because he feared reprisals, said he received a similar call from a recruiter in the Moscow region. An enthusiastic man asked if Dmitry was interested in a short-term contract of three to six months with “a competitive salary” and also invited him to come to the office.
Both Dmitry and Nikita declined the invitations, fearing that if they went to the office, they might not return home.
Human rights groups and lawyers working with the Russian military have reported that enlistment offices have been calling in reservists for “checks” and “updates of personal information,” and then offering them a contract. “So as far as I can see, the Ministry of Defense is using the opportunity to call up those who are in reserve in order to offer them a contract and then send them to war,” Sergei Krivenko, director of the “Citizen. Army. Law” human rights group, said in an interview.
Vadim Shatrov signed a three-month contract in mid-May and was assigned to the 138th motorized rifle brigade in the Belgorod region. “Two days had passed between the moment I came to the military enlistment office ‘just to ask’ and the moment when I was sent off,” Shatrov wrote in a diary that he keeps on his Telegram channel.
Shatrov said financial reasons, specifically the need to provide for his ex-wife and their child, and his patriotic views were the main reasons he enlisted. But his decision also appears to have been driven partly by the Russian propaganda that paints NATO and “Ukrainian Nazis” as an existential threat to Russia.
“The way I see it — I’m not going to fight against ordinary Ukrainians; I’m going to fight with NATO, Nazis and terrorists!” Shatrov said in mid-May.
But the closer he got to the Ukrainian border, the more disenchanted he grew. Fellow soldiers who returned from “behind the ribbon” — slang for crossing into Ukraine — told him horrifying battle tales and lamented poor planning that left Russian soldiers eating grass because of a lack of provisions.
“I have not such patriotic news,” Shatrov wrote. “In the dining room, I met volunteers just like me. They were there for five days, and 80 percent did not return. Out of the four people from Yaroslavl, only one guy came back. He said his commanders abandoned them there.”
British intelligence estimates that Russian losses in the first three months of the war were up to 20,000, while Ukrainian officials said Russian losses were nearing 30,000. Kofman wrote that “a reasonable estimate, based on limited information, would place Russian troops killed in action at somewhere 7,000−15,000, with the more likely figure close to 10,000.”
Moscow, in its last official death toll in March, said it had lost only 1,351 soldiers. A Russian lawmaker from the parliament’s defense committee, Andrey Kartapolov, said the number hasn’t been updated since then because Russia “basically stopped losing people.” That comment runs counter to the almost-daily obituaries appearing on social media.
In his online diary, Shatrov described old equipment handed out to fighters, like “rusty Kalashnikov rifles from the 1980s” and dilapidated personal armor. He said fellow soldiers complained about the lack of rest time and poorly planned battles in which outnumbered Russian units suffered losses from Ukrainian artillery fire.
His account was consistent with other reports about growing exhaustion among the Russian units.
“We’ve had several hundred requests from people who wanted to sever their contract prematurely,” Krivenko said. “Some explain that lack of any [communication with loved ones] was the reason; some blame command that abandoned them or [complain] about callous conditions.”
“And just overall, they say the war is brutal, and it’s not clear to them what are they doing there and who are they are fighting against,” he added.
Shatrov, however, appears to be still committed to the cause. In one of the latest posts he shared from the encampment near the Ukrainian border, he praised the Russian soldiers’ bravery, while decrying how “boys were dying” because of “stupid” command decisions.
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