Russian-Ukrainian war: Russia uses scorched earth tactics at the front and re-establishes serfdom

The situation at the front

The situation along the entire front line continues to remain stably difficult: in some of its sections, Russians continue their attempts to advance, while in others, with their reduced activity on the ground, they’re carrying out massive artillery shelling.

The most difficult situation remains in Bakhmut. The Russians use every opportunity there to ensure advancement, primarily in the central part of the city, where the remnants of the Wagner Group operate, as well as on the flanks, where regular units attack. In particular, to ensure its advancement, the Russian military command continues to relocate all its possible resources to the city. First of all, this applies to the motorized rifle and airborne units, which previously held positions in the fields near Bakhmut, and were also located in the Svatove direction. The movement of units from Svatove indicates that the capture of Bakhmut continues to be the main military goal for the Russians. There are also signs that new emerging private military companies will be moved into the Bakhmut zone. It is more likely that it is them, as well as the remnants of the Wagner, that the Russian military command will use as the main assault groups in the city. This, in particular, will allow it to preserve the army elite – the paratroopers – as much as possible.

At the same time, in the Bakhmut area, Russians more frequently use aircraft equipped with glide bombs. Thus, in fact, by wiping off the city from the face of the earth, they are trying to eliminate the most serious problem for themselves – high-rise buildings.

There was also information about the transfer to the paratroopers in Bakhmut of an unusual means for their functionality – the TOS-1A “Solntsepyok” heavy multiple rocket launcher, capable of using thermobaric warheads (it is considered the heaviest non-nuclear weapon in the Russian army), which, on the one hand, suggests that the Russian paratroopers don’t have enough fire potential to solve the tasks assigned to them. On the other hand, the Russians finally decided to switch to the scorched earth tactics in Bakhmut.

In the Avdiivka area, the Russians continue to try to realize their plan regarding the encirclement of the Ukrainian defense area located there from the north and south. By creating a real threat of cordoning off the Ukrainian units defending there, the Russians are trying to force them to leave the city. In addition to capturing the city itself, the Russians try to access the best lines of defense on the eve of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. As for their tactics in this area, it is similar to the one they use in Bakhmut, that is, almost continuous assaults. At the same time, they lose a lot of manpower – up to two companies of personnel every day. But, despite this, they do not give up trying to achieve their goals.

In another important area – Vuhledar – there is a decrease in the intensity of the actions of the Russians, but their attacks on the city continue. At the same time, the tactics of the Russians have changed somewhat: if earlier they carried out attacks in medium groups, now they are conducting contact reconnaissance in small groups. Thus, they are trying to identify the command and observation posts, as well as the location of the positions of the Ukrainian army. In addition, artillery shelling of the city continues. There are signs that in Vuhledar, as in Bakhmut, the Russians have switched to a scorched-earth tactic. The Russians realize that they cannot effectively counter the Ukrainian forces in street fighting, and therefore they are switching to the tactics that they have already used in Chechnya and Syria – they level houses and buildings to the ground and thereby deprive the Ukrainian military of the ability to hold positions.

General mobilization in Russia

The news: On April 11, the Russian State Duma in the third, final reading adopted amendments to the law “On military duty and service”, which provides for the creation of a unified register of those liable for military service, and also introduces electronic military summonses.

Details: The first innovation from the amendments concerns electronic military summonses. Now they will be delivered in electronic form, and not only in person or through the employer, as was the case before. In addition, the military commissariats will have the opportunity to send military summonses by registered mail. The legal force of the summonses transmitted by any of the mentioned ways will be the same. Electronic summonses will be considered as delivered from the moment they are posted on the information resource, sent by mail – from the moment of “delivery (handing)”.

The second innovation is that the information in the military register will automatically come from adjacent state resources. Information will be provided by the Federal Tax Service, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Central Election Commission, the Ministry of Education, courts, medical organizations, and the social fund.

The third innovation is restrictive measures against liable for call-up persons, namely: an automatic ban on traveling abroad after receiving a summon, cancellation of a driver’s license in case of failure to appear at the military commissariat, a ban on buying or selling real estate, blocking the ability to take a loan.

The updated rules for obtaining summons will affect not only conscripts but also all those liable for military service.

In addition, amid the noise around electronic military summons, the State Duma, in three readings at once, adopted an amendment in the same package, for the first time allowing 18-year-olds to enter military service under a contract, that is, immediately after graduating from high school. Until recently, according to the law, one could become a contract serviceman after graduating from a technical school or university, or after three months of military service.

There was also information that Russian prisoners, who have been recruited by the Russian Ministry of Defense since February 2023, began to sign contracts for 18 months. Before that, contracts with prisoners were signed only for six months.

What they said: The Kremlin is trying to calm the Russians, who worry about the amendments to the law “On military duty and service.” Press Secretary of Russian President Dmitry Peskov noted that the amendments are not related to the “special operation” and are not related to the new wave of mobilization. According to him, the draft law on a unified register of persons liable for military service is connected with the need to modernize the military registration system.

Why it’s important: Until last September, the Kremlin constantly maintained that the “special military operation” was going according to plan and that there would be no mobilization of the civilians. However, the real situation at the front, in particular, the huge losses of the Russian army, led to the fact that the Kremlin was forced to carry out a “partial” mobilization, during which about 300,000 people were mobilized. However, the rapid depletion of this human resource and the need for a new one forced him to amend the law, which, gives the green light to the general mobilization in Russia.

Unlike “partial” mobilization, the peculiarities of legislative innovations envision that now people will be taken to war not only from the provinces but also from large cities. The Kremlin secured the opportunity to mobilize all those included in the register. And according to some estimates, it could be from 15 to 17 million people.

Also, by introducing electronic military summons, the Kremlin actually returned serfdom to Russia. The restrictions on those, who sabotage the mobilization, create such living conditions for ordinary Russians in which they will have no choice but to go to the military commissariats “to clarify the data.” To understand the complexity of the conditions in which potential conscripts find themselves, it should be noted that according to the latest data, about 55% of the Russian population has unpaid debts. In addition, every third loan issued in Russia in 2022 was taken by those who must give more than 80% of their earnings exclusively for settlements with banks or microfinance organizations.

It should also be recalled that since April 1, the campaign for the recruitment of contract servicemen and the spring draft has continued in Russia, within the framework of which it is planned to recruit 147,000 people. And the new law on the electronic summons is aimed, among other things, at ensuring the maximum attendance of recruits to the military commissariats.

As for the increase in the terms of contracts with prisoners, this may be due to several reasons. Firstly, the Russian authorities admit that the war will drag on, and the withdrawal of a large number of fighters from the first-line (assault) units will negatively affect the assault potential of the Russian army. Secondly, the release of numerous criminals (according to the information of the owner of Wagner Group Eugeny Prigozhin, by March it is already 5,000 people) obviously leads to a worsening of the crime situation in Russia. Therefore, the authorities decided to ensure that they stay at the front as long as possible, which, on the one hand, provides the units with personnel, and on the other hand, prevents the filling of Russian cities and villages with criminal elements, who have combat experience and unhealthy state of mind.

As for the influence of general mobilization in Russia on the situation at the front, it should be considered in two dimensions: quantitative and qualitative. As for the first, Russian legislative innovations will certainly entail an increase in the number of Russian troops at the front, which will create certain difficulties for the Ukrainian forces, in particular, during their counter-offensives. As for the qualitative dimension, the combat effectiveness of a large number of poorly trained and poorly motivated personnel is unlikely to be high. All these mobilized people will need to be provided with weapons, food, uniforms and, most importantly – they have to be organized. And the Russians have serious problems with the latter. 

Early graduations of cadets from military academies, reduced training of officers, and “barrier troops” have little chance of ensuring high-quality management of a large number of people who find themselves in the trenches not because of patriotic duty, but debt obligations to banks.

Igor Fedyk

Head of the South Eastern Europe Section

Igor coordinates the South Eastern Europe Section of the New Geopolitics Research Network. He previously worked as the Head of the Balkan section of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, as well as the Deputy Editor-in-chief of the English-language magazine The Ukrainian Defense Review.

His current research interests are focused on the political, economic and social aspects of the development of the South Eastern Europe and Balkan countries, their interstate and inter-ethnic relations, as well as the relations with third parties (countries not from the region, international organizations), which have an important impact on the situation in the region and in Europe.

He is the author of a number of articles and analyses in various Ukrainian and foreign Media.

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April 2023
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