Fourteen months into its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has made few gains while experiencing stratospheric losses: in February, a Center for Strategic and International Studies report estimated the Russian combat personnel death toll to be somewhere between 60,000 to 70,000. Ukrainian defense casualties are less clear, although reports suggest they are lower.
Moscow is clearly desperate to turn its floundering bodycount around. In September, President Vladimir Putin called up more than 300,000 reservists to support the invasion—the country’s first call-up since World War II. The Kremlin also revealed plans to increase its armed forces by changing its mandatory conscription program, which requires men to serve in the military for a year, to cover those aged 21 to 30, raising the upper limit from 27 this year but waiting for an indefinite period of time to raise the lower limit from 18. Russia calls up draftees twice a year, during autumn and spring, but one-time mobilizations may also be announced. Judging by the exodus of close to 400,000 Russians shortly after the September mobilization, not many are keen on joining the Ukraine battlefield.
The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, hastily approved a law on Monday making it more difficult to avoid the biannual draft, with the upper house poised to rubber-stamp the proposal and Putin expected to sign off on it. The law would allow electronic draft summons to be issued to draftees and would consider such summons formally received once it ends up in a person’s digital mailbox. Those who are called up are immediately barred from leaving the country, and draft dodgers face penalties ranging from suspension of their driver’s licenses to bans on taking out bank loans and mortgages.
The new law plugs a long-standing gap in how Russia bolsters its forces, says Matthew Sussex, a fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University. “It’ll certainly boost [Russia’s] numbers considerably,” he tells TIME.
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Previously, conscripts had to be served—and sign—their draft papers in person or through their employers, which allowed dodgers to ignore or hide from the military. “Russia has had a problem with drafting for years even dating back to Chechnya,” says Sussex, “and at times, only 10 to 15% would actually show up.”
The Kremlin insists that the timing of the new law has nothing to do with another potential mobilization in the current war but is rather part of Russia’s ongoing modernization of its call-up program. Sussex, however, says the move likely confirms that Moscow is facing a manpower shortage as it seeks to rejuvenate its flagging offensive in Ukraine. When Moscow rounded up potential combatants in September, it ultimately had to send thousands home because they were deemed “unfit for duty” and still reportedly ended up sending some barely trained conscripts as well as physically unfit elderly to the frontlines.
Sussex says Russia is pursuing a “meat grinder” approach: mobilizing as many men as possible to wear down Ukraine, even though it results in more casualties on their own side. “Using them on a battlefield the way that the Russians have done is to basically use mobilized troops in human waves, get the Ukrainians to shoot them and that reveals their positions, so they then use better forces to attack the Ukrainians,” he says.
With the Ukraine conflict turning into a war of attrition, Sussex says Moscow hopes that if its forces can persist, it may cause Kyiv supporters to grow weary. Much of the assistance for Ukraine currently comes from NATO countries, with the U.S. being the largest contributor of military aid, followed by the U.K. and the E.U. “If it gets bogged down,” he says, “then a lot of countries will say, seek an exit.”
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