HomeGlobal Defence UpdatesHow Russia's military uses volunteer fighters to plug gaps in Ukraine

How Russia’s military uses volunteer fighters to plug gaps in Ukraine

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

The force of around 50 men came from the  National Army Combat Reserve – known by its Russian acronym BARS – a loose assembly of units totaling several thousand fighters that Russia’s defense ministry has deployed in Ukraine to supplement its regular forces. 

About four hours of footage from a bodycam worn by one of the fighters, obtained by Reuters, provides a rare first-hand view of the combat operations of a BARS unit, according to three military experts who reviewed the video to provide an assessment for the news agency of the unit’s military capability.  

The invasion of Ukraine marked the first time BARS, which was founded in 2015, deployed units in combat. The video, coupled with interviews with four platoon members, shows the BARS unit was left to defend Balakliia with no heavy weaponry or air support, malfunctioning communications, and confused coordination with the regular military.

“Where is our air force?” asked one of the BARS fighters.  His squad, tasked with defending a crossroads north of the town, was sharing a mess tin of cold meat stew during a break in Ukrainian shelling.

The squad leader, Anton Kuznetsov, whose bodycam recorded the exchange, told the men that there must be a good reason there was no air support. “Do they understand that we’re surrounded?” complained another soldier, off-camera.  Contacted by Reuters, Kuznetsov said that he had made the bodycam video and had then misplaced the camera’s memory card but he declined to comment on combat operations. The memory card was left behind in a rucksack after the retreat. Russia’s defence ministry and the Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment about the video or the extent to which the military relies on the BARS irregulars. A deputy commander of the BARS 9 force that fought in Balakliia, contacted by Reuters, confirmed his position in the unit but declined to comment on its activities.

The news agency could not independently determine how representative the conditions in the video were of the operations of the wider BARS force. 

Russia has made territorial gains along parts of the frontline 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 prosecute the war. 

On at least two occasions, President Vladimir Putin has publicly praised the contribution of BARS to Russia’s campaign. In a Feb. 21, 2023 annual address to parliament, he said BARS fighters were patriotic volunteers and thanked them for their service.

As the war enters a third year, BARS is part of a patchwork of irregular forces that helps Russia avoid an unpopular general draft, the military experts said.

Rod Thornton, associate professor at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, estimated that BARS contributes  between 10,000 and 30,000 men to a Russian force operating in or near Ukraine of about 200,000.  Russia does not  disclose the number of BARS fighters.

In recent months, BARS units have been fighting in north-east Ukraine and in the southern Zaporizhzhia region, two of the most bitterly contested fronts, according to updates posted on social media by Dmitry Rogozin, the Moscow-appointed representative for Zaporizhzhia in the upper house of the Russian parliament, and a report from Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

BARS units were useful in plugging gaps in Russian manpower, said Nick Reynolds, Research Fellow in Land Warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a UK-based defence think tank. 

“With the Russian state clearly mobilizing for a longer conflict, a system such as BARS does provide an additional avenue from which to mobilize parts of the population, get them trained and provide additional mass,” said Reynolds, who reviewed the bodycam footage.

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

    “WE’D BEEN FORGOTTEN” 

On Sept. 6, 2022, the core of the Russian force in Balakliia was withdrawing in the face of a major Ukrainian counter-offensive. Ukrainian forces have already taken the nearby settlements of Verbivka and Lagery. But the BARS fighters stayed behind. 

Kuznetsov, aged 29 and from Siberia, was one of the squad leaders of a BARS 9 platoon, in command of around a dozen men, the video showed.

The commander of the BARS platoon inside Balakliia ordered Kuznetsov’s squad to head to the crossroads and repel Ukrainian forces, the video showed. 

They knew they would be outgunned by the Ukrainians, conversations caught on camera showed. The heaviest weapons Kuznetsov’s squad had at its disposal were machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars. 

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

After around 24 hours, they located an artillery unit, but they were already pulling back towards Russia, so could not help, the person said.

“My first impression was that we’d been forgotten,” he said. “It hit me very hard psychologically.” 

TOY SOLDIERS 

On Sept 7, the last day recorded on the bodycam, Kuznetsov’s squad were keeping watch from an apartment building overlooking the crossroads, as radio traffic reported Ukrainian forces approaching.

While they waited, Kuznetsov and two of his men played with a toy plane and toy tank, pantomiming a soldier requesting air support.

Soon after, a radio report came in saying five Ukrainian Humvees were spotted nearby. Kuznetsov tells his squad: “Right, men, let’s get into the mood for a battle.”  The video footage ends as Kuznetsov heads downstairs into the street.

Two of the fighters told Reuters they did engage the Ukrainian forces, but the Russians were outnumbered.

After the retreat, BARS 9 temporarily disbanded, according to the same two fighters, though they said it has since been re-started.

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