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Status update Russia moves to integrate scattered volunteer units into army reserve and mercenary structures
Since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has relied on volunteer units to bolster its forces. According to a new report from BBC News Russian, the Russian authorities are now trying to integrate these units into larger, more organized structures, including the BARS army reserve and the Redut private military company (PMC). However, the status these murky formations afford their fighters is often ambiguous and no one seems to know what benefits they and their families are due in the event of injury or death.
In addition to regular military units, a variety of volunteer formations and mercenary groups that aren’t formally part of the Russian army are also fighting for Moscow in Ukraine. According to BBC News Russian, the Russian authorities are trying to bring them under the leadership of larger structures — mainly, the BARS army reserve and the private military company Redut.
Russian state agencies and television channels have repeatedly mentioned BARS (an acronym for “Combat Army Reserve of the Country,” as written in Russian) since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. According to BBC News Russian, President Vladimir Putin established the reserve by decree in 2015 and the authorities began actively bolstering its forces in 2021.
Against the backdrop of growing losses in the regular army, Russian authorities began actively recruiting volunteers in the early months of the war, resulting in “dozens of volunteer units fighting without a clear status” at the front. These units were retroactively assigned to BARS, filling it with volunteers who’d decided to go to the front after the invasion began, instead of reservists.
BARS contracts are officially signed through military enlistment offices, but the fighter formally retains the status of a volunteer rather than that of a serviceman. Russian authorities have passed several laws aimed at equalizing volunteers with regular military personnel, so the main difference is the term of service. Volunteers have the right to return home after six months, whereas the regular soldiers and draftees are obliged to stay in the army until the end of the war. BBC News Russian writes that most BARS volunteers are officially assigned to military unit 22179, which is based in the Rostov region.
The most telling evidence of how BARS actually functions can be found in judicial practice, which “shows that confusion reigns in the management of such units and neither the military nor civilian authorities fully understand how their fighters should be treated,” writes BBC News Russian. Family members of BARS fighters regularly complain about bureaucratic problems with payments and documents: often, neither the volunteers themselves nor the military and enlistment offices understand what exactly their status guarantees.
There’s no official register of BARS formations. BBC News Russian says there are “more than thirty of them” but notes that it’s almost impossible to estimate the real number of mercenary and volunteer units. Service conditions vary considerably from unit to unit, not least depending on the patronage of high-ranking officials and regional authorities.
For instance, several formations fall under the Union of Donbas Volunteers, which is overseen by Russian State Duma Deputy Alexander Borodai and sponsored by businessman and Tsargrad TV founder Konstantin Malofeev. The “Cascade” formation, which specializes in aerial reconnaissance, is overseen by United Russia General Secretary Andrey Turchak and is led by State Duma Deputy Dmitry Sablin. Several other units are affiliated with the All-Russian Cossack Society.
Since February 2022, Russian-occupied Crimea has actually had its own army, controlled by the Kremlin-appointed head of the annexed region, Sergey Aksyonov. These units are also part of the BARS system, and they’re led by Konstantin Pikalov, head of Wagner Group’s operations in Africa. In an August 2022 interview, Pikalov said his units obey orders from the Russian Defense Ministry but have almost no interaction with other units.
The second largest umbrella structure that recruits volunteers for combat operations is the mercenary group Redut, which made its first appearance during the war in Syria. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, according to media reports, it’s been overseen by the GRU’s first deputy head, Vladimir Alexeyev.
As journalists found out in fall 2022, the Russian Defense Ministry created and fully controls Redut. After Yevgeny Prigozhin’s short-lived mutiny, Redut began actively recruiting former Wagner Group mercenaries. One of its current leaders is former Wagner Group Commander Andrey Troshev.
The most famous units within Redut are the “Wolves” brigade, the “Tiger” unit, the “BORZ” battalion, and the international “Pyatnashka” brigade made up of Abkhazian volunteers. Redut also includes the “Espanola” battalion, which is organized by Russian soccer hooligans (some of its fighters openly hold neo-Nazi views), as well as the “Storm Z” units, whose members are mostly former prisoners.
Redut members don’t sign official contracts with the Russian military, but rather civilian work contracts. As BBC News Russian, they are legally neither soldiers nor volunteers, and they aren’t entitled to the corresponding benefits. At the same time, Redut has its own payment system: compensation for injuries ranges from one to three million rubles (about $11,300-$34,000), and if a fighter is killed, his family receives a payout of five million rubles (about $56,500). When asked about benefits, a recruiter said that “for benefits, one should go to the army,” adding that for now, private military fighters are “like partisans.” A recruiter for the “Skif” unit laid out the practical differences between the groups as follow:
BARS is a contract with the Defense Ministry, but Redut isn’t quite like that. [In the latter] they pay a little more, 10-15 thousand [$113-169], but you’ll run yourself into the ground [trying to get] the social benefits. […] I’d recommend BARS. You can go on to Redut, [already] having veteran’s benefits, social benefits, and all that crap.
Otherwise, the recruiter noted, relatives will have “a lot of trouble proving the obvious.”
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