Vladimir Putin is recruiting convicts from Russian jails to fill gaps in his fighting force in Ukraine left by “incredibly high” fatalities and injuries, Western officials believe.
It is thought that the Russian president is turning to prisoners and private military companies because of a fear of political opposition in Russia if he attempts to draw on the wider population with a general mobilisation.
And Western observers believe it is significant that recruitment to the war-battered invasion force is now taking place largely in rural areas, rather than the cities, where dissent and protest is more likely to be fomented.
The assembly of what appears to be a third Russian army corps of 10-15,000 personnel has been detected by the West, but there is not yet definitive proof of whether it is destined for Ukraine.
With the Russian offensive in the eastern Donbass region grinding to a near-halt in recent weeks, and Ukraine making counter-attacks around the southern city of Kherson, Putin is in desperate need of more personnel and firepower to maintain any momentum in his invasion.
But Western officials do not believe he has yet given up his “maximalist” ambitions for Moscow to establish dominance over Ukraine, and may instead be adjusting the timeframe in which they can be achieved from months to years.
“What we need to understand better is that Russia is prepared to operate over a much longer timeframe than we think in typically,” said one official. “Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, Donbass in 2022. Who’s to say when they will take that next step, but at the moment, as far as we’re concerned, they haven’t given up on their maximalist objectives.”
Russia’s offensive has slowed as a result of casualties thought to run to as many 75,000 Russian troops, of whom up to 20,000 are thought to have been killed and the rest taken out of the fight by injury.
“Russia has changed the way it’s fighting to adapt to the reduction of personnel – and skilled personnel,” said one official.
“They’re fighting in smaller formations, at company level rather than battalion or brigade level. And that makes it easier for them to operate in some regards, but it also limits the amount of progress they can make.”
Faced with the frustration of his hopes for swift victory but fearful of the response to a general mobilisation, Putin is believed to have turned to unorthodox sources for replacement troops.
“We do think that they have recruited from prisons and they are obviously also working with private military companies to increase their resourcing levels,” said one Western official.
“Particular elements of the Russian forces have suffered significant losses, and the fatalities and the wounded are obviously incredibly high and I don’t think something the Russians anticipated at all.”
Moscow is experiencing “huge personnel challenges”, partly because the normal practice of building up existing units rather than creating new ones is difficult while the units are involved in active fighting, said the official.
“That’s why they’re starting to reach for alternative mechanisms of recruitment,” he added.
“They are trying to raise essentially a third echelon,” said the official. “They have kit to support that activity – old Soviet kit. It’s not it’s not good. It’s not new. It’s probably operational, but it’s not modern.
“But they are struggling to raise the personnel to fill those third echelon units.”
Despite Russia’s overwhelming numerical superiority over Ukraine, Putin faces a dilemma over popular reaction to more of the country’s young men being sucked into the war.
“If the Russians were to go for full mobilisation, they obviously have access to over 1.5 million people who could be called on,” said a Western official. “But that’s not where they are actually at the moment.
“Obviously, activating that kind of process may well generate some sort of political response within Russia, which he’ll need to be mindful of.
“Most of the recruits are still coming from rural areas rather than the urban cities, and that we think is deliberate.”
Despite Russia’s problems finding personnel, Ukraine is still dependent in the war on military supplies from outside, particularly the kind of long-range precision missiles which have proved so effective targeting Russian ammunition dumps and supply chains, said the official.
“It’s always been the case that the Ukrainians are fighting effectively,” he said. “They’ve chosen where to hold ground and where to cede ground. They’ve been intelligent about the use of the assets they’ve got. And they’ve been resilient and shown real fighting spirit, their morale is high.
“But that only goes so far in the face of overwhelming capabilities and numbers on the other side.
“In order to keep Ukraine in the fight, and to make this as difficult a challenge for the Russians as possible, the Ukrainians will need, on an ongoing basis, more equipment, more materiel support and help training forces.
“There’s an absolute requirement for all that.”