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What the use of Russian conscripts tells us about the war in Ukraine

Suzanne Freeman is a PhD candidate at MIT Political Science in security studies and comparative politics. Katherine Kjellström Elgin, PhD is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely never thought he would have to admit that conscripts had been used in Ukraine — and, yet, the Russian government had to do just that.

Conscription is a sensitive topic in Russia, and their use by the Kremlin indicates the degree to which the country’s leaders believed they could keep the cost of the war hidden from the domestic populace. But now that their deployment is public, what does Russia’s continued use of conscripts say about the war and the future course the conflict may take?

The short answer is that the war is not going as well as planned — and using conscripts could create more problems for Russian security leadership.

Russian military personnel consist of four primary groups: officers, (a very small pool of) non-commissioned officers, contracted personnel and conscripts. Historically, conscription has been used in Russia to ensure that a large portion of the population has military training in case of mobilization for a major war, and to cut costs associated with maintaining a military large enough to defend the country. They are also generally prohibited from being deployed abroad. Today, Russia requires all male citizens aged 18 to 27 to register for conscription, normally for the term of a year, and then move into a mandatory reserve status.

Currently, most estimates hold that approximately 25 percent of the Russian military is made up of conscripts, with the number varying within each military service and between unit types. And though Russia has attempted to move toward a professional army — primarily to increase the level of training and expertise in the force — the country must balance professionalization with its need to maintain a large military.

Yet public support for conscription is limited in Russia, and the deployment of conscripts is controversial. Conscripts are generally less capable than their contracted counterparts, as their service period limits their training. And although a longer conscription period would lead to a more capable conscript force, such a decision would prove unpopular with the Russian public. Thus, when used, conscripted service members are generally seen in roles requiring less technical expertise, like logistics, which has already proved a key sticking point in Russia’s advance across Ukraine.

Additionally, due to widespread, brutal hazing — called dedovshchina — seen since the Soviet period, conscripts also have lower morale and unit cohesion. The Russian military has had varied success in reducing its effects, but hazing remains a major problem, leading to widespread (and often successful) attempts to try to gain exemptions from service, most frequently for medical or educational reasons.

Furthermore, the use of conscripts in active combat will impact wide swaths of Russian families and is likely to draw a negative reaction from the broader public as casualties grow. During the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s, Soviet leadership was so concerned about public outcry over casualties and about denying the reality of war that it sent home soldiers killed in action in sealed zinc coffins. The comparison is unlikely to be far from anyone’s mind.

Clearly, domestic pressure is already strong enough that the Russian government felt it had to admit that conscripts were in Ukraine. As recently as last Tuesday, Putin promised that no Russian conscripts were being used in the war against Ukraine. But just one day later, the Ministry of Defense publicly confirmed that there were Russian conscripts in Ukraine and that some had been taken prisoner. The Russian government then vowed to return all of them home and prevent their further deployment. And earlier this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed directly to conscripts to surrender in a speech about halting the conflict.

Prior to the official announcement, reports of their presence had been circulating in Russia, and while information out of Ukraine is hard to decipher, text messages to mothers and recordings of soldiers crying on the front lines have surfaced. Videos of Russian prisoners of war suggest that at least some did not know they were going to fight in Ukraine, and there are reports of low morale among Russian soldiers more broadly. Within Russia, the advocacy group Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia has also raised concerns that conscripts were being forced to sign contracts at the border — a practice reportedly used by Russia in Ukraine in 2014.

If purposeful, the Russian military’s use of conscripts despite all these drawbacks is an indication of how easy they thought the campaign would be. Conscripts are not often found in elite units, and early assessments of Russian operational plans suggest that elite units were expected to secure areas quickly and without much resistance. However, with the Ukrainian military’s unexpected performance, Russia has had to push more units into combat, and it is unlikely it would have used conscripts if they did not think them necessary — thus, their involvement could also be a sign that attempts to fill military personnel needs with contract soldiers have failed.

If, as the Russian government has suggested, their employment in Ukraine was accidental, this reflects poorly on Russian command leadership, as well as severe personnel control issues within the Russian officer corps.

The situation also suggests the degree to which Russian officials must have assumed they could control domestic discourse. While the Kremlin does control most media messaging — and has increasingly tightened its grip on the information space — bad news from the front is hard to hide. And when mothers are unable to reach their sons, or when they start coming back with injuries or in coffins, the realities of war may fuel anger among the Russian population, just as it did during the Soviet-Afghan War.

The Russian government is thus constrained. With the war more difficult than anticipated, it needs more personnel in combat and support roles. However, if it continues to use conscripts, especially in any large numbers, this could be seen as a sign of increasing military desperation. Pushing more conscripts into Ukraine, or using them after promising to bring them home, doesn’t just mean the Russian military is sending less capable forces to the front; it also risks raising the human cost of war back home, potentially leading to further public outcry, as the Russian population may realize that they were lied to.

Whatever the reason for their deployment, the use of Russian conscripts in the war in Ukraine reflects poorly on the capability and readiness of the Russian military for this conflict. And though we still do not know the extent to which conscripts are represented in the Russian forces in Ukraine, or in which units they are fighting, how the Russian military handles them going forward will be a clear indicator of its commitment to the war and of how well they think it is going.

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