How does the Russian military use volunteers to fill gaps in its ranks?

Reuters photo

When Russian forces retreated from the town of Balaklia in eastern Ukraine in late 2022, pursued by Ukrainian troops and under artillery fire, they left behind a poorly equipped group of volunteers to guard their retreat.

The unit of about 50 men came from the national army's combat reserves – known by the Russian acronym BARS – a loose assembly of units totaling several thousand fighters that the Russian Defense Ministry has deployed to Ukraine to supplement its regular forces.

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The invasion of Ukraine already marked the first action of BARS, founded in 2015, that is, to deploy units in combat. The unit was left to defend Balaklia without heavy weaponry or air support, faulty communication and no coordination with the regular army.

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"Where is our air force?" asked one of the BARS fighters. His team, tasked with defending a crossroads north of the city, shared a cold meat stew during a lull in Ukrainian shelling.

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Team leader Anton Kuznetsov, whose Go pro camera captured the exchange, told the men there must be a good reason there was no air support.

"Do they understand that we are surrounded?" another soldier complained, off camera.

Contacted by Reuters, Kuznetsov said he recorded the video on the camera and then misplaced the camera's memory card, but he declined to comment on combat operations.

The memory card was left in the backpack after the withdrawal.

A screenshot of the video obtained by Reuters shows Kuznetsov, a fighter in the Russian military's BARS volunteer force, in an apartment in Balaklia

The Russian Defense Ministry and the Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment about the video or the extent to which the military relies on irregular units. The deputy commander of the BARS force that fought in Balaklia, contacted by Reuters, confirmed his position in the unit but declined to comment on its activities.

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Russia has made territorial gains along parts of the front line in recent months. Ukraine, which replaced its military top brass in early February, has repeatedly said it needs more equipment and support from Western allies to deal with the situation on the ground.

On at least two occasions, President Vladimir Putin publicly praised BARS' contribution to the Russian campaign. In his annual address to parliament on 21 February 2023, he said BARS fighters were patriotic volunteers and thanked them for their service.

Rod Thornton, associate professor at King's College London's Department of Defense Studies, estimated that BARS contributes between 10.000 and 30.000 men to Russian forces operating in or near Ukraine. Russia does not disclose the number of BARS fighters.

In recent months, BARS units have been fighting in northeastern Ukraine and the southern region of Zaporizhia, two of the most hotly contested fronts, according to updates posted on social media by Dmitry Rogozin, the Moscow-appointed representative for Zaporizhia.

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The BARS units have been useful in covering gaps in Russian manpower, said Nick Reynolds, research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK-based defense think tank.

"As the Russian state is clearly mobilizing for a longer conflict, a system like BARS provides an additional force that can mobilize sections of the population, train and provide additional mass," Reynolds said, commenting on the CCTV footage. Kuznetsov.

He said the group shown in the video appeared "not particularly professional or well trained".

On September 6, 2022, the core of Russian forces in Balaklia was retreating before a major Ukrainian counteroffensive. Ukrainian forces have already captured the nearby settlements of Verbivka and Lageri. But the BARS fighters stayed.

Kuznetsov, aged 29 and originally from Siberia, was one of the squad leaders of BARS 9 Platoon, commanding about a dozen men.

The platoon commander in Balaklia ordered Kuznetsov's company to rush to the crossroads and repulse the Ukrainian forces.

They knew they would be defeated by the Ukrainians, the recorded conversations showed. The heaviest weapons Kuznetsov's squad had at their disposal were machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.

Two members of the BARS force were sent to find a site with a radio signal to contact a nearby artillery unit for support, according to one of the four fighters who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

After about 24 hours, they located an artillery unit, but they were already retreating toward Russia, so they couldn't help, the person said.

"My first impression was that we had been forgotten," he said. "It hit me very hard psychologically.

On September 7, the last day captured on camera, Kuznetsov's company stood watch from an apartment building overlooking the intersection as radio communications reported that Ukrainian forces were approaching.

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While they waited, Kuznetsov and two of his men played with a toy airplane and a toy tank, pretending to be a soldier calling for air support.

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Soon after, a radio report came in saying that five Ukrainian Humvees had been spotted nearby.

Kuznetsov tells his team, "Okay, men, let's get ready for battle."

The video footage ends as Kuznetsov heads for the street.

After the withdrawal, BARS 9 was temporarily disbanded, but according to some soldiers, the unit was then called back.

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