Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 they discovered that they could not afford to keep fighting. Massive sanctions reduced the cash Russia had access to and paying what was promised to new recruits soon became more than Russian could afford. Using the old “the check is in the mail” excuse worked for a while until it didn’t when most troops understood the check was never sent and never would be. This is particularly troublesome when it comes to former Russian soldiers who agreed to join the reserves after they left active service. The pay wasn’t great and there were some training obligations but many former conscript or volunteer (contract) Russian soldiers tried out the new reserve system and were not surprised that it didn’t work. The former Russians soldiers adopted the practice of “no pay, no way am I playing your stupid game”. In 2019, after several years of effort, Russia had fewer than 5,000 soldiers participating in the active reserve program. That was all the government could pay and accommodate at training facilities. The Russian Defense Ministry expected to have over 80,000 reservists participating in the program but the resources and resourcefulness were not available to make that happen.
In 2021 the Defense Ministry came up with another scheme that was much more selective about which former soldiers were eligible for the new reserve system that aimed to attract and keep over 30,000 reservists. The pay was better, the training was more frequent and reservists signed three year contracts, which released the reservist from any obligations at the end of the contract. This new arrangement attracted about 9,000 qualified men. The program soon failed when word got around that reservists mobilized to fight in Ukraine were not getting the active duty pay their contracts specified.
Not paying promised sums to mobilized or already serving soldiers is a growing problem for Russia because as fewer men agree to serve in the military, the incidences of failure to pay the troops or provide the additional sums for their families goes up. Threats of prosecution of men who do not show up or simply walk away from military service are losing their impact because this is happening to so many newly mobilized and already serving Russian troops. The government does not have the resources to carry out that many prosecutions and the troops know it.
Russia is trying to fight a war it can’t afford. Offering pay and other cash benefits to troops that the government can’t afford has made it difficult to rebuild the Russian army that was destroyed in the first six months of fighting in Ukraine. Importing munitions from North Korea and Iran is only possible if Russia pays for it. This is being done on a barter basis because sanctions have blocked Russia’s access to its foreign hard currency assets. North Korea needs food and fuel while Iran needs modern weapons and help with their nuclear weapons program. Helping Iran develop and build nuclear weapons is something that the rest of the world opposes. Putin doesn’t seem to consider this a significant obstacle.
Putin wants the war in Ukraine to continue, using whatever military resources Russia can muster. Putin believes that this strategy is one reason why American and European support for Ukraine is weakening because it is expensive and seems to be endless. The Ukrainians insist that if they are supplied with tanks, combat aircraft and continuing supplies of munitions, the weakened Russian forces can be expelled from Ukraine, which for Ukraine means an end to the war. What Russia does after that is another matter that Ukraine and NATO will face together. Putin has repeated his goal of rebuilding the Russian empire. This is something none of the current countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union are willing to accept, even though Russia has nuclear weapons and the potential to rebuild its army if it can cope with all the economic sanctions imposed because of the Ukraine invasion. The cost of dealing with these sanctions has brought more poverty to Russia and less money for Putin to use for his empire rebuilding project.