Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
It appears it’s only a matter of time before the Kremlin orders another draft to replenish its depleted ranks and make up for the battlefield failings of its command.
This week, Norway’s army chief said Russia has already suffered staggering losses, estimating 180,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in Ukraine since February — a figure much higher than American estimates, as General Mark Milley, chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, had suggested in November that the toll was around 100,000.
But whatever the exact tally, few military analysts doubt Russian forces are suffering catastrophic casualties. In a video posted this week, Russian human rights activist Olga Romanova, who heads the Russia Behind Bars charity, said that of the 50,000 conscripts recruited from jails by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s paramilitary mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group, 40,000 are now dead, missing or deserted.
In some ways, the high Wagner toll isn’t surprising, with increasing reports from both sides of the front lines that Prigozhin has been using his recruits with little regard for their longevity. One American volunteer, who asked to remain unnamed, recently told POLITICO that he was amazed how Wagner commanders were just hurling their men at Ukrainian positions, only to have them gunned down for little gain.
Andrey Medvedev, a Wagner defector who recently fled to Norway, has also told reporters that in the months-long Russian offensive against the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, former prisoners were thrown into battle as cannon fodder, as meat. “In my platoon, only three out of 30 men survived. We were then given more prisoners, and many of those died too,” he said.
Of course, Wagner is at the extreme end when it comes to carelessness with lives — but as Ukraine’s deadly New Year’s Day missile strike demonstrated, regular Russian armed forces are also knee-deep in blood. Russia says 89 soldiers were killed at Makiivka — the highest single battlefield loss Moscow has acknowledged since the invasion began — while Ukraine estimates the death toll was nearer 400.
Many of those killed there came from Samara, a city located at the confluence of the Volga and Samara rivers, where Communist dictator Joseph Stalin had an underground complex built for Russian leaders in case of a possible evacuation from Moscow. The bunker was built in just as much secrecy as the funerals that have been taking place over the past few weeks for the conscripts killed at Makiivka. “Lists [of the dead] will not be published,” Samara’s military commissar announced earlier this month.
To make up for these losses, Russia’s military bloggers, who have grown increasingly critical, have been urging a bigger partial mobilization, this time of 500,000 reservists to add to the 300,000 already called up in September. President Vladimir Putin has denied this, and Kremlin press spokesman Dmitry Peskov has also dismissed the possibility, saying that the “topic is constantly artificially activated both from abroad and from within the country.”
Yet, last month, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called for Russia’s army to be boosted from its current 1.1 million to 1.5 million, and he announced new commands in regions around Moscow, St. Petersburg and Karelia, on the border with Finland.
Meanwhile, circumstantial evidence that another draft will be called is also accumulating — though whether it will be done openly or by stealth is unclear.
Along these lines, both the Kremlin and Russia’s political-military establishment have been redoubling propaganda efforts, attempting to shape a narrative that this war isn’t one of choice but of necessity, and that it amounts to an existential clash for the country.
In a recent interview, General Valery Gerasimov — the former chief of the defense staff and now the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine — said that Russia is battling “almost the entire collective West” and that course corrections are needed when it comes to mobilization. He talked about threats arising from Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
Similarly, in his Epiphany address this month, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church said, “the desire to defeat Russia today has taken very dangerous forms. We pray to the Lord that he will bring the madmen to reason and help them understand that any desire to destroy Russia will mean the end of the world.” And the increasingly unhinged Dmitry Medvedev, now the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, has warned that the war in Ukraine isn’t going as planned, so it might be necessary to use nuclear weapons to avoid failure.
As Russia’s leaders strive to sell their war as an existential crisis, they are mining ever deeper for tropes to heighten nationalist fervor too, citing the Great Patriotic War at every turn. At the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad, which commemorates the breaking of the German siege of the city in 1944, a new exhibition dedicated to “The Lessons of Fascism Yet to Be Learned” is due to be unveiled, and it is set to feature captured Ukrainian tanks and armored vehicles. “It’s only logical that a museum dedicated to the struggle against Nazism would support the special operation directed against neo-Nazism in Ukraine,” a press release helpfully suggests.
In line with Putin’s insistence that the war is being waged to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, Kremlin propagandists have also been endeavoring to popularize the slogan, “We can do it again.”
At the same time, there are signs that local recruitment centers are gearing up for another surge of draftees as well.
Rumors of a fresh partial mobilization have prompted some dual-citizen Central Asian workers — those holding Russian passports and who would be eligible to be drafted — to leave the country, and some say they’ve been prevented from exiting. A Kyrgyz man told Radio Free Europe he was stopped by Russian border guards when he tried to cross into Kazakhstan en route to Kyrgyzstan. “Russian border guards explained to me quite politely that ‘you are included in a mobilization list, this is the law, and you have no right to go,’” he said.
In order to prevent another surge of refuseniks, Moscow also seems determined to put up further restrictions on crossing Russia’s borders, including possibly making it obligatory for Russians to book a specific time and place in advance, so that they can exit. Amendments to a transport law introduced in the Duma on Monday would require “vehicles belonging to Russian transport companies, foreign transport companies, citizens of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens, stateless persons and other road users” to reserve a date and time “in order to cross the state border of the Russian Federation.”
Transport officials say this would only affect haulers and would help ease congestion near border checkpoints. But if so, then why are “citizens of the Russian Federation” included in the language?
All in all, manpower will be crucial for Russia to mount a spring offensive in the coming months. And Western military analysts suspect that Ukraine and Russia are currently fielding about the same number of combat soldiers on the battlefield. This means General Gerasimov will need many more if he’s to achieve the three-to-one ratio military doctrines suggest are necessary for an attacking force.