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Russia seeks 400,000 more recruits as latest Ukraine push stalls

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with volunteers at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 4, 2021.  (ALEXEY DRUZHININ)
Bloomberg News

Bloomberg News

The Kremlin has dialed back plans for a further offensive in Ukraine this spring after failing to gain much ground and will focus on blunting a new push by Kyiv’s forces expected to begin soon.

Digging in for a long fight, the Kremlin is seeking to sign up as many as 400,000 contract soldiers this year to replenish its ranks, according to people familiar with the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters that aren’t public.

The ambitious recruiting campaign would allow the Kremlin to avoid another forced mobilization of reservists as it ramps up the campaign to re-elect President Vladimir Putin later this year, the people said. Last fall’s call-up shook public confidence and triggered an exodus of as many as a million Russians from the country.

Even with the battlefield and political challenges, Putin has signaled he’s confident Russia will be able to outlast Ukraine’s supporters in the U.S. and Europe, betting that if his forces are able to prevent another breakthrough by Ukrainian troops in the coming months, backing for Kyiv will weaken.

While many in the government and Kremlin elite question whether Russia can ever prevail, hard-line security-service officials are committed to pursuing a fight they see as existential and have Putin’s ear, the people said.

Defying efforts by Washington and its allies to isolate him, Putin won strong public backing this month from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who pledged to tighten ties on a visit to Moscow. Privately, Kremlin officials were upbeat about the visit despite the lack of deals announced, saying Xi’s high-profile endorsement was an important sign of support.

China hasn’t publicly committed to supply lethal aid, even as Russia’s forces have struggled to advance in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance. Nearly all of the 300,000 troops mobilized in the fall are now on the battlefield, according to Ukrainian and western officials, but Russia hasn’t managed to take any major towns in recent months.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is planning to launch a major counteroffensive in the coming months with troops fresh from training in Europe and the U.S. and using newly supplied tanks, armored vehicles and other weapons. Kyiv may seek to break through Russian lines and sever the land bridge of occupied territory that now links Crimea to the Russian mainland, according to U.S. officials.

To replenish and expand its ranks, Russia has already begun the recruiting campaign for contract soldiers, who serve for terms up to several years for pay. Regional officials have been given quotas for recruiting and are issuing summonses to potential volunteers to come to draft boards, where they are pitched on signing up, according to people familiar with the efforts. Initially, authorities are targeting veterans and rural residents, they said.

But some officials said the goal of attracting 400,000 contract soldiers this year is likely to be unrealistic. That’s roughly equal to the total number of professional troops Russia had before the invasion was launched on Feb. 24, 2022.

“In the present circumstances I don’t think that they’re going to entice people to join, except for maybe the die-hard patriots, or people who are out of economic opportunities,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at Rand and a former analyst of Russian military capabilities at the U.S. Defense Department. “I don’t see it’s possible for them to do another large push into Ukraine unless they move toward a wartime economy and martial law.”

That’s something the Kremlin so far isn’t ready to do, especially ahead of the elections next spring in which Putin is expected to seek a fifth term, according to people familiar with the situation. While the Kremlin has a tight grip over the political system, officials worry that steps like mobilization that would bring the war home to millions of Russians could complicate their efforts to deliver a resounding election victory.

The number of new volunteer recruits this year has been running behind the level of previous years, said independent Russian military analyst Pavel Luzin, who’s a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in December said Russia would increase the number of contract soldiers to 521,000 by the end of 2023, up from 405,000 before the invasion. These troops typical serve for three years, requiring a steady flow of recruits to replenish the ranks even without the combat losses seen in Ukraine.

Putin late last year approved a plan to increase the size of Russia’s military to 1.5 million from the current 1.15 million, a plan that’s expected to take through 2026.

Shoigu last September said Russia has at its disposal 25 million reservists, though it initially called up only just above 1% of them.

“They are running out of armored assets but they think they have this huge pool of personnel,” said Massicot at Rand.

Ukrainian officials see limits to Russia’s ability to keep up the fight as it runs down stocks of weapons and sanctions limit the ability to replace them.

“They can wage this war through 2023 – maximum until the end of 2024,” Vadym Skibitskyi, deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said in an interview with RBC-Ukraine published Thursday.