Vladimir Putin’s Ghost Soldiers

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

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

The Russian president signed an order on Thursday August 25 announcing that Russia’s “big dumb” will receive the reinforcement of 137,000 fighters on January 1 to reach the official figure of 1.15 million active soldiers .

Putin after Catherine II

This is the largest increase in Russian military personnel in many years, the British daily The Guardian recalled. The latest effort in this direction began in 2017, when Moscow announced that the ranks of the army had increased by 13,698 people.

Vladimir Putin’s desire to put more soldiers in the balance of the war in Ukraine is understandable. By increasing the numerical advantage of the pitch, he will eventually hope to make significant inroads in southern and eastern Ukraine.

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But this promise of an army augmented by new soldiers baffled Russian specialists. This announcement by Vladimir Putin “will open the door to further ‘potemkinization’ of the Russian army”, wrote on Twitter Mark Galeotti, director of Mayak Intelligence, a consulting firm on Russian security issues.

A reference to “Potemkin villages”, named after these trompe-l’oeil urban decorations built in the 18the century in the 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 denote the efforts made to artificially give a flattering appearance to a situation.

In this case, the Russian army may be tempted to artificially increase its numbers to achieve the goals set by Vladimir Putin. Going this way in a few months to more than 1.15 million soldiers seems difficult otherwise.

First, because Putin’s arithmetic areas have an error. The Russian president started from the official data of a strong army of more than a million men, “while we know since the beginning of the war in Ukraine that it is much smaller”, Huseyn Aliyev recalled , a specialist in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. at the University of Glasgow, working on Russian military mobilization efforts.

“Estimates vary between 250,000 and 300,000 men ready to fight. Others are composed of civilian members of the army who are registered soldiers, or even family members of administration officials whose names are added so that the soldier’s salary can be paid to these officials,” explained this expert.

Prisoners, mercenaries and Russians over 40 are not enough

So the Russian army is far from reaching the number of 1.15 million men with the reinforcement of “only” 137,000 soldiers. However, even this last number seems unrealistic. “Russia has little choice to quickly find more soldiers. The spring conscriptions were disappointing, and many young people were able to avoid doing their military service”, explained Jeff Hawn, specialist in Russian military inquiries and external consultant for the New Lines Institute, an American center for geopolitics research.

All new 3e army corps, which Moscow decided on Saturday, August 27, to send to the front of Ukraine, illustrates the difficulties of Russia in recruiting new soldiers. “This is a contingent of reservists whose creation was decided a few months ago and which has almost 18,000 soldiers. But the Kremlin has only succeeded in encouraging about 15,000 men despite a series of incentive measures, ” described by Huseyn Aliyev.

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

The Russian military has been trying to be as creative as possible in recent months in trying to increase its numbers and replace troops lost in Ukraine. In particular, he went around prisons in several cities, offering prisoners with military experience reduced sentences if they agreed to go forward, told the daily The Moscow Times in early July. . “It also integrates mercenaries, brings fighters from Syria and recruits troops from ethnic minorities in Central Asia. [essentiellement des Tadjiks et des Kirghizes, NDLR]”, explained Jeff Hawn.

Many initiatives that, of course, make it possible to somewhat compensate the losses on the front, but “it remains insufficient to hopefully achieve the goal of 137,000 new soldiers”, pointed out the russologist.

These new recruits come from different backgrounds and have no knowledge of Russian military culture and “these soldiers fit very well in the chain of command of the army”, added Jeff Hawn. In other words, the problem is not only quantitative, it is also qualitative.

“These battalions of ‘volunteers’ currently receive two weeks of training before being sent to the front, this is not enough”, added Huseyn Aliyev. For him, this is also a problem related to the race for the number of soldiers: “Even if Moscow sees 137,000 soldiers, the army is still far from having enough officers to train to ensure that the new recruits are quickly ready to fight. ”

Internal propaganda or a president disconnected from reality?

One solution for power is expression general mobilization, an Arlesian because the Russian army failed to immediately stop Ukraine.

But the Kremlin must recognize that it is launching a real war in Ukraine and not just a “special military operation”, the general mobilization is only allowed in case of open conflict. Vladimir Putin has so far always refused to take this step “which risks creating social tensions in Russia”, Huseyn Aliyev said.

And he wasn’t sure that was enough either. “The army is already conducting a ‘quiet’ general mobilization by putting local pressure on the youth to enlist. And despite this, new recruits are few. The authorities know this and will not risk declaring a general mobilization in which everyone seeks to escape. This is a real snub for Vladimir Putin,” said Huseyn Aliyev.

Hence the risk of “potemkinization”. “The most likely is that each barracks has approximate targets to meet new recruits, the military will find every way to achieve it, even if it means inventing phantom recruits . Their budget depends on it,” Jeff Hawn recalled.

By signing this order, Vladimir Putin is therefore pushing his staff to cheat with numbers. But for the master of the Kremlin, it is doubly important to prove that he can increase the size of his army without any problems. First for internal propaganda purposes: “This allows the Russians to maintain the illusion that there is a motivation to go and fight in Ukraine”, said Huseyn Aliyev. Then, “this is also a way to tell the West that Moscow is ready for a long-term conflict,” added this specialist. The Kremlin will not decide on such an increase in the number of soldiers if it wants to end the war as soon as possible.

There is, however, one final assumption. “Vladimir Poutine has developed such a bubble of information that it is very plausible that the army can easily add 137.000 new soldiers”, estimates Jeff Hawn. This order will prove that the master of the Kremlin is completely disconnected from the reality on the ground.

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