As Russia tries to take the initiative in eastern Ukraine, Moscow has had to find fresh manpower from some unlikely places for what is shaping up to be a crucial phase of the war.
Since the beginning of what the Kremlin calls its special military operation, it has tried to pursue its campaign with an army at peacetime strength. The results have been mixed. Though Russian forces have made gains in the east and south of the country, they sustained crushing losses in Moscow’s initial attempt to seize Kyiv, by some counts losing as many soldiers as the old Soviet Union did in Afghanistan.
Yet Russia’s leadership has been reluctant to take the step of declaring war, which would allow it to order a full mobilization of fighting-age men. That, analysts say, would tie Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own fate too closely to the outcome.
Instead, Moscow has introduced a number of stopgap measures to reinforce its battle-depleted ranks, from offering lucrative short-term contracts to allowing over-40s to sign up, potentially making tens of thousands more soldiers available.
“There are macro signs that the Russians are having significant problems generating the kind of manpower they need, without going to a full mobilization,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Ukrainian forces, aided by U.S. intelligence and increasingly equipped with Western weapons, have killed between 10,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers, analysts say, and likely injured many more, taking them out of the fight. Russia’s leaders have responded by removing key commanders from the field. Lt. Gen. Sergei Kisel, commander of the first Guards Tank Army, was suspended for failing to take the city of Kharkiv. Vice Adm. Igor Osipov, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet commander, was suspended after the sinking of Moscow’s flagship missile cruiser, the Moskva, in April, the U.K. Defense Ministry said.
Most of Russia’s casualties were suffered in the initial assault on Kyiv, which Ukrainian forces pushed back in March. The units that suffered the heaviest losses have been withdrawn and are now being reconstituted with new soldiers or combined with other units before being sent back into Ukraine to continue the fight in the east, said analysts.
That has put an onus on the Kremlin to find fresh manpower. The Russian military has started taking short-term contracts of several months at a time to help fill out its fighting units, and recruitment officers have started sending out requests to veterans to report their whereabouts if a wider mobilization is launched, said Jack Watling, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
The Duma’s decision to remove age restrictions for soldiers signing short-term contracts also opens up a wider range of potential fighters. Now over-40s can join, opening a door for veterans with experience in the conflicts that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, including Moscow’s two wars in Chechnya.
“There were lots of Russians who saw combat in the 1990s who are older. Demographically, Russia also has an aging population,” said Mr. Watling. “Given where the body of the population is, the Duma law is understandable.”
Russia’s military has meanwhile raised monthly salaries for contract soldiers to nearly $4,000 a month, about four times the average salary in Russia, together with bonuses for planes and tanks destroyed. Recruits can sign up for as few as three months. For Moscow’s purposes, it isn’t ideal, military analysts say.
“This kind of short-term contracting with people coming and going—it disrupts unit cohesion,” said Mr. Watling.
In the Soviet tradition, Russia still has mandatory conscription, though there are various exemptions. Around 135,000 young men were expected to go through the yearlong service at the start of April. Western analysts say Russia used conscripts in the first month of the war but has since cut back.
That makes it increasingly important that Russia reaches out to battle-tested veterans. In one case, a 44-year-old veteran of the second Chechen War in 2000 said he received an order to report to the military unit closest to his home. In a sign of the resistance that a wider mobilization might face, he said he refused.
Arsonists have set fire to more than a dozen military recruitment offices across the country since the start of the war, according to local press and state news agency reports.
Russia’s armed forces are around a million strong. Some 400,000 personnel are ground forces. Historians attribute Moscow’s success in World War II to the Kremlin’s high tolerance to losing large numbers of soldiers to gain the upper hand. A similar fighting structure has been maintained since the fall of the U.S.S.R.
Recent Russian successes in Ukraine, taking towns such as Lyman and Popasna, have put Russian forces closer to Ukrainian strongholds in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. But the slow speed of their advance is due to a variety of factors, including a dearth of troops to break through Ukrainian lines, say analysts.
Instead, Russian forces have chosen to rely on artillery to wear down Ukrainian defenses before advancing. That has caused large losses on the Ukrainian side as well, which is losing between 100-200 soldiers a day as those forces are overwhelmed by Moscow’s firepower. Still, Russia’s results are mixed.
“What we are seeing are very limited shallow attacks that maximize on artillery support,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “That’s a reflection they understand the weaknesses of their own forces.”
Russia’s advances over Ukraine’s Siverskyi Donets River have been repeatedly thwarted, causing Moscow to focus more on smaller objectives. Ukrainian caution over starting counteroffensives in the country’s south, where Russia maintains control over an expanding stretch of coast, has likely contributed to the stalemate there and kept both Russia and Ukraine focused on the city of Severodonetsk in Luhansk region.
When Ukrainian forces make a stand in closer quarters—as they are doing in Severodonetsk, sending in special forces to prevent Russia occupying the city—lack of manpower has made decisive victories difficult for the Russians as their forces fight for days to take control of the city, building by building at times.
“The longer the Ukrainians force the Russians to fight over the cities that dot eastern Ukraine, the more they will bleed Russia’s troops,” said Mr. Barry.