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Struggling To Fill Out Its Ranks In Ukraine War, Russia Resorts To 'Illegal' Regional Mobilization


Ukrainian police officers take a selfie on a destroyed Russian tank in the liberated town of Izyum in the Kharkiv region on September 14.

By all accounts except the Kremlin’s, Russia is struggling with military manpower shortages as its invasion of Ukraine continues in its seventh month. Western estimates say Russia may have suffered 25,000 combat fatalities and as many as 80,000 total casualties so far in fighting that has achieved none of the Kremlin’s stated objectives.

All matters of security and the formation and activity of the armed forces are exclusive functions of the central government.”
-- Sergei Krivenko, Citizen.Army.Law

Moscow, though, has shied away from declaring war and mobilizing its full military reserves, most likely out of fear of the domestic political consequences that could arise from sending men from urban areas or the professional classes into combat. Instead, Russia has relied largely on contract soldiers recruited from remote and impoverished regions.

On September 15, a video emerged appearing to show Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin recruiting mercenaries to fight in Ukraine at a Russian prison. Prisoner-rights groups in Russia believe some 10,000 convicts have already been shipped out to fight in Ukraine.

Although Prigozhin has not acknowledged that he is the one who appeared in the video, on September 16 he issued a statement defending the practice of recruiting convicts.

“Those who don’t want to see prisoners fighting for private military firms, who condemn this, who don’t want to do anything themselves, and who in general don’t like this topic should send their children to the front,” Prigozhin was quoted as saying. “Either private military companies and convicts or your children -- decide for yourselves.”

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called on the heads of all 83 Russian regions to carry out “self-mobilizations” at the regional level.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called on the heads of all 83 Russian regions to carry out “self-mobilizations” at the regional level.

On September 15, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed strongman leader of the North Caucasus region of Chechnya, called on the heads of all 83 Russian regions to carry out “self-mobilizations” at the regional level and send at least 1,000 “volunteers” to the war “without waiting for the Kremlin to announce a military mobilization.”

According to an analysis by the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War on September 15, the Kremlin is “doubling down” on its stealth mobilization in the wake of a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive that sent Russian forces reeling in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

“The defeat around Kharkiv Oblast prompted the Kremlin to announce a Russia-wide recruitment campaign,” part of which was Kadyrov’s initiative, the think tank wrote.

Within two days of Kadyrov’s message, at least four other Russian regional leaders endorsed the idea. One of them was the head of the mid-Volga Republic of Mari El, Yury Zaitsev. Mari El is one of Russia’s poorest regions and has already sent three battalions of volunteers to Ukraine. The prison where the purported video of Prigozhin recruiting prisoners was shot was also located there.

Sergei Krivenko
Sergei Krivenko

However, under Russian law, the idea of regions carrying out their own individual military mobilizations is clearly illegal, said Sergei Krivenko, the head of the Citizen.Army.Law nongovernmental aid organization.

“Russia, of course, has a federative structure,” he told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “But all matters of security and the formation and activity of the armed forces are exclusive functions of the central government.”

“Any mobilization or the formation of separate military units outside the Defense Ministry or the National Guard should be impossible and illegal,” he added. “But, of course, it is possible, but it is illegal.”

Krivenko added that Russian law permits individuals to avoid such mobilizations and the regular military draft through its provisions on alternative civilian service and conscientious objection.

“People are not being forced through violence into the military,” he said. “They are being tricked in various ways, offered large sums of money and other incentives that as a rule are never paid out. But no one is being forced. And that means there is a chance for citizens of Russia with good consciences to think it through and not participate in this evil.”

“I’m saying this is possible, but I am not saying that it is easy,” Krivenko added. “Lately, it has become a rather difficult thing to do, but it remains possible. It just takes extra effort and extra resolve.”

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report.
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