RIGA, Latvia — Russian officials are scrambling to enlist hundreds of thousands more troops for the war in Ukraine without angering the general public, but recruitment plans being pushed by military leaders are raising alarm among other government officials worried about an increasingly critical labor shortage in the civilian workforce, according to classified U.S. intelligence documents obtained by The Washington Post.
In mid-February, President Vladimir Putin “reportedly backed” his military’s proposal to “quietly recruit” 400,000 additional troops throughout 2023 for the war in Ukraine, according to one intelligence document, part of a trove of classified information allegedly leaked on the Discord gaming platform by Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the National Guard.
The document, categorized as a CIA daily intelligence update, indicates the information was based on a “signals intelligence report,” meaning it was acquired by intercepting or eavesdropping on communications of Russian military officials.
As the war in Ukraine drags on, with Russia still far from achieving its goal of illegally seizing four southeastern Ukrainian regions by force, Putin’s military commanders urgently need reinforcements. Ukraine is preparing a major offensive, expected to start within weeks, using newly donated Western weapons to oust Russian forces from occupied territory.
According to Western intelligence estimates, Russia started its invasion in February 2022 with a force of around 150,000. A “partial mobilization” last fall conscripted more than 300,000, and another 50,000 were believed to be fighting in Ukraine as part of the Wagner mercenary group, including convicts recruited from prison. There is also an unknown number of men forcibly conscripted in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics to fight alongside pro-Russian separatists, and smaller volunteer units. According to the leaked documents, the United States estimates that Russia has suffered 189,500 to 223,000 casualties, with up to 43,000 killed.
Russia has not publicly disclosed how many soldiers it has sent to Ukraine or lost there. But the various estimates indicate that about half of the roughly 500,000 troops deployed or conscripted in the past 15 months remain available. Russia, however, has failed to make any significant territorial gains since last summer and clearly needs more fighters to achieve Putin’s goal of seizing four southeast Ukrainian regions.
The need for additional troops risks alienating the Russian public and further destabilizing the country’s economy, which is already under pressure from Western sanctions, export controls and other punitive measures. Last fall’s partial mobilization set off a mass exodus of fighting-age men, depleting both the workforce and conscription pools.
To shield Putin from the backlash and redirect any public discontent away from the Kremlin, the current plans involve tapping regional governors to organize recruitment campaigns, and to continue drawing men from Russia’s prisons, according to another leaked U.S. intelligence document.
“Perceived political reluctance to order further mobilization to replenish the Russian military’s losses in Ukraine are driving senior officials to consider less centralized strategies to deal with personnel shortages,” reads the document, dated Feb. 17.
Since then, the Russian government has indeed undertaken a huge, decentralized recruitment effort, including regional campaigns launched this month urging men to pursue military careers as contract soldiers, and slick television ads released last week portraying military service as a path to excitement and glory, and an escape from humdrum jobs.
Separate from the goal of enlisting 400,000 men for the war this year, the CIA update said that Russian Defense Ministry officials “reported a Putin-supported plan” to recruit over 415,000 contract troops in 2023.
The update did not provide context for this goal, but the number is likely a part of a publicly announced plan by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu plan to expand the Armed Forces to 1.5 million from 1.15 million by 2026. According to the plan, contract soldiers should make up nearly half of total personnel.
Conscripts who choose to sign longer-term military contracts would count toward Shoigu’s goal.
In September, the last time Moscow publicly announced the number of its troops killed in Ukraine, Shoigu said 5,937 had died, a figure viewed by Western officials as a gross underestimate. But the leaked U.S. documents also suggest the Defense Ministry may be underestimating its tally even in communications with other government agencies.
One document stated that Russia’s Federal Security Service, or the FSB, in late February questioned internal military assessments, alleging that they omitted the deaths of soldiers fighting with irregular forces like Wagner. The FSB asserted that “the actual number of Russians wounded and killed in action was closer to 110,000,” according to the document.
Russia’s near-term goal appears to be to enlist 415,000 contract soldiers, of whom “300,000 would serve as reserves and 115,000 would form new units or replenish undermanned units based on current estimates that Russian forces in Ukraine had deficits of 50,000 combat troops and 40,000 reserve troops,” the document stated.
The document said that the plan was opposed by some Russian economic officials worried about potential effects on the civilian workforce.
Russia is facing the worst workforce shortage in over 20 years due to the war in Ukraine, and business is struggling to find qualified workers, according to Central Bank warnings and an analysis published this week by Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, a major economic research center in Russia.
Despite the misgivings of some officials, aggressive efforts are underway to conscript or recruit fighters.
Last week, Russian legislators hastily passed a law allowing electronic conscription, making it nearly impossible for men to legally avoid being drafted. The move sparked speculation about a second wave of mobilization, but Russian officials so far seem committed to less conspicuous methods, such as promoting the perks of a military career to boost voluntary recruitment.
In this sleek, television ad released last week, the military urges “real men” to prove themselves by joining the war in Ukraine. (Video: Russian Ministry of Defense)
In the sleek, new television ads released last week, the military urges “real men” to prove themselves by joining the war in Ukraine. The 45-second clip, color-graded in deep-blue tones, was edited to look like a movie trailer and features three bored-looking Russian men portrayed as unhappy in allegedly mundane jobs: taxi driver, store guard and fitness trainer.
“Is this the defender you’ve dreamed of becoming?” the ad asks as it cuts to the guard posted by the turnstile of a grocery shop. “Is this really where your strength lies?” The next caption appears as the trainer helps a client to lift a weight. “Is this the path you wanted to take?” The ad then shows the taxi driver collecting a few crumpled bills from a passenger.
All three then imagine themselves on the battlefield, geared up and marching through thick fog with stern looks on their faces, a rifle in their hands as dramatic music plays in the background. “You are a man, so be a man, serve in the military under a contract!” the ad declares.
The clip reveals the groups most targeted by the Kremlin and the military: fighting-age men from lower-income households, whom it hopes to lure to Ukraine with a monthly wage of about $2,500 — roughly four times the national average, plus some social benefits.