(Not) Behind Enemy Lines I: Recruiting for Russia’s War in Ukraine

Part one of a series examining the Russian military's involvement in Ukraine. How are Russian 'volunteers' recruited to fight, what is their role in Ukraine, and how is the operation kept under wraps?

Virtually the entire world recognizes that Russian forces are present in Eastern Ukraine, but Moscow's methods of covertly recruiting soldiers to participate as "volunteers" remain clouded by uncertainty. Reports suggest that the men chosen typically meet a set of criteria, such as being middle aged and having fewer ties to family, and are often staged along the border in advance of their deployment to the war zone. The soldiers are then identified as "mercenaries" or "volunteers," however are not prosecuted under Russia's anti-mercenary laws, unlike their volunteer counterparts fighting with Ukrainian forces. Part I of this series analyzes this process of recruitment and staging, while parts II through VI will examine the forces' role in Ukraine and how Moscow is able to maintain the secrecy surrounding its operations.



On 16 May 2015, forces from the Ukrainian military’s 92nd Mechanized Brigade engaged hostiles in Shchastya, a town in Donbas 20 miles from the Russian border. They fought a 14-man enemy force sustaining three casualties – two wounded and one killed. Kievan forces wounded and captured two hostiles during the skirmish.

On camera, the captured fighters identified themselves as Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Sergeant Aleksander Aleksandrov, special operations personnel (spetsnaz) from the Third Special Forces Brigade. The unit is based in Togliatti, a city in southern Russia, and is part of Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye razvedyvatel'noye upravleniye; GRU). The GRU is Russia’s military intelligence agency and maintains operational control over a considerable amount of spetsnaz personnel. No evidence suggests either Captain Yerofeyev or Sergeant Aleksandrov confessed under duress. The 92nd Brigade’s commander, Colonel Viktor Nikolyuk, further cemented the narrative that these men were Russian personnel when he displayed a rifle confiscated from Captain Yerofeyev. The rifle is a VSS Vintorez, the sniper variant of the automatic AS Val which is favored by spetsnaz because of its built-in suppressor.

Captain Yerofeyev and Sergeant Aleksandrov are currently receiving treatment in a Ukrainian hospital. On 18 May, Ukraine announced it would charge the two Russian commandos with “terrorist acts” (Kiev has labeled its campaign in Donbas as an “anti-terrorism” operation). Sergeant Aleksandrov stated his unit was on a spying mission while Ukrainian officials have gone further claiming that the GRU operatives were part of a “sabotage-reconnaissance group” that was targeting a thermal plant in Shchastya. The captured operatives, however, claim the Russian defense ministry did not give them orders to attack, and also deny firing their weapons. Additionally, Ukraine accused the soldiers of laying mines.

The Russian government denied that the captured soldiers were active-duty Russian military personnel. Even the soldiers’ families refuse to admit that the men were active-duty military. TV Rain (Dozhd), an independent Russian media outlet, reports that the GRU has the families under surveillance. The Kremlin does not deny that Russian soldiers have fought in Ukraine, but states that they were “volunteers” who did so on vacation. While there are “legitimate” Russian volunteers who have fought in Ukraine further evidence shows that active-duty Russian forces – personnel such as Captain Yerofeyev and Sergeant Aleksandrov – also play a significant role in the Ukraine conflict.


Involuntary Volunteers

There are two major options for any citizen that joins the Russian military: conscript and contract. It is mandatory for a Russian citizen to serve at least one year in the armed forces as a conscript. Most join almost immediately following high school as military service allows for easy entrance into university, and is often required for careers in certain government offices. A conscript can become a professional soldier by signing a contract and undergoing selection and enhanced training that allows them to continue military service for a term between three and five years. Russia also introduced a new law in June 2014 that allows personnel to choose between one year of conscription and two years as a contract serviceman. Despite Moscow’s claims that Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine are “on vacation,” Russian law prohibits contract personnel from serving in combat on their vacations, and it bars conscripts from serving overseas at all.  

The manner in which Russia deploys its personnel to Ukraine greatly calls into question the Kremlin’s “volunteer only” narrative. Some reports indicate Russian military commanders intimidate conscripts into “volunteering” to fight in eastern Ukraine. One commander threatened to charge a soldier for being absent without leave (AWOL), a violation that carries a five-year prison sentence in Russia. Some soldiers have refused to follow such orders, and have quit the military. The Russian government has not taken any punitive action against them. Other times commanding officers fraudulently converted conscripts into contract personnel, forging contracts for their soldiers without their knowledge. Some soldiers report that their commanders promised them incentives to fight in Ukraine such as daily allowances and meals. They received no such rewards. 

According to interviews with Russian soldiers who report having fought in Ukraine, unit commanders usually present the mission initially as a training exercise. The unit will then depart for a training ground set up on the Russian-Ukrainian border. These sites, such as Rostov in southern Russia, serve as springboards for sending Russian troops into Ukraine according to various activists and journalists. At these training sites a unit undertakes stringent measures to conceal its Russian identity. Servicemen paint over unit patches and numbers on vehicles, and then remove their own patches and chevrons as well as turn in their cell phones, military IDs, passports, and other documents. Captain Yerofeyev and Sergeant Aleksandrov (both contract soldiers) report receiving mismatched camouflage fatigues to wear in order to blend in with the Donbas separatists. After undergoing training the soldiers deploy to Ukraine. 


Covert Conventional Warfare

In 2014 the so-called “little green men” – a combined force of spetsnaz personnel from the Airborne Troops (VDV), Naval Infantry, and GRU – became the public face of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine when they seized control of Crimea. However, spetsnaz constitute only a fraction of Russian forces involved in Ukraine. Conventional Russian forces made their first incursions into eastern Ukraine on 11 August 2014; since then the presence of large numbers of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil has become a permanent feature of the conflict. Unit types deployed include motorized infantry, airborne and air assault forces, armored units, and artillery and rocket forces. They are accompanied by spetsnaz personnel – which have operated in Ukraine since 14 July 2014 (at the latest) – and combat support units responsible for activities such as signals intelligence (SIGINT) and logistics. 


One Man’s Volunteer is Another Man’s Mercenary

Some Russian citizens have actually “volunteered” to fight alongside the separatists in Donbas. The Kremlin does not deny this and may actually give it tacit encouragement. President Putin has described separatist forces as “people who were yesterday working down in the mines or driving tractors.” In reality many of these “local” forces have extensive ties to the Kremlin. The President of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) is Aleksander Borodai, a former Moscow political consultant. The DPR’s defense minister, Igor Girkin (alias: Igor Strelkov), is a former colonel in Russia’s internal security agency, the Federal Security Service (Federal'naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii, FSB).

Former military and intelligence officers compose most of the “volunteers” that travel from Russia to fight in Ukraine. Some are hardened war veterans such Arseny “Motorola” Pavlov who served in Chechnya. Others have criminal records such as Aleksander “Babay” Mozhayev who faces a murder charge (this is contrary to claims from recruiting organizations who insist they coordinate with each other to avoid recruiting criminals). Veterans from Chechen-majority law enforcement agencies loyal to the republic’s pro-Kremlin leader Ramzan Kadyrov are also common “volunteers” as are Cossacks. Personnel from Russian private security firms also reportedly fight in Ukraine.

Kremlin propaganda reportedly plays a large role in motivating the recruits. Organizations loyal to the Kremlin play an extensive role in recruiting these “volunteers.” Recruitment for service with DPR or LPR (Lugansk People’s Republic) militias often takes place in the military commissions and veterans’ associations (such as those who served in Afghanistan and Chechnya) located in Russian cities. The “volunteers” reportedly receive their weapons and combat assignments in camps such as Rostov before crossing the border to fight for the separatists in Donbas. They are also divided based on experiencespetsnaz veterans fight for the DPR, and Cossacks and less-experienced “volunteers” fight for the LPR.  Occasionally they enter eastern Ukraine under the guise of “humanitarian operations.” In one reported instance pro-Russian “volunteers” posed as Red Cross members; reports indicate they delivered weapons to the separatists.

Most of the “volunteers” are middle-aged; recruiters see younger people as having too close ties to their relatives. Older recruits also grew up during the Soviet era, therefore Moscow’s anti-fascist propaganda resonates more with them. “Volunteers” also receive compensation for their service. A regular “volunteer” fighter can receive between 60,000 and 90,000 rubles per month, compared to the January 2015 average salary in Russia of 31,200 rubles per month. Commanders usually receive from 120,000 to 150,000 rubles, but pay may have increased to 240,000 rubles. “Volunteers” determine the duration of their service, but there is a one month minimum requirement.

Most “volunteers” provide their own camouflage uniforms, but the majority lack any sort of identifying marks. They receive older weapons, sometimes from Soviet warehouses, and rarely use weapons not in the arsenal of the Ukrainian armed forces. Unidentified donors outfit the “volunteers.”

Under Russian law, these “volunteers” are technically mercenaries. Russia’s Criminal Code defines a mercenary as “a person acting in the interests of receiving material compensation who is not a citizen of the state participating in the armed conflict or in military actions, who does not resident permanently on its territory, and who is not sent on 57 the performance of official duties." Despite this, Russia has not prosecuted any Russian citizens who have volunteered to fight for the LPR or DPR. Anti-mercenary laws, however, have not stopped the Kremlin from going after Russians who fight in pro-Kiev militias as was the case with Roman Zheleznov, a Muscovite who fought for the Azov (Black Sea) Battalion.


Russifying the Conflict

There are various estimates as to how many Russian troops have operated and continue to operate in Ukraine. During Russia’s first incursion into Ukraine in August 2014 it provided between 3,500 and 6,500 active-duty troops to assist the Donbas separatists. By December 2014, that number grew to almost 10,000 troops. Russia also stationed around 42,000 troops on the border with Ukraine to rotate in and out of the country as well as to provide other missions such as artillery support. U.S. Army Europe Commander Lieutenant General Ben Hodges estimates that number to have increased to 50,000. By the last week of February 2015 Russian troop numbers in Ukraine reached  close to 9,000 with most serving as advisors and special equipment operators. General Hodges claims that number to be 12,000, but German officials have accused him of overinflating those numbers. Also, conservative estimates place the number of Russian troops in Crimea between 26,000 and 28,000.

Estimates as to how many Russian troops have died in Ukraine ranged from 276 all the way to 800 in early 2015; the May 2015 report titled Putin. War released by allies of slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov concluded  that Russia lost 220 troops in the Ukraine conflict. These losses occurred in two major battles: in August 2014, 150 Russian soldiers died fighting for Ilovaisk, a small town in Donbas, and in February 2015, 70 Russian soldiers died during the battle for Debaltseve shortly after the Minsk II ceasefire was signed. The deaths of pro-Russian “volunteers” are not counted.

With regard to the “volunteer” forces fighting for the LPR and DPR, an August 2014 statement from DPR Prime Minister Aleksander Zakharchenko claimed  that there were between 3,000 and 4,000 of these “volunteers” in Donbas, while other estimates range as high as 30,000. In January 2015 the Ukrainian government claimed there were 10,000 Russian “volunteers” operating in Donbas.  It is unknown if these “volunteers” are counted in official figures of separatist fighters. Separatist forces numbered between 10,000 and 20,000 (this includes both the DPR and the LPR) in July 2014. In February 2015, PM Zakharchenko announced a general mobilization designed to bring the number of combined LPR and DPR fighters to 100,000. Once again, it is unknown if Russian “volunteers” are counted in this figure.

The large presence of both active-duty Russian military forces and “volunteer” Russian citizens in the Donbas conflict likely shows an increased effort by Moscow to increase its influence over the separatists. Reports indicate the rebels do not coordinate with their Russian counterparts and lack proper leadership. As a result, the Kremlin likely sees inserting its own forces in varying capacities as the only way to ensure that its objectives for Ukraine are successfully accomplished. Active-duty Russian forces ensure efficiency and victory in combat. The “volunteer” forces, while remaining somewhat loyal to the Kremlin, give Moscow a public face for the war in Ukraine that active-duty personnel cannot provide. The ultimate goal is to make the war in Ukraine, as Boris Nemtsov puts it, “the Kremlin’s war.”


Continued in Part II


Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons