One of the main challenges facing the Kremlin since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine is the need to strike a balance between, on the one hand, the need for more manpower to conduct combat operations and replenish losses, and on the other hand, maintaining the loyalty of the majority of Russian citizens who are willing to tolerate the war at no significant cost to themselves. The Russian contract army, developed in recent decades, practically fell apart after the conflict began. With its low wages, it essentially represented an alternative employment niche, and its personnel were either completely unprepared for combat or, in the case of professional units, suffered serious losses in the first months of the invasion. The announcement of mobilisation in the autumn of 2022 was meant to compensate for the catastrophic shortage of military personnel, but instead it was a social shock for society, and although it never had any political repercussions, the authorities considered it risky to repeat the experience on the eve of the ‘presidential election’.
However, by the summer of 2023, there were triumphant reports of a huge influx of 'volunteers', and in September, Vladimir Putin announced 300,000 contracts signed with the Ministry of Defence. Nevertheless, as public opinion polls show, the desire to volunteer for the war in Ukraine is not widespread among Russian residents. Thus, it is not about a volunteer movement but rather a new group of contract soldiers, who are being enticed by special financial conditions which offer a lucrative alternative to the civilian labour market.
According to 'Novaya Gazeta Europe's' calculations, the median salary of a contract soldier currently stands at 204,000 rubles, which is three or more times the average Russian salary of a driver, car mechanic, salesman, teacher or doctor. In addition, signing a contract comes with a one-time payment the size of which varies from region to region and can be as high as 450,000 rubles. To this should be added the 'offensive' payments (8,000 rubles for 'each day of participation in active offensive actions' and 50,000 rubles for 'each kilometre advanced as part of assault squads') and 'funeral' benefits (everything that the family of a deceased contract soldier will receive), the sum of which (approximately 12.5 million rubles) significantly exceeds the average expected income of a Russian man between his 35th birthday and retirement. This is true even if that man lives and works in one of Russia’s wealthiest regions such as Moscow, Moscow Oblast, St. Petersburg, or the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District. Further, the state guarantees significant benefits for contract soldiers and their families for years to come: pension supplements, credit holidays, quotas for children's admission to universities, exemption from court orders, and more.
Governors are responsible for recruiting contract soldiers (and last year they were entrusted with the responsibility for implementing mobilisation plans), and there is a competition between regions for 'volunteers', with wealthier regions luring them with higher payments. However, coercion is also at work. A recent investigation by 'IStories' shows that regional authorities force vulnerable groups including migrants, bankrupts, debtors, the unemployed, homeless, alcoholics etc. to sign contracts. These are auxiliary mechanisms that allow regional authorities to 'meet' their plans.
Meanwhile, the 'market-based' contract terms undeniably cannot cover the costs of war for the majority of the Russian population, including the relatively high probability of death. Therefore, the new contract system primarily addresses the material incentives within a specific social environment within which they are acceptable and adequate. Sociologists Andrey Shcherbak, Mikhail Komin, and Mikhail Sokolov analysed the social profiles of 'field commanders' in the war in Donbas (2014-2022), who were actual volunteers. Typically, these are men with no higher education and low incomes, working in low-skilled or unskilled positions, have often had legal troubles but found a 'window of opportunity' thanks to the war. The new conditions allowed them to become a sort of counter-elite in the LNR and DNR, and their 'low' background became the source of their current 'high' status.
The study published by 'Novaya Gazeta Europe' paints a generalised portrait of the typical Russian who has decided to go to the front in Ukraine, based on the analysis of over 700 profiles of 'volunteers' on the social network VKontakte. The analysis suggests that such a decision usually lies at the intersection of social, ideological, and material incentives. As per Shcherbak and his co-authors' research, these are predominantly individuals with no higher education and with average qualifications, many of whom work in shift jobs outside their home regions. Shift work is an adequate and effective way of earning a living for young, low-skilled men from economically depressed regions. In this socio-economic context, going to the front appears as another kind of shift work, albeit a more dangerous one.
The publication also notes that 'volunteer' soldiers tend to have typical or, rather, stereotypical male interests: cars, sports, movies, tattoos, fishing, in other words, traditional markers of masculinity. This list also includes an interest in 'history', which apparently involves reading historical-conspiracy pop literature. The study by 'Novaya Gazeta Europe' reveals that these 'new contract soldiers' are generally not fervent super-patriots and are indifferent to official sources (the State Duma, Ministry of Defence) or popular pro-war bloggers (Podolyak, Abzalov). Instead, they often opt for anonymous public groups with names like 'Polite People' and 'Army Z', which post straightforward content: photos and videos from the front with short comments. In terms of media consumption, they seem to align more with a masculine disposition than with the ideology of the 'Russian world'. Their ideological commitment is highlighted by the fact that their 'shift at the front' has an economic rationale. In their assessments, they are not averse to social criticism and share their military problems on social media, for example inadequate supplies or participation in 'meat grinder' battles and ‘minefield clearing with their bodies’. However, this does not undermine the political and social order in their eyes, but rather allows them to vent and maintain a distance from ideological and militant fanaticism, remaining in their own eyes as carriers of certain social standards.
In other words, at this stage, the Russian authorities have found a kind of 'frontline equilibrium' - social niches in which the new conditions of the 'volunteer' contract are competitive given their specific economic conditions and social experiences. It is unknown how large this social layer is and how the new experiences gained by these contract soldiers over the course of six months or a year on the front will affect them. The sustainability and reliability of fulfilling material promises and the societal attitude toward the war as a whole will be essential here. Moreover, the new system, in which governors are responsible for the 'plan' of contract soldiers, does not allow for the replacement of those mobilised a year ago. However, with the influx of 'volunteers', a partial solution to the problem has been found, and at least until the elections, it seems that the Kremlin will not need to conduct another round of mobilisation.