Russia’s indefensible actions against the civilian population of Aleppo, actions that rise to the level of crimes against humanity, are attracting so much attention that many have ignored another development that may ultimately have an even greater impact on Vladimir Putin’s behavior.
And that is this: The Kremlin is having trouble filling the ranks of its forces on the ground in Syria and has been forced to take a number of steps that both reflect its desperation and may lay the groundwork for future aggression if they are successful or make it far more difficult if they are not.
For a country with a military as large and powerful as Putin routinely assures his own people and the world, the dispatch of a few thousand ground troops to another country whose government welcomes them should not be problem. But three new developments show that it has become one.
First, there have been reports about Moscow sending 500 Chechen soldiers from units controlled up to now by Ramzan Kadyrov personally to Syria to help the Assad dictatorship, reports that have attracted particular attention because at least 12 of their number have refused to go.
Few Russian senior officers trust the Chechens; and consequently, it is almost certain that they had these people imposed on them by the Kremlin both because of a desire of the central political leadership to ensure that any deaths on the ground could be more easily hidden and because there was no one else readily available.
That some of the Chechen soldiers are resisting, of course, will only reinforce the attitudes of the Russian office corps and of many Russians more generally about the reliability of the Chechens and mean that officers are likely to dig in in opposition to the use of the Chechens and to get support from Russians for doing so.
Second, there are reports about “secret Russian mercenaries” hired by the Russian Ministry of Defense under commanders who earlier fought in Ukraine, a group that may be prepared to do the kind of things Putin and Assad prefer but that do nothing to promote unit cohesion in the military or boost its standing with the Russian population.
And third, today, the Russian State Duma passed a measure that will allow the Russian military to hire people for short-term contracts to fight abroad. In the past, such people had to serve two or more years; now, they will only have to commit to six to 12 months.
The military is likely to seek to employ former soldiers who have recent training of the kind needed, something that could save Moscow money and also allow for a rapid build up or alternatively drawn down in forces but again something that reflects not only budgetary stringencies but also broader personnel ones as well.
These three developments come on top of a longstanding trend: the number of 18-year-olds in the Russian Federation, the prime draft age, is declining and the share of ethnic Russians within them is declining as well. That makes it hard to fill all the slots in the Russian army with the people commanders would most like to have.
And that difficulty is compounded by the need the Russian economy has in at least some sectors for additional workers and by the still negative attitudes many Russians have to military service because of widespread reports of dedovshchina and other harsh aspects in the life of uniformed personnel.
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