Russia’s first mobilization since World War II may be complete, but the deployment of thousands of soldiers to the battlefields of Ukraine is generating dissent and protest on the front lines – and back home.
With the Russian government touting that at least 50,000 of the recently drafted are now in Ukraine, a long list of complaints is emerging: Lack of leadership from mid-ranking officers, tactics that lead to heavy casualties, non-existent training, promised payments not received.
There are also logistical difficulties, as reported by soldiers, their families and Russian military bloggers: Insufficient uniforms, poor food, a lack of medical supplies.
And there are discipline issues, with some families complaining their men face charges of desertion and are being held in basements in occupied Ukrainian territory.
The Astra Telegram channel – a project of independent Russian journalists – reported that 300 mobilized Russians are being held in a basement in Zaitsevo in the Luhansk region for refusing to return to the front line, quoting their relatives.
One woman said her husband had told her: “New people are constantly brought in. They are in a large basement in the House of Culture in Zaitsevo. They feed them once a day: one dry ration to share between 5-6 people. They constantly threaten them.”
Astra reported it had the names of 42 people of those detained. It also cited relatives in identifying seven basements or detention facilities in Luhansk and Donetsk for soldiers.
It quoted the wife of one detained soldier as saying: “My husband and 80 other people are sitting in the basement; they were stripped naked in order to confiscate their phones, but one person, fortunately, hid the phone.”
Astra said the men were arrested after retreating from the town of Lyman and then refusing to return to the line of fire.
CNN is unable to verify the existence or location of detention centers for men refusing to fight.
There are widespread complaints about incompetent or non-existent leadership.
Russian military bloggers – some of whom have hundreds of thousands of followers – have been bitterly critical of senior officers.
“Do we have generals capable of replacing those who have been sacked? Does anyone know one? I don’t,” asked Vladen Tatarskiy, who has more than half-a-million subscribers. “One idiot is rotated for another. One fails, another fails, the third seems more harmless.”
In a bold note of dissent, soldiers of the 155th Brigade of the Russian Pacific Fleet Marines wrote to their regional governor saying they’d been thrown into an “incomprehensible battle” in the Donetsk region.
“As a result of the ‘carefully’ planned offensive by the ‘great commanders’, we lost about 300 men, dead and wounded, with some MIA over the past 4 days,” the letter said. It was published by a Russian military blogger and widely circulated.
One prominent military blogger claimed the 155th and another unit “lost twice as many men in Pavlivka” – in Donetsk region – “as during the two Chechnya wars.”
In a rare acknowledgment of criticism, the Russian Defense Ministry retorted that losses did “not exceed 1% of the combat strength and 7% of the wounded, a significant part of whom have already returned to duty.”
But the reported debacle around Pavlivka is not an isolated incident.
Kateryna Stepanenko, who tracks the Russian military at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, says: “We have seen many complaints about unprepared mobilized men who were committed to the Svatove-Kreminna frontline [in Luhansk], which is currently one of the combat-heavy positions for Russian forces.”
Protests back home
As soldiers relay their plight back home, their complaints are being amplified by wives and mothers through social media and in direct appeals to regional authorities.
Stepanenko says the “most common complaints from these families are lack of information from the Ministry of Defense on the whereabouts of their loved ones, delayed payments, and lack of supplies.”
Last week, video emerged from TV Rain, a Russian media outlet that now operates in exile, of servicemen’s relatives gathered at a military base in the city of Boguchar in Voronezh region, many complaining that they’d not heard from husbands or sons since early October.
In another video posted on the social network vk.com on Monday, a group of women in Voronezh said their husbands and sons were on the front line without commanders, without water, necessary clothing or weapons.
One woman, Lyudmila Agarkova, said her son had told her that very few of his battalion had survived. “They literally crawled out from under the corpses,” she said.
Appealing to the governor of Voronezh for help, the women say their men “were not trained, they were taken to the firing range just once, they had no combat experience.”
They also complain that they can’t get answers, with one saying: “We are a few minutes away from the military commissariat. None of the staff ever gets in touch, they completely ignore us.”
A video posted on YouTube shows a dozen women reportedly from Sverdlovsk region, some with young children, appealing for help for recruits from the 55th brigade reportedly hiding out near Svatove in Luhansk. The families say their men have been threatened with military tribunals but argue they should not have been on the front line at all.
One woman says her son had called, saying they were “left without any command, without ammunition, hungry and cold, they are all ill.”
“They ended up there without any professional training,” says another woman, whose 41-year old husband was mobilized.
“They don’t get paid. They are not assigned to any military unit. Where to look for them, whom to ask, we don’t know.”
Occasionally, local authorities do respond. The military commissar of the Vladimir region, Yuri Gusarov, responded to relatives who said their men “were sent to the front near Svatove without proper equipment and training.”
“Our military units have weapons, body armor, clothes, water, hot meals. Deliveries of aid from the Vladimir region are regular, communication with the commanders is maintained,” the military commissar replied.
More often than not, the families don’t get a response.
Journalist Anastasia Kashevarova, whose Telegram channel has more than 200,000 subscribers, said she’d received hundreds of messages from relatives of fighters. “Groups are abandoned without communication, without the necessary weapons, without medicines, naturally without artillery. No one knows who is on their right, who is on the left, who is in the rear,” she posted.
“Instead of being listened to, they are threatened with punishment, a tribunal, and sent back to the front line with four magazines of ammunition and a grenade launcher with a few shots.”
CNN reached out to relatives of men in the 55th brigade from Tomsk and confirmed that they had met the local military command. But a day later, one woman texted: “Apologies, but our lips have been sealed.”
The moderator of one Telegram channel for families told CNN that mothers and wives often fear “repressive retribution” against their loved ones if they speak out. The moderator, who CNN is not identifying for their safety, said that at the local level “some authorities are already calling them ‘deserters,’ without investigating why they were sent to Ukraine without training, equipment or command on the front line.”
But complaining can come at a price. Olga Kuznetsova, a resident of Arkhangelsk, was found guilty of “discrediting the Russian Armed Forces” after collecting signatures against mobilization. She was fined 15,000 rubles ($250).
Western officials say the Russian war machine is struggling to assimilate tens of thousands of largely inexperienced recruits.
The UK’s Ministry of Defense said last week that “Russia is probably struggling to provide military training for its current mobilization drive and its annual autumn conscription intake. Newly mobilized conscripts likely have minimal training or no training at all. Experienced officers and trainers have been deployed to fight in Ukraine and some have likely been killed in the conflict.”
Ukrainian intelligence has reported that the Russian military is speeding up the graduations of cadets but Stepanenko says that “while these cadets may be more familiar with military craft, it’s hard to say how effective they will be in combat.”
Ukrainian officials acknowledge that Russia’s mobilization has put more men into battle, pulling Ukrainian troops in different directions. But they say new recruits are being thrown into battle with no preparation.
Serhii Hayday, head of the Ukrainian Regional Military Administration in Luhansk, said last week that near Svatove, raw conscripts had advanced in waves.
“They die, and the next ones go forward. Every new attack is accompanied by the fact that the Russians are trampling their dead.”
As winter sets in, the need for accommodation and supplies for troops far from home base is even more critical.
Natalia Ivanova posted on the VKcontact page of a regional official that her husband’s unit was kept waiting for hours outside, before the deployment was canceled. “Now everyone is sick, with a temperature!” she said.
Stepananeko points to instances of protests among newly mobilized troops yet to be sent to Ukraine – principally over pay – “with two notable examples being in Chuvashia and Ulyansk.”
Video emerged earlier this month of dozens of men in Chuvashia, a republic in central Russia, angry that they had not received the 195,000 rubles promised in a decree signed by President Vladimir Putin.
Unofficial Telegram channels said the whole unit had subsequently been placed under house arrest.
Across Russia, relatives of the mobilized are also chasing unpaid compensation, for example, for buying uniform when it was not issued, with CNN finding many such posts on local government social media.
Dozens of mobilized men in Kazan region protested due to poor conditions at their training ground and a lack of water, food and firewood for heating. In one video, a man is heard demanding that washing machines are installed. Then, he said, they “would be happy to be in the mud every day from morning to evening.”
It’s too early to make a full assessment of the impact of Russia’s mobilization of more than 300,000 men. That’s double the number of men involved at the start of the Ukrainian invasion and would help plug gaps in units degraded by nine months of conflict.
But the caliber of these troops, leadership in the field and a logistics chain that has never excelled do not bode well for the Russian army.
Stepanenko thinks it’s possible “that more reports of deaths or lack of payments may upset more Russians – both those who are pro-war and those who are only involved in the war because of mobilization.”
For the moment, mobilization has not brought Putin’s special military operation any closer to its stated goals.
Indeed, in chunks of regions annexed with such fanfare by Russia in September, the Ukrainian flag is being raised again.