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Portrait of the Invader: 2 years of Russian soldiering in Ukraine

by Igor Kossov March 28, 2024 1:43 PM 12 min read
Russian military cadets march during rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade May 4, 2023 in Moscow, Russia. (Contributor/Getty Images)
by Igor Kossov March 28, 2024 1:43 PM 12 min read
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In two years of total war, Moscow has tried every trick to keep the death march going.

It held a draft, expanded state-sponsored mercenary companies, recruited convicted prisoners, integrated proxies from occupied Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, and forcibly conscripted Ukrainians in occupied territories and Ukrainian POWs.

Lately, Russia has seized on the simple, yet effective strategy of exploiting its people’s war-made hopelessness by providing military salaries that outbid any employer in town, in most towns.

With $180 billion projected in oil revenue from China and India for 2023, Moscow has money to spend, even though the economy looks green around the gills. The top options for millions of military-age Russians who need money are to work for the military-industrial complex or join the army and hope to survive.

Russian patriotic youth movement Yunarmiya members attend a concert dedicated to the first anniversary of the annexation of four regions of Ukraine Russian troops partly control – Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts – at Red Square in central Moscow on Sept. 29, 2023. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

For now, it seems to be working. Ukrainian and American estimates, backed by interviewed experts, say Russia’s been losing at least 20,000 men per month in the past few months. But they’re also adding up to 30,000, per Ukraine’s military intelligence. There may be up to 1,500 recruits per day, according to Vladimir Osechkin, director of Russian watchdog group Gulagu.net, which investigates Russia’s military and prisons.

“(Russian President Vladimir) Putin uses the misery. He drove the people into poverty and now they have a hopeless situation, with the closures of businesses, factories, shipping lanes,” Osechkin said.

Around 100 days into the full-scale war, the Kyiv Independent ran a feature called “Portrait of the invader: Understanding the Russian soldier,” a look at the salient qualities of Russian warfighters at the time: squalid, rapacious, drunk, depressed, inconsistently trained, poorly led, often casually homicidal.

Now, over a year and a half later, many things have stayed the same and some have gotten even worse. Russian war crimes have increased by an order of magnitude and the Russians’ depredations, once shocking, have become gruesomely commonplace.

The Russian Foreign Ministry's building is seen behind a billboard with a soldier showing the letter "Z" – a tactical insignia of Russian troops in Ukraine – and reading "Victory is being forged in fire" in central Moscow on Oct. 13, 2022. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

But the Russians aren’t having a good time either. With their best, most motivated fighters ever dwindling, and rookie training as woeful as ever, most troops’ tactical ceiling is pretty low. This means that headlong suicidal attacks to overwhelm Ukrainian troops are likely to continue being a major part of Russia’s repertoire. Refusal is out of the question.

With Wagner-style penal battalion discipline catching on across the armed forces, regular Russian troops reportedly commonly face prison-like conditions, even summary execution.

Demographics

In the June 2022 story, the Kyiv Independent described the Russian troops as such: “Many of the soldiers are dirt-poor and badly educated… Many joined the armed forces because they have no future in their backwater towns.”

This still appears to be true. Russian fighters are still mostly poor and generally from areas below 1 million residents, experts told the Kyiv Independent. Ethnic minorities are still overrepresented in the military as an outgrowth of Russia’s long-term structural racism, according to Russian sociologist Greg Yudin.

“There is not much difference in terms of profile between mobilization and volunteering, for the borders between them are in fact blurred,” Yudin said.

“The most targeted groups are worse off… they have less social capital, so they are unlikely to flee from mobilization, and they have less economic capital, and more likely to be enticed by the remuneration.”

Russian BBC and investigative project Mediazona published a detailed analysis of 41,731 publicly confirmed deaths of Russian service members as of January. The BBC estimates that this number may be twice as high — up to 109,000 — when including proxy fighters from occupied Donbas.

New Russian conscripts attend a religious service at the Trinity Cathedral before their departure for garrisons in Saint Petersburg on May 23, 2023. (Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images)

In the first year of the war, the biggest losses hit some of the poorest regions like Buryatia, Dagestan, and North Ossetia, but also mid-tiers like Krasnodar, Chelyabinsk, and even areas with slightly above-average GDP: Volgograd, Bashkortostan and Orenburg.

These regions still have many killed in action, but now there are also Sverdlov, Samara, Saratov, Stavropol, Tatarstan, Perm, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Krasnodar Krai, and Moscow oblasts. All of the above had at least 900 confirmed deaths. The top casualty regions were Krasnodar Krai with 1,799; Sverdlovsk with 1,575; Bashkortostan with 1,509; and Chelyabinsk with 1,301.

Several experts agree that most new recruits tend to be between the ages of 30 and 45, as the Kremlin at least made a show of trying to avoid enlisting the very youngest.

Still, according to the BBC and Mediazona report, at least 1,100 dead Russian fighters were under 20. Last year, the Russian parliament simplified the requirements for signing military contracts. Now it’s possible to recruit people right after high school, even if they didn’t have any prior military training. Per the decree, service members can’t get out of the contract until the end of the war.

The dead bodies of two Russian soldiers lie on the grass in front of a house in the liberated village of Makiivka in Ukraine's eastern Luhansk Oblast. A cardboard box with the letter "Z," a symbol of the Russian army, is placed in front of one of the bodies. Heavy fighting took place around the village just days after being liberated by Ukrainian forces. (Laurel Chor/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

According to the BBC, casualties among contract soldiers have been growing in recent months. Volunteers, prisoners, and “PMC” (private military companies) recruits account for 37% of total casualties. The report said Russia lost 3,032 officers between the invasion’s start in February 2022 and January of this year, including seven generals, 101 colonels, and 2,240 junior officers.

Airborne assault troops, mostly just used as elite infantry, had the highest casualties, almost twice the rate of all other elite units put together. Some airborne units had to be restaffed multiple times.

Motivation

Most of those who volunteered because they supported the war ideologically have already been recruited and spent, according to multiple Russia observers. Now, most are joining up for money, not ideology.

And of those, most are doing it out of desperation, Yudin said. He said most are aware of how likely they are to die.

“In many interviews, people say that their life is so miserable that it doesn't make sense anyway. The war, at least, gives them a chance.”

“Paradoxically, these are exactly the groups that are the least sympathetic to the whole war adventure,” he added.

Military volunteers and civilians take a shooting training at a range in Rostov region on Nov. 11, 2022, amid the ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine. (Stringer/AFP via Getty Images)

“The rich benefit from this war directly and indirectly, and they are Putin's most ardent supporters. In general, the callup both reflects and reinforces all internal Russian inequalities, which are huge.”

The one-time federal bonus for enlistment is 195,000 rubles ($2,125). But regions offer their own incentives on top; on the high end, they can run up to 500,000 rubles ($5,450). Ukraine’s military intelligence (HUR) estimated that the monthly salary range is 220,000-250,000 rubles ($1,700-1,900).

This is a lot of money in a country where the average monthly salary is $787, but many are a lot lower, and in a country where half the population’s salary doesn’t cover basic spending.

“The average man has debts, he has to feed his family, but he earns 20,000-30,000 rubles ($217-$326),” Osechkin said. According to him, the criminal world offers more than that, but the military now offers even more. This attracts both law-abiding citizens and criminals into the fold.  

A Russian soldier patrols a destroyed residential area in the city of Sievierodonetsk, Luhansk Oblast on July 12, 2022. (Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images)

The regional bonuses are so high in part because regions use them to lure people from their neighbors, to sign contracts on their territory. The economic reason is they want to avoid losing labor power. The much more personal reason is that if they fall behind on their enlistment quotas, they are sure to be punished, Osechkin said.

“The authorities of any Russian region remain in office on one condition: total loyalty to the center,” said Ruslan Leviev, founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent Russian investigative organization based in Tbilisi.

“The best way to demonstrate loyalty is to participate in the enlistment drive for the ‘special military operation’ and it’s a good way to avoid ending up there personally. Ensuring an uninterrupted flow of recruits from the region is a means of survival for the region's top officials.”

Fighting ability

New troops are considered lucky if they get about two weeks of training, said Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher with the Conflict Intelligence Team. Many are sent directly to the front.

Many also lack useful skills. “The general quality has decreased since (2022). Now you are talking about people who aren't able to find a job that does not involve being shot at when it's really a seller's market for labor in Russia,” he said.

The battle of Avdiivka is a noteworthy demonstration, with estimated tens of thousands sacrificed in massive attacks until the Ukrainian defenders were eventually overwhelmed by the volume of bombs, artillery, and drones from the enemy and forced to retreat.

Russian soldiers patrol a street on April 11, 2022, in Volnovakha in Donetsk Oblast. The picture was taken during a trip organized by the Russian military. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

It would be a gross simplification to extrapolate Avdiivka to the whole Russian army. In 2023, the Kyiv Independent interviewed Ukrainian forces on different parts of the front and got diverse opinions. Some said the Russians they fought looked sloppy. Some thought the enemy was less sloppy than they were. Enemy spirit ran the gamut from scared, to spunky, to suicidal.

In conversations with different Ukrainian units in different regions, the Kyiv Independent was told about hostiles scurrying about in weapons range, blasting music, like they don’t care if they get blown away.

But most decisions on how the Russians fight are down to the officer. As Mediazona reported, junior officers “usually decide how exactly the orders issued by the command will be carried out. Their decisions can save or destroy dozens of soldiers and sergeants.”

“It is junior officers who usually spend the most time with the personnel of their units: training newcomers, conducting team coordination. Those who come to replace killed officers are much less trained and experienced. That affects the quality of training for mobilized people and decisions in the combat zone.”

Tactical evolution

Over two years, Russia’s forces adjusted how they fight. In the opening months, they relied on battalion tactical groups that could bring more fires to bear but were easier to render combat-ineffective (and were too complex for many to manage). Since then, they moved towards a small-unit model supported by centrally controlled tanks, artillery, and drones.

Parallel to the ordinary and special forces, the war also saw the rise and subsequent muzzling of PMC-like units. Osechkin said their rise actually dates back to the 2000s, when Putin wanted to create a global intelligence and influence network using deniable mercenaries. Yevgeny Prigozhin and his many shell companies played a role in keeping them deniable.

Russian servicemen patrol a territory of the sea port in the city of Mariupol on June 12, 2022. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty Images)

“There are two directions to service members’ motivation. The first is a lawful career in the army... in order to someday rise to general, get ‘legitimate’ paychecks, join the General Staff, and so on,” Osechkin said.

The other way is illegal intelligence and terror operations, "where it's impossible to make any kind of career, so the incentives are 3-4 times higher salaries than in the regular army."

The creation of PMC-like irregulars reached a fever pitch during the war, with some state companies and oligarchs trying to create them. Even the Moscow Orthodox Church has its own PMC-like irregular unit. These offered the same kind of enlistment bonuses that are being offered by the government today.

Many people in Russia’s PMC ecosystem are also closely tied to its prisons. Wagner was the first to recruit convicts during the full-scale war, starting with three prisons in the Leningrad region, eventually getting 50,000. This practice quickly spread, as prisoner units were distributed to all parts of the front, along with their handlers and discipline methods.

The disposable convicts were sacrificed by the tens of thousands. Wagner often ordered them toward certain death, just to see where the Ukrainians were shooting from. Those who refused or retreated would be hurt or killed. It’s how Wagner took Bakhmut, and in so doing, proved its monstrous “effectiveness.” Up to 20,000 convicts reportedly died at Bakhmut; 30,000 died in the country overall.  

The body of a Russian serviceman lies near destroyed Russian military vehicles on the roadside on the outskirts of Kharkiv on Feb. 26, 2022, following the start of Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)

By the time of the growing rift between Wagner and the Kremlin, the Defense Ministry had taken over recruitment from the prison system, creating its own, similar penal battalions.

Wagner’s subsequent mutiny poured cold water on the PMCs’ influence, as the Kremlin quickly moved to clamp down and prevent that from ever happening again, Osechkin said.

However, Wagner’s methods and the convict handler ways of the penal battalions were already spread to every corner of the Ukrainian battlefield, where they began to be adopted for use by the regular forces, too.

It’s beginning to look a lot like prison

In the phone pictures and videos seen by the Kyiv Independent, lone Russian soldiers cower as they are beaten and threatened with sticks, sometimes by the cameraman. In other pictures and videos, small groups of Russian soldiers are forced to dig great pits in the ground as punishment, where they are then confined under the open sky.

This practice has been around for a while, but experts credit the Luhansk and Donetsk oblast occupation militias and Wagner for helping popularize it among officers throughout the Russian military during the full-scale invasion. One infamous Wagner prison in Pervomaisk, in the basement of a shoe factory, was also called a “pit.”

Russian prisoners of war eat in a prison canteen on Aug. 3, 2022 in western Ukraine. (Vitalii Nosach/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

“It’s simple and scary,” said Osechkin, who shared the leaks. “They shove you in a deep hole and you sit there for a day or two. It’s cold, it’s dirty, you defecate there. Humiliation.”

People are kept in the pit until the commander decides what to do with them, Osechkin said. “Then they hand them over to counterintelligence to be shot, or they send them to the front line with minimal weapons, to live or die.”

Summary executions and the threats of such are on the rise, by multiple accounts. Military scholar Michael Kofman, with the Carnegie Endowment, said execution threats are especially common in Russian assault groups. What was once an accepted practice only in hardcore PMC-like units appears to have become ubiquitous.

The equipment with Russian military markings during an exhibition on European Square on July 23, 2023 in Dnipro, Ukraine. The exhibition was organized with the goal of raising funds for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. (Denys Poliakov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

These accounts come with evidence. In one video, someone is shooting a pistol into the ground, next to the head of a soldier in the fetal position, while others beat him with sticks.

“Most of the ‘inmates’ are fit for court martial but no one bothers,” Mikhailov said. “Maybe one reason is that a court martial deprives you of a soldier for good, and in a pit, he can be beaten back into line.”

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