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Vladimir Putin’s Ghost Soldiers

Vladimir Putin announced, by signing a decree on August 25, that the Russian army would receive the reinforcement of 137,000 new soldiers. A goal that seems impossible to achieve for most experts on Russian military issues interviewed by France 24.

Searching for the 137,000 missing soldiers. The Russian army finds itself under pressure to satisfy the wishes of Vladimir Putin, who wants to give a boost to his offensive in Ukraine.

The Russian president signed a decree on Thursday August 25 announcing that the Russian « great mute » would receive the reinforcement of 137,000 combatants by January 1 to reach the official figure of 1.15 million active soldiers.

Putin after Catherine II

This would be the largest increase in Russian military personnel for years, recalls the British daily The Guardian. The latest effort in this direction dates back to 2017, when Moscow announced that the ranks of the army had swelled by 13,698 people.

Vladimir Putin’s desire to put ever more soldiers in the balance of war in Ukraine can be understood. By increasing the numerical advantage on the pitch, he can finally hope to make significant inroads in southern and eastern Ukraine.

>> War in Ukraine: what balance of power in the East and the South?

But this promise of an army boosted with new soldiers leaves Russian specialists perplexed. This announcement by Vladimir Putin “could open the door to further ‘potemkinisation’ of the Russian army”, writes on Twitter Mark Galeotti, director of Mayak Intelligence, a consulting firm on security issues in Russia.

A reference to the « Potemkin villages », named after these trompe-l’oeil urban decorations built in the 18the century in Crimea to hide from Catherine II of Russia the real poverty of the region visited by the Empress. Although this historical legend has since been largely denied, the expression remains in Russia to designate efforts made to artificially give flattering appearances to a situation.

In this case, the Russian army could be tempted to artificially inflate its numbers to achieve the objectives set by Vladimir Putin. Going in this way in a few months to more than 1.15 million soldiers seems difficult if not.

First, because the premises of Putin’s arithmetic already contain a flaw. The Russian president starts from the official data of a strong army of just over a million men, “while we know since the start of the war in Ukraine that it is much less”, recalls Huseyn Aliyev , a specialist in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict at the University of Glasgow, who works on Russian military mobilization efforts.

“Estimates vary between 250,000 and 300,000 men ready to fight. The rest is made up of civilian members of the army who are registered as soldiers, or even family members of administration officials whose names have been added so that the soldier’s pay is paid to these officials, ”explains this expert.

Prisoners, mercenaries and Russians over 40 are not enough

The Russian army would therefore be far from reaching the figure of 1.15 million men with the reinforcement of “only” 137,000 soldiers. However, even this last figure seems unrealistic. “Russia has very few options to quickly find so many soldiers. The spring conscriptions were disappointing, and many young people managed to avoid doing their military service”, underlines Jeff Hawn, specialist in Russian military questions and external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American center for research in geopolitics.

The all new 3e army corps, which Moscow decided on Saturday, August 27, to send to the front in Ukraine, illustrates the Russian difficulties in recruiting new soldiers. “It is a contingent of reservists whose creation was decided a few months ago and which was to have around 18,000 soldiers. But the Kremlin only succeeded in motivating about 15,000 men despite a whole series of incentive measures,” underlines Huseyn Aliyev.

The salary paid to new recruits is about three times higher than the traditional pay of Russian soldiers. The maximum age limit – which was previously 40 to enlist – was abolished at the end of May to encourage older people to participate in the military effort in Ukraine.

The Russian military has tried to be as creative as possible in recent months in an attempt to swell its numbers and replace troops lost in Ukraine. In particular, she toured prisons in several cities, offering detainees with military experience reduced sentences if they agreed to go to the front, told the daily The Moscow Times in early July. “It also integrated mercenaries, brought in fighters from Syria and recruited troops from ethnic minorities in Central Asia. [essentiellement des Tadjiks et des Kirghizes, NDLR]”, explains Jeff Hawn.

So many initiatives which have, of course, made it possible to somewhat compensate for the losses on the front, but “this remains largely insufficient to hope to reach the objective of 137,000 new soldiers”, underlines the russologist.

These new recruits come from diverse backgrounds and have no knowledge of Russian military culture and “these soldiers fit very poorly into the army’s chain of command”, adds Jeff Hawn. In other words, the problem is not only quantitative, it is also qualitative.

“These battalions of ‘volunteers’ are currently receiving two weeks’ training before being sent to the front, it is totally insufficient”, adds Huseyn Aliyev. For him, this is also another problem linked to the race for the number of soldiers: “Even if Moscow manages to find 137,000 soldiers, the army is far from having enough training officers to ensure that the new recruits can be quickly combat-ready.”

Internal propaganda or president disconnected from reality?

A solution for the power would be to declare general mobilization, an Arlesian since the Russian army failed to bring Ukraine to a halt quickly.

But the Kremlin should recognize that it is waging a real war in Ukraine and not just a “special military operation”, general mobilization being authorized only in case of open conflict. Vladimir Putin has so far always refused to take this step “which would risk creating social tensions in Russia”, notes Huseyn Aliyev.

And he’s not even sure that would be enough. “The army is already carrying out a ‘silent’ general mobilization by putting local pressure on young people to enlist. And despite this, there are very few new recruits. The authorities know this and are not going to take the risk of declaring a general mobilization from which everyone would seek to escape. It would be a real snub for Vladimir Putin,” says Huseyn Aliyev.

Hence the risk of “potemkinization”. “The most likely is that each barracks will have quantified targets for new recruits to find, the military will seek by all means to achieve them, even if it means inventing phantom recruits. Their budget will depend on it,” recalls Jeff Hawn.

By signing this decree, Vladimir Putin therefore pushes his staff to cheat with the figures. But for the master of the Kremlin, it is doubly important to prove that he can increase the numbers of his army without problems. Firstly for internal propaganda purposes: “This allows the Russians to maintain the illusion that there is still a fervor to go and fight in Ukraine”, notes Huseyn Aliyev. Then, “it’s also a way of telling Westerners that Moscow is ready for a long-running conflict,” adds this specialist. The Kremlin would not decide on such an increase in the number of soldiers if it wanted to end the war as soon as possible.

There is, however, one more last hypothesis. “Vladimir Poutine evolves in such a bubble of information that it can very well believe that the army can easily add 137.000 new soldiers”, estimates Jeff Hawn. This decree would then be proof that the master of the Kremlin is totally disconnected from the reality on the ground.

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