Glory Hunters or Gold Diggers? The Shadowy World of Russia’s ‘Volunteers’ Fighting in Ukraine
Alexander was quickly deployed to the front line in Ukraine after joining a Russian unit for volunteer soldiers in October because he wanted to “protect his motherland”.
A month later, he was seriously wounded by artillery fire near the Ukrainian village of Makiivka amid intense fighting in the east of the country.
He told The Moscow Times from his hospital bed that 72 of the 98 soldiers in his unit were killed in the incident.
All the dead were what in Russia are referred to as “volunteers” – an umbrella term for the tens of thousands of men who have chosen to join the army specifically to take part in combat operations in Ukraine.
“We are true patriots,” said Alexander, 31, who declined to give his last name.
Many of these people apparently believe the Kremlin’s messages that Moscow is fighting “Nazis” who control Kiev and are waging a “genocidal” campaign against Russian speakers.
“Our grandfathers fought against the Nazis in World War II and now we are fighting against the Nazis in Ukraine,” said Vladislav Malov, 47, a volunteer who recently returned to his hometown of Nizhnekamsk in the Russian republic of Tatarstan.
While ideology is likely a motive for these soldiers, incentives such as high pay, bonuses and opportunities for promotion and medals – as well as pressure from families – are also believed to play a large role.
Experts said the coverage of “volunteer battalions” has also been used by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine to create the impression that ordinary Russians are willing to fight and die in Ukraine.
Russian Ministry of Defense
There are no official figures for the number of Russian “volunteers” currently in Ukraine, but they include tens of thousands of men fighting in regional battalions raised by local authorities and with names such as Tigers, Cossack units and Russia’s so-called Special Forces. Army Reserve.
All of them operate under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defense and have command structures integrated into the Armed Forces.
On the battlefield in Ukraine, volunteers fight alongside regular soldiers, men drafted during the Kremlin’s “partial” mobilization announced in September, and Wagner Group mercenaries.
Just as it is impossible to verify the number of volunteers in Ukraine, it is also difficult to know how many have been killed.
However, a tally of confirmed military deaths held by the BBC Russian Service and independent media outlet Mediazona shows that 1,111 volunteer fighters have died in Ukraine since last February.
While this is likely far below the real figure, it suggests that around 10% of Russia’s deaths in Ukraine have been voluntary.
One of the largest volunteer groups is the Special Reserve of the Combat Army of Russia – known as BARS (“snow leopard” in Russian) – was created in 2015, but was actively promoted by the authorities only at the end of 2021 in on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine. .
Analogous to the British Territorial Army or the United States Army Reserve, those enlisted in the BARS receive pay and participate in regular military training while keeping their civilian jobs. In times of war, they can be deployed.
About 20 BARS units — augmented by new volunteers — are currently in Ukraine, according to Telegram channels and group chats seen by The Moscow Times.
Russian Ministry of Defense
Membership in BARS is a way to join the fight if you don’t meet the Ministry of Defense’s criteria for enlistment, three volunteer soldiers told The Moscow Times.
In particular, BARS is more flexible about age restrictions.
Some men also told The Moscow Times that they joined the “volunteer” battalions because it gave them greater choice over their commanders and fellow soldiers.
“I’ve known my boys my whole life,” Alexander said, referring to his BARS unit and the local people he volunteered with.
“A mobilized soldier does not know his comrades when he goes to the front.”
Another major motivating factor is money.
Volunteers can earn up to 300,000 rubles ($4,175) a month – several times higher than average wages in rural regions.
They also often qualify for one-time entry payments and rewards for destroying enemy planes or tanks.
Little is known about the social background of the male volunteers in Ukraine, but a high percentage are said to have military experience and many fought in eastern Ukraine in 2014, when Russia backed a separatist uprising against Kiev.
Many are believed to come from small towns and rural areas with higher rates of poverty and fewer job opportunities.
Russian authorities have actively encouraged volunteers to join the army since the full invasion of Ukraine.
Russian Ministry of Defense
“Our country allowed volunteers to take part in hostilities for the first time,” Sergei Fomchenko, a military commander who fought in Ukraine in 2014 and set up the high-profile BARS 13 unit earlier this year, said in August.
Fomchenko did not respond to interview requests from The Moscow Times.
Putin last month signed a law recognizing volunteers as war veterans — mandating generous pensions — and said in September that employers must guarantee volunteers work when they return to civilian life.
However, many aspects of the legal status of volunteers are unclear.
A number of volunteer fighters have described problems or delays with payments and other benefits – and some said they did not know who they had signed contracts with.
“We signed some documents, but it was not with the Defense Ministry,” Alexander told The Moscow Times. He said he did not know who his contractor was.
“We were not interested in money or documents,” a volunteer soldier who requested anonymity to speak freely told the Moscow Times. “We [just] I wanted to go and join our boys.”
Sergei Krivenko, head of Citizen, Army & the Law, an NGO that provides legal aid to Russian soldiers, confirmed that BARS fighters often lacked proper contracts – although he said he did not know whether this was intentional or simply result of disability.
Once enrolled, volunteer soldiers were used both to reinforce regular units and grouped into new formations.
Russia’s newly created Third Army Corps, for example, was made up of volunteers and given modern equipment before it was reportedly deployed to eastern Ukraine in August in an attempt to halt successful advances by the Ukrainian army.
However, some analysts believe the Russian volunteers have had minimal impact on the battlefield and are more useful as a talking point for Kremlin propaganda.
The volunteer battalions – in particular the BARS units – have been heavily promoted by pro-Kremlin media, pro-war Russian correspondents, state TV channels and even featured on entertainment shows and praised by Putin himself.
Independent military analyst Pavel Luzin said units like BARS were being mythologized to help create the illusion that there is popular support for the war in Ukraine.
“It’s just part of a propaganda campaign,” he said.