‘Ghost recruits’: Is Putin raising a Potemkin army to boost troop numbers?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on August 25 that the Russian army would be reinforced with 137,000 new soldiers as the war in Ukraine grinds on. But analysts say this goal looks impossible for Moscow to achieve.

Putin wants to turbocharge his offensive in Ukraine by pouring in reinforcements, to the tune of 137,000 extra soldiers – bringing the total to 1.15 million active fighters. This would be the biggest increase in Russian military personnel in years, the last such boost being in 2017, when Moscow announced that the army’s ranks had swelled with 13,698 new soldiers.

The thinking seems to be that greater numbers on the ground will give Russian forces the upper hand, amid stalemates in eastern and southern Ukraine.

But analysts are sceptical. “Fine, but as we've seen time and again in the past, this is easier to decree than do,” Mark Galeotti, Russia specialist and director of consulting firm Mayak Intelligence, reacted on Twitter.

“What the MOD [the Russian ministry of defence] really wants and needs are more professionals, but that means offering better pay and conditions, in other words real money,” Galeotti’s Twitter thread continued. “You can only go so far hiring convicts!”

“So we may be heading for a further Potemkinisation of the military, with Moscow issuing decrees and the MOD drawing up new orgs that increasingly don't match the actual numbers in service,” Galeotti went on. “We’ll see if/how this gets operationalised, but at first glance, this sounds like a Kremlin grappling with impotence and a lack of proper ideas how to change the situation in Ukraine,” he concluded.

‘Very few options’ for Russia

Galeotti was referring to the “Potemkin villages”, the trompe-l’oeil urban decorations supposedly built in Crimea in the eighteenth century to hide the poverty from the visiting Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Although this historical legend has since been largely disproved, the word “Potemkin” remains widely used to describe efforts to give a bad situation a flattering image.

The first reason why Putin’s plans look like Potemkinisation is that they are based on flawed arithmetic. The Russian president is using the official data showing the country’s army has just over a million men. “But we’ve known they’ve got far fewer than that since they invaded Ukraine,” said Huseyn Aliyev, an expert on the war in Ukraine at Glasgow University.

“Estimates range from 250,000 to 300,000 men who are ready to fight,” Aliyev continued. “The rest are civilian members of the army who have been registered as soldiers, or family members of government officials whose names have been added so they can receive military salaries.”

So even if it bore fruit, the plan to bring in an extra 137,000 soldiers would not get Russia up to 1.15 million men. But even that 137,000 figure seems unrealistic.

“Russia has very few options to find that many soldiers quickly,” said Jeff Hawn, a specialist in Russian military issues at US geopolitical research centre the New Lines Institute.

Moscow sent to the front in Ukraine the brand new 3rd Army Corps on August 27, but this only illustrated Russia’s difficulty in recruiting new soldiers.

“It’s a contingent of reservists drawn up just a few months ago,” Aliyev said. “It was supposed to include about 18,000 soldiers. But the Kremlin has only managed to motivate about 15,000 men, despite offering a range of incentives.”

General mobilisation?

New recruits are paid about three times the usual salary for Russian soldiers. Previously, there was a maximum age for enlisting, at 40. However, it was abolished at the end of May to encourage older men to participate in the military effort in Ukraine.

The Russian military has sought to be as creative as possible over recent months as it tries to boost its numbers and replace troops killed or wounded in Ukraine. In particular, it has been doing the rounds in prisons in several cities, offering pardons to inmates with military experience if they agree to go to the front. “The Russian military has also brought in mercenaries, drafted in fighters from Syria and recruited troops from the ethnic minorities of Central Asian states [mainly Tajiks and Kyrgyz],” Hawn noted.

All these initiatives have certainly compensated somewhat for the losses on the front, but this is “still largely insufficient to achieve the goal of 137,000 extra soldiers”, Hawn continued.

These new recruits in many cases come from backgrounds far removed from the Russian military and often have no knowledge of Russian military culture. “So they don’t integrate well into the army’s chain of command,” Hawn added. In other words, it is a problem of quality as well as quantity.

“These so-called ‘volunteer’ battalions currently receive two weeks of training before they’re sent to the front, and that is totally insufficient,” Aliyev said. “Even if Moscow manages to find 137,000 soldiers, the army is far from having enough training officers to ensure the new recruits are ready for combat.”

Perhaps the most obvious solution is to declare a general military mobilisation. But in order to do so, the Kremlin would have to recognise that it is engaged in a war in Ukraine, as opposed to the official line that this is merely a “special military operation”.

Putin has so far refused to take this step, preferring to ensure that Russian propaganda frames the conflict in that euphemistic expression – because acknowledging that this is war “risks creating social tensions in Russia”, as Aliyev put it.

Putin in a ‘bubble’

Yet it is by no means guaranteed that a general mobilisation would be enough. “The army is already carrying out a kind of general mobilisation on the sly by pressuring young people to enlist – nevertheless, there are very few recruits,” Aliyev noted.

“The Kremlin know this and they won’t take the risk of imposing a general mobilisation that everyone tries to wriggle out of,” Aliyev went on. “That would be a big slap in the face for Vladimir Putin.”

Hence the risk of Potemkinisation. “The most likely outcome is that each barracks will have numerical targets for new recruits, and the military will do everything in its power to reach them, even if it means inventing ghost recruits,” Hawn said. “Their budget will depend on it.”

So it seems Putin is prompting his top brass to cheat with the figures by signing this decree. At the same time, it look like it’s especially important for the Russian president to prove he can increase the size of his army without any problem.

Firstly, for internal propaganda purposes, inflating the figures would “help to maintain some Russians’ illusion that there is all this fervour to go and fight in Ukraine”, Aliyev said. “It’s also a way of showing the West that Moscow is ready for a protracted conflict,” he added. The Kremlin would not propose recruiting and sending thousands more troops if it wanted to end the war as soon as possible.

But there is still another hypothesis: that Putin has become so detached from reality that he thinks it really is feasible to ramp up the size of Russian forces in Ukraine. “He’s living in such a bubble that he may well actually believe the army can easily add 137,000 new soldiers,” Hawn put it.

This article was adapted from the original in French.