MOSCOW (NYTIMES) – Four Russian veterans of the war in Ukraine recently published short videos online to complain about what they called their shabby treatment after returning to the Russian region of Chechnya, after six weeks on the battlefield.
One claimed to have been denied a promised payment of nearly US$2,000 (S$2,800). Another grumbled that a local hospital declined to remove shrapnel lodged in his body.
Their public pleas for help got results, but not the kind they were hoping for. Instead, an aide to Mr Ramzan Kadyrov, the autocrat who runs Chechnya, berated them at length on television as ingrates and forced them to recant.
“I was paid much more than they promised,” said Mr Nikolai Lipa, the young Russian who had claimed that he had been cheated.
Ordinarily, complaints like these might be ignored, but the swift rebuke underscores how Russian officials want to stamp out any criticism about military service in Ukraine.
They need more soldiers, desperately, and are already using what some analysts call a “stealth mobilisation” to bring in new recruits without resorting to a politically risky national draft.
To make up for the manpower shortfall, the Kremlin is relying on a combination of impoverished ethnic minorities, Ukrainians from the separatist territories, mercenaries and militarised national guard units to fight the war, and promising hefty cash incentives for volunteers.
“Russia has a problem with recruitment and mobilisation,” said Mr Kamil Galeev, an independent Russian analyst and former fellow at The Wilson Centre in Washington. “It is basically desperate to get more men using any means possible.”
No to national draft
The numbers of battlefield dead and wounded are closely held secrets on both sides. The British military recently estimated the number of dead Russians at 25,000, with tens of thousands more wounded, out of an invasion force of 300,000, including support units.
Yet, President Vladimir Putin hobbled the mobilisation effort from the beginning, experts said, by refusing to put Russia on a war footing that would have allowed the military to start calling up reserves.
Hence, the Kremlin has tried to glue together replacement battalions through other means.
Avoiding a draft for all adult males allows the Kremlin to maintain the fiction that the war is a limited “special military operation”, while also minimising the risk of the kind of public backlash that spurred the end of previous Russian military debacles, like the one in Afghanistan and the first Chechen war.
The public outcry after Chechnya prompted Russia to ban the use on the battlefield of raw recruits, men ages 18 to 27 who are required to complete a year of mandatory military service.
The revelations that hundreds were deployed in Ukraine anyway, including some of the sailors who died when the Ukrainians sank the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, prompted the very outrage from parents that the Kremlin had sought to avoid.
Numerous analysts have raised doubts about how long Russia can sustain its offensive in Ukraine without a general mobilisation.
Mr Igor Girkin, a military analyst and a frequent critic of the Ukraine strategy, has said that Russia cannot possibly conquer the entire country without one. But the Kremlin seems determined to avoid taking such a drastic step.
Instead, recruitment offices have resorted to calling reservists repeatedly to offer cash incentives for short deployments. Online want ads placed by the regional recruitment offices of the Ministry of Defence also overflow with thousands of postings for those with military specialties.
Recent listings on global job sites like Head Hunter included units looking for combat engineers, anyone who could operate a grenade launcher and even the commander for a parachute squadron.
The salaries offered to some volunteers, which can range from US$2,000 to US$6,000 a month, are far more than the average monthly salary in Russia of about US$700. Prewar contracts for privates sometimes were as paltry as around US$200 a month.
The online Russian ads avoid mentioning Ukraine, and the short-term offers, often three months, are meant to play down the risks of never coming home.
“It may be that it is necessary to get them into the army, and when they are already in the army, figure out what to do,” said Mr Galeev.
The high death toll among soldiers from poorer republics populated by ethnic minorities, like Dagestan in the Caucasus and Buryatia in southern Siberia, indicate that they fill the front ranks in disproportionate numbers.
Statistics, compiled by MediaZona, an independent news outlet, from public sources, show 225 dead in Dagestan through June, along with 185 in Buryatia, compared to nine from Moscow and 30 from St. Petersburg.
Minority conscripts in particular are pressured to sign contracts.
“They tell them that if they return to their hometown, they will not find any job, so it is better to stay in the army to earn money,” said Mr Vladimir Budaev, a spokesperson for the Free Buryatia Foundation, an anti-war group abroad for the Buryats, an Indigenous minority.
One long-standing taboo is being tossed aside in the quest for soldiers. The authorities in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia have announced that they will form regiments made up entirely of men from the region, apparently in hopes that local nationalism would inspire more volunteers.
The military has avoided that kind of recruitment since czarist times out of fear of fostering separatist movements.
In the battle for Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, the Russian military has done away with niceties like cash bonuses. Conscription is mandatory for men between ages 18 and 65 in areas under Russian control, and front-line fighters there are mainly local conscripts.
Since they are Ukrainian citizens, the thousands of dead and wounded have minimal impact in Russia, so the Kremlin is particularly cavalier about their casualties, experts say.
Some have been grabbed right off the streets and dispatched to the trenches with little or no training and vintage guns, military analysts and relatives have said.
“It is the colonial model of locals being used as cannon fodder,” Mr Galeev said.