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Putin’s Conscript Problem
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Putin’s Conscript Problem

After he denied that Russian draftees were fighting in Ukraine, military officials said otherwise. It exacerbates an already sensitive issue.

Putin has embarked Russia on a bloody war of choice against a nation that many Russians consider to be their ethnic and cultural cousin. This war is maximalist: Putin is trying to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine, he says, and this surely involves the destruction of the Ukrainian government and the occupation of large parts of Ukraine. Russia sent about 200,000 troops into Ukraine, the bulk of its combat forces, but eventually these troops will get tired or sick or killed, and more troops will need to be brought up. But where is Russia going to find these troops?

A little less than a week before Putin massively expanded his war in Ukraine, he signed a decree to call up conscripts from the reserve to receive “military training.” Local Russian media outlets have published reports of men receiving summonses for military duty. The men who received these summons and their families can’t help but notice the timing: Could they be headed to fight in Ukraine? In 2014, Russia sent conscripts in to fight the Ukrainians, even while insisted it was not even at war in Ukraine.

In a well-publicized meeting with female members of Aeroflot flight crews on March 5, one of Putin’s guests asked a question about a declaration of martial law in Russia and the possibility that Russian conscripts would be sent to fight. Putin reassured his interviewer:

In this operation only professional soldiers, officers and contractors [i.e. soldiers who have signed a contract, not conscripts] take part. There are no conscripts, and we do not plan to do this and are not going to do this. To repeat once more, only men who voluntarily made for themselves a very responsible choice in their life—to defend the motherland, participate in this operation. They carry out this task with honor.

Putin also denied that the call-ups of reservists for “training“ had any connection to events in Ukraine.

This was an interesting, direct denial in response to what was almost certainly a planted question. However, reality intervened. On Wednesday the Russian military officially admitted that some Russian conscripts were indeed fighting in Ukraine, and that some of them had been captured by a “diversionist group of a nationalist battalion.” The Russian military is also claiming that all its conscripts had been recalled from Ukraine back to Russia and that rescue operations were underway. Russian state media is claiming that this was done against Putin’s explicit orders, and that Putin had ordered that those responsible for this breech be punished. 

This denial, followed by the awkward revelation that Putin was not telling the truth and threats of punishment for those who “disobeyed” him, demonstrates that public opinion still matters in authoritarian Russia, at least on a few sensitive issues. Conscription is one of these sensitive issues. 

Russia has used conscription for centuries. Back in tsarist times, conscripts were required to serve 15 to 25 years. Some villages were said to hold funerals for departing conscripts that their families expected never to see again. During Soviet times, all males were required to serve two years in what was usually a miserable and brutalizing experience. Many conscripts were more or less slaves to their officers and could not wait for the blessed day of demobilization. 

When conscripts are sent to war, it is a doubly sensitive issue, which is hardly just a Russian problem. Just look at what the draft did to the U.S. in the Vietnam era! In the late 1980s, after news about Russia’s disastrous Afghan war had seeped into Soviet society as sons didn’t return or returned traumatized and wounded, the Soviet government tried to change the law to end draft deferment for education. This caused an enormous uproar among the Russian educated classes, and an organization called the “Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia” spearheaded a successful campaign to get the deferments reinstated. The Committee of Soldier’s Mothers of Russia still exists, and it is still a watchful guardian to prevent abuse of soldiers, and especially of conscripts. 

In 2008, Russia reduced the term of conscription to just one year. All Russian males, with a few exceptions, are required to spend a year as a soldier. Since the end of communism, there has been an effort to increase the number of “contract” soldiers—professional volunteers—in the Russian military. The results of these reforms have been mixed, and most Russian units still have conscripts in them. Elite units, especially paratroopers, tend to have more contract soldiers. According to a 2019 statement by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, “in every regiment and brigade, two battalions are formed by contractors, while one is formed by recruits, who are not involved in combat missions.” (ISW has a good explainer on the Russian conscription/contract system here.) 

When Putin made his pledge to use only professional contract soldiers, he was likely making a promise that could not be kept, as conscripts are mixed into most Russian units, and one suspects support units (the kind that the Russian army claims was ambushed) have even more conscripts than combat units. As the mechanized spearheads penetrate deeper into Ukraine, Russians supply lines also get longer, and Russia will need more and more soldiers to guard the roads taking gasoline and food to the tanks and occupy the towns and cities behind the lines. Ukraine has been working on building up its territorial defense units for several years, and this will not be the only time that its forces will ambush and capture Russian troops behind the frontlines.

This embarrassment about conscripts might be yet another consequence of Putin’s war in Ukraine lasting far longer than he had intended. Initially Putin (or his underlings) likely believed that body bags filled with conscripts would not be a problem, because they didn’t expect there to be many casualties. They thought they could quickly take Kyiv and then mop up the leftover disorganized, demoralized Ukrainian forces. Instead Russian soldiers are getting killed and captured every day. Estimates for the total dead range from a few thousand to more than 10,000, but there are surely conscripts among them. The St. Petersburg branch of the Committee for Soldiers’ Mothers reported in 2014 that conscripts were sent down to Rostov in southern Russia “for training” and then sent forced to sign “contracts”—and some of these new “contract” soldiers (actually coerced conscripts) were probably among those sent into Ukraine in that phase of the war.

The official denial, the repetition, and the carefully worded statements show that the Russian government believes that the use of conscripts in their aggressive war is a sensitive issue. Parts of the Russian population may already be upset at their government for getting a new torrent of sanctions, for causing the ruble to plummet, for causing different Western companies to leave and cut off support. How will more dead conscripts affect the population? Will Russians cooperate in subsequent rounds of mobilization, especially if the war drags on for months or even years? Ukraine is an enormous country, not as big as Russia, but bigger than France with a population larger than California’s. If Russia is ever going to occupy even just a significant portion of it, Putin will probably need to use conscript soldiers. Already there are a few signs that the Russian state is getting nervous about conscription apart from statements about “no conscripts in Ukraine.” Last week Putin exempted all IT workers from military duty. Some local Russian officials are still insisting that the sudden spate of call-ups has nothing at all to do with the “special operation” in Ukraine.

If the war does not end quickly—and there are no reasons at the moment to think it will—expect this to become a potentially explosive issue inside Russia.