In eastern Ukraine Russia is having a morale problem with the increasing number of Russian troops it has there, pretending to be Ukrainian rebels. There are about 50,000 armed rebels in Eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and over half of them are Russians. Most of these armed rebels are part-timers who signed up for the regular pay and other benefits. But a growing percentage of the armed rebels are Russian soldiers who have long formed the backbone of the rebel combat capability. Russia has gotten rid of the Russian volunteers from outside Donbas because they were too much trouble to control. Many of the locals (Ukrainians and ethnic Russians) are not much better but getting a government job from the Russians is about the only way to make a living in the rebel-controlled half of Donbas. Even then a job with the Donbas rebel forces is not attractive if that means there is a chance of getting killed or wounded. So most of the local Donbas rebels are used for security and support jobs. Most of those in the front lines are Russian professionals and local rebels who get paid a combat bonus to be there.
Getting enough Russians to serve in Donbas has been a growing problem. Most Russian conscripts refuse to serve in Donbas and they have the law on their side. The Russian volunteer (or “contract”) soldiers are also unwilling to serve in Donbas and when forced to they are reluctant participants in the Donbas deception and often do not renew their contract. The only alternative to contract soldiers are the even more expensive former soldiers working for military contractors. The current solution, which may or may not work, is to provide better training for the contract soldiers sent to Donbas and to send them there in units for short tours of duty. Until now most of the Russian soldiers were sent in as individuals or small groups to replace those whose time was up. Now Russia has adopted the same time-tested methods employed by all-volunteer Western armies (and the Russian army during World War II).
The replacements go in as units, often company size (at least a hundred troops) or larger. The units are all contract soldiers who have not only trained together for months but have received special training by Donbas combat veterans on what to expect and how to handle it. This is not only good for morale but reduces casualties. While Russian commanders prefer this the Russian government is having a hard time paying for it. The defense budget has been cut by over 40 percent since the sanctions and lower oil prices hit in 2014. The higher unemployment rate has not helped military recruitment much. The population is still shrinking, except for the Moslem minority, who comprise about 15 percent of the population and over a quarter of those eligible for conscription or to become contract soldiers. The government wants to keep the percentage of troops who are Moslem as low as possible.
The soldier shortage is actually an old problem as it has become increasingly difficult to obtain soldiers since the 1980s. It got worse after 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. This inability to attract new recruits, even with conscription puts the government in an embarrassing situation because promises were made on this issue and not kept. Not once but multiple times. Some of the solutions make the problem worse. For example in 2012 the government assured the public that conscription would end by 2020 and be replaced with better paid and trained volunteers (“contract soldiers”). That did not happen because of a shortage of volunteers and money to pay them. To make matters worse the number of eligible conscripts continues (as expected) to shrink. This also puts at risk plans to also create a large reserve force.
The decline in available conscripts could be seen in the official number of conscripts expected for the semi-annual draft. Russian conscription still operates like the original 19th century version when it was only practical if you took in the conscripts twice a year. The late 2017 draft expected to obtain 134,000 conscripts, compared 152,000 in late 2016. Only 147,000 were available for the early 2017 draft and in 2018 that fell to 128,000. At this rate conscription could not be eliminated until the mid-2020s at the earliest and even that is believed too optimistic because the military, under pressure to “meet the quota” is taking a larger number of young men who are unfit for service and leaving it to the units that receive these men to sort it out. That can be made to work in peacetime but if there is any combat it quickly leads to disaster. All industrialized nations (including China) now suffer from the problem of too many potential recruits being overweight, out of shape or illegal drug users.
In 2015 the conscript problem became a major domestic scandal because the government violated the law by sending conscripts into combat. At first, the government insisted that the law allowed conscripts to go if they volunteered and signed a consent form. But families complained that a growing number of conscripts were sent in who had not volunteered and that they were sent to a combat zone (Donbas) that the government insists contained no Russian troops. Some commanders were found to be using deception to get conscripts to volunteer (and sign a document attesting to that) so they could be sent into Donbas, which is not a declared war but is certainly dangerous for Russian soldiers there. Apparently, some conscripts, caught up in the nationalist “NATO is conspiring against us” propaganda the government has been pumping out with increasing frequency and intensity, really did sign the document willingly. They were also encouraged by the much higher pay offered for those serving in a combat zone. But as often happens in the military, some volunteers were acting under duress or were deceived when told signing the contract was a formality to justify the extra money for some “special training exercises inside Russia”. Some of these volunteers later figured out where they really were and deserted inside Ukraine and have been sharing details of their experiences with Ukrainians and others outside Russia. Conscripts in general now know they cannot be ordered to go to Donbas and few volunteer. Fear of being sent to Donbas was hurting the effort to recruit more contract soldiers.
This sort of thing is officially denied and denounced by the Russian government via the government controlled mass media. But the Internet is another thing and there are a growing number of Russians who call out their government for lying about what is going on in Ukraine and for forcing conscripts into combat zones. Some of those conscripts have been sent back to their families in sealed coffins with the explanation that it was because of a training accident. But soldiers who served with some of the dead soldiers, especially those who were also conscripts, are providing more accurate and embarrassing (to the Russian government) versions of what went on.
Russia has been unable to stop troops in Donbas from posting on the Internet pictures and videos of themselves in Donbas. Even if the troops do not post these items they mail them home or take them with them when they return home and they get passed around via the Internet. The Russian government refuses to admit defeat and withdraw its military forces from Donbas so the only alternative is to pay more to get Russian troops who are willing to be there. That means more training, better treatment and higher pay.