If Ukraine’s Separatists Get Their “100,000 Volunteers,” They May Be Mostly Russian Soldiers

February 3, 2015
A BPM-97, only used by Russia's border guards, shown here in Lugasnk on January 2, 2015. Photo by Lugansk News Today

With fighting raging in Ukraine and any sign of a legitimate peace agreement gone over this latest round of fighting, both Kiev and the rebels are looking to beef up their numbers and prepare for what is sure to be another long stretch of fighting.

Apparently the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic,” or DNR, has grand plans to do just that. One has to admire the ambitiousness of the nominal leader of the DNR, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, who on February 2 called for a mobilization of 100,000 troops, organized roughly into 3 motorized rifle brigades, one artillery and one tank brigade.

However, there are quite a number of obstacles in making that plan a reality.

First, where are these 100,000 recruits supposed to come from? The goal apparently was to mobilize local residents to join: “”This is to increase our army to 100,000 people… It does not mean we will take in 100,000, but the joint army of Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics’ army should be 100,000.” It seems highly unlikely that there are 100,000 able-bodied and ready recruits waiting to join the separatist armies. At this point in the conflict all the residents — specially young men — have chosen sides and are either currently embroiled in the conflict or have fled. Quite simply the population of the regions under separatist control, even in a time of peace, would be hard pressed to mobilize anything near that number.

That leaves foreign volunteers, both the “vacationing” Russian soldiers and ideologically-inspired war tourists. By any realistic measure, any meaningful jump in numbers of separatist combatants would have to come from such volunteers, whatever their motivations, coming to join the fight. There again, however, the issue is that most of the non-financially motivated “tourists” have already came and compose a large portion of the separatists fighting capability.

That leaves the injection of Russian troops, most likely in the form of autonomous Battalion Tactical Groups (about 600-800 soldiers) injected to tip the scales in the separatists favor, which would compose most of this new mobilized force. However, the introduction of that number (or any in the tens of thousands) means that any shred of plausible deniability that the Kremlin is so admirably clinging to would be gone. Soldier’s families are already starting to grumble about the loss of soldiers in Ukraine (and even about the mobilization of Russian soldiers into the Rostov region on Ukraine’s border) and the calls over even more deaths would be problematic for the Kremlin.

Beyond the calls for bodies is the very real logistical needs and equipment necessary to field these units. The assumption is that these brigades Zakharchenko is calling for would be similar in structure to the Russian military’s (brigades are generally supposed to be staffed with around 4,300 troops each, with tank brigades having around 2,300 soldiers). If that is the case we can assume that the motor rifle brigades would generally consist of 3 battalions of infantry along with a supporting tank battalion and other associated support units: air defense, medical, reconnaissance etc. That is not to mention the hierarchical command structure that would be needed to not only manage but coordinate such large groups of men and equipment.

This is a capability that the separatists have so far not shown as their commanders act like warlords in their own right. However that may be changing. Latest NATO estimates put anywhere from 250-1000 GRU officers acting as advisors. Their chief goal is to impose more order and control over the disparate separatist units and commanders who often spend more time bickering with each other than fighting Kiev.

The logistical network and capabilities to field such a unit in a coordinated fashion seems to be out of the separatist’s capability. The separatists do not have the coordination, training, expertise and hierarchical command structure that would be necessary to mobilize these troops and sustain the units that are called for. While it is reasonable that the brigades would not be as organized or designed to operate as autonomously as the Russian military, the question still remains as to where they would get the equipment necessary to support such units.

The presence of all types of tanks, especially many T-72 variants which are far superior to Ukraine’s T-64s, along with massive numbers of artillery and rocket systems, have given the separatists a powerful array of weaponry. However, the biggest issue in this conflict on both sides is the constant need for maintenance. All the artillery and supporting vehicles (BTR and BMP variants) require extensive amounts of maintenance just to function let alone be repaired after bouts of heavy fighting. That is especially true if a new DNR armored brigade is to be set up. Most of any tank unit’s soldiers are actually mechanics and the support crews required to keep the tanks running.

It is painfully obvious that the separatists are receiving massive amounts of equipment and ammunition from Russia. The seemingly unending supplies of Grad rockets, tanks, armored vehicles and artillery leave little doubt that the separatists are not using pilfered Ukrainian stocks but are continually re-stocked by the Russian military.

While the calls for this mobilization were supposedly aimed at the local populace, it is clear that in reality any new mobilization force would consist not only of Russian equipment but Russian soldiers as well. In fact, there are many who suspect that the call for volunteers is really a smokescreen to mask a fresh infusion of Russian troops and equipment.