Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Writer at POLITICO Europe.
It seems only a matter of time before the Kremlin orders another project to replenish its depleted ranks and make up for its command failures on the battlefield.
This week, Norway’s army chief said Russia had already suffered huge casualties, estimating that 180,000 Russian troops had been killed or injured in Ukraine since February – a figure well above US estimates, according to General Mark Milley, chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. , had hinted in November that the toll was around 100,000.
But regardless of the exact count, few military analysts doubt that Russian forces are suffering catastrophic losses. In a video released this week, Russian human rights activist Olga Romanova, who runs the charity Russia Behind Bars, said that of the 50,000 conscripts recruited from prisons by Yevgeny’s paramilitary mercenary group Prigojine, the Wagner group, 40,000 are now dead, missing or abandoned. .
In some ways, Wagner’s high record is unsurprising, with growing reports from both sides of the front lines that Prigozhin used his recruits with little regard for their longevity. A US volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous, recently told POLITICO he was amazed at how Wagner commanders were throwing their men into Ukrainian positions, only to have them shot down for little profit.
Andrey Medvedev, a Wagner defector who recently fled to Norway, also told reporters that during the months-long Russian offensive against the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, former prisoners were thrown into battle as cannon fodder, like meat. “In my platoon, only three men out of 30 survived. We were then given more prisoners, and many of them also died,” he said.
Of course, Wagner is at the extreme when it comes to recklessness with lives – but as the deadly Ukrainian missile strike on New Year’s Day demonstrated, the regular Russian armed forces are also up to to the knees in the blood. Russia says 89 soldiers were killed at Makiivka – the biggest battlefield loss Moscow has acknowledged since the start of the invasion – while Ukraine estimates the death toll was closer to 400.
Many of those killed there came from Samara, a city at the confluence of the Volga and Samara rivers, where Communist dictator Joseph Stalin had an underground compound built for Russian leaders in case of an eventual evacuation of Moscow. The bunker was built in the same secrecy as the funerals that have taken place in recent weeks for the conscripts killed at Makiivka. “Lists [of the dead] will not be published,” Samara’s military commissioner announced earlier this month.
To compensate for these losses, increasingly critical Russian military bloggers are calling for a greater partial mobilization, this time of 500,000 reservists to add to the 300,000 already called up in September. President Vladimir Putin denied this, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also dismissed the possibility, saying that “the topic is constantly being artificially activated both from abroad and from within the country.”
Yet last month Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called for an increase in the Russian military from its current 1.1 million to 1.5 million, and he announced new commands in the regions. around Moscow, St. Petersburg and Karelia, on the border with Finland.
Meanwhile, the circumstantial evidence that another project will be called is also mounting – although whether this will be done overtly or stealthily is unclear.
In this sense, the Kremlin and the Russian politico-military establishment have redoubled their propaganda efforts, trying to shape a narrative that this war is not a war of choice but a necessity, and that it amounts to a existential confrontation 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 was fighting “almost the entire collective West” and that course corrections were necessary in terms of mobilization. . He spoke about the threats arising from Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in NATO.
Likewise, in his Epiphany address this month, Patriarch Cyril of the Russian Orthodox Church said, “The desire to defeat Russia today has taken very dangerous forms. We pray to the Lord to bring the fools to their senses and help them understand that any desire to destroy Russia will mean the end of the world. And the increasingly unhinged Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, has warned that the war in Ukraine is not going as planned, so nuclear weapons may be needed to avoid war. ‘failure.
As Russian leaders strive to sell their war as an existential crisis, they dig deeper and deeper into tropes to heighten nationalist fervor as well, citing the Great Patriotic War at every turn. At the Leningrad Defense and Siege Museum, which commemorates the breaking of the German siege of the city in 1944, a new exhibition dedicated to “Lessons of Fascism yet to be learned” is to be unveiled, and it is set to feature tanks and captured Ukrainian armored vehicles. “It makes sense that a museum dedicated to the fight against Nazism should 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 “denazify” Ukraine, Kremlin propagandists have also worked to popularize the slogan “We can start over.”
At the same time, there are signs that local recruiting centers are also preparing for a new wave of recruits.
Rumors of a partial re-mobilization have prompted some Central Asian workers with dual nationality – those who hold Russian passports and could be drafted – to leave the country, and some say they have been barred from leaving. A Kyrgyz man told Radio Free Europe he was stopped by Russian border guards as he tried to cross into Kazakhstan en route to Kyrgyzstan. “The Russian border guards explained to me quite politely that ‘you’re on a mobilization list, it’s the law, and you don’t have the right to go there,'” he said. .
In order to prevent a new wave of refuseniks, Moscow also seems determined to impose new restrictions on crossing Russian borders, including possibly requiring Russians to book a specific time and place in advance, in order to be able to exit. Amendments to a transport law presented to the Duma on Monday would require that “vehicles belonging to Russian transport companies, foreign transport companies, citizens of the Russian Federation, foreign citizens, stateless and other road users” reserve a date and time “in order to cross the state border of the Russian Federation.
Transport officials say this would only affect carriers and help ease congestion near border checkpoints. But if so, 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 currently deploy roughly the same number of combat troops to the battlefield. This means that General Gerasimov will need many more if he is to achieve the three to one ratio that military doctrines suggest is necessary for an attacking force.