Russia and Ukraine Step Up Recruitment, Bracing for Fights Ahead

Their soldiers battling and dying across muddy trenches, ruined towns and sprawling minefields, Russia and Ukraine have stepped up recruitment drives to bolster their badly depleted militaries, in another sign that both sides are steeling themselves for a long war.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia signed a decree on Thursday authorizing a larger-than-normal spring draft, with a target of about 147,000 men, about 10 percent more than the goal of Russia’s 2022 spring drive. Although the new recruits are unlikely to go to the battlefield immediately — and one Russian official claimed they would not be sent there at all — the draft will create a bigger pool of potential troops for Russia’s army, which has suffered immense casualties.

Ukraine, also trying to replenish its ranks, said that it had received more than 35,000 applications for a new force it is forming, the Offensive Guard. For several weeks, trying to entice volunteers, Ukraine’s government has plastered posters and billboards across the country and advertised its plan for a network of combat brigades meant to work under the Interior Ministry alongside the regular armed forces.

The moves to rebuild Russia and Ukraine’s battered militaries came alongside other signals that the countries, along with their supporters, are digging in on their respective sides. A spokesman for the Kremlin, Dmitry S. Peskov, said on Friday that a Belarusian call for an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine would not affect Russia’s military.

“Nothing changes in the context of Ukraine, the special military operation continues, because it is the only means of achieving the goals that our country has today,” he told reporters, according to Russian and Western news services.

The Russian authorities’ detention on Thursday of an American journalist on accusations of espionage was widely interpreted in the West as a ploy to exert pressure on the United States, and the president of Belarus, echoing Mr. Putin, warned on Friday about the prospect of nuclear war. Finland, meanwhile, cleared its last obstacle to joining NATO, bringing the alliance’s territory right up to a long stretch of Russia’s border.

All the while, more deliveries of Western weapons are arriving in Ukraine, where officials say they will soon launch a counteroffensive to reclaim territory lost in the east and south. Russia’s own recent offensive has struggled to make gains in eastern Ukraine, and Western analysts debate whether the Russian military, after suffering staggering casualties, is capable of mounting another or resisting a Ukrainian attack.

Neither Ukraine nor Russia disclose their own casualty numbers, but Western officials and analysts say both have suffered huge losses in their militaries. American officials have estimated that about 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded since the full-scale invasion began last February, and that Ukraine has had more than 100,000 casualties.

The recent weeks of vicious battle in the east, in particular, in cities and towns like Bakhmut and Avdiivka, have cost Ukraine large numbers of troops, including some of their most experienced fighters. U.S. officials said last month that, at times, hundreds of Ukrainian troops were being wounded or killed each day.

Since Russia invaded, the Ukrainian government has reached deep into all levels of society to fill the ranks, supplying a steady stream of motivated soldiers, in contrast to Russia’s mix of contract soldiers, draftees, convicts and mercenaries.

Although he has quashed dissent within Russia, Mr. Putin remains sensitive to public opinion, and he has faced periodic outrage from relatives of soldiers and sailors — for instance, after the sinking of Russia’s Black Sea flagship in the spring and during the haphazard draft last fall. This week, Russian officials appeared to try to tamp down concerns that the newest recruits would soon wind up in the fighting.

“Not one serviceman called up will be sent to the zone of the special military operation,” Vladimir Tsimlyansky, a rear admiral on the Russian military’s General Staff, told Russian state television on Friday, in remarks also reported by other state agencies. “The number of contract servicemen and mobilized servicemen is fully sufficient to resolve the objectives set before us.”

Officials gave similar assurances about the mobilization in September, stating that the additional troops would not be used at the front, but within days some were killed in combat.

There has been persistent speculation in Russia about another large-scale call-up, but Admiral Tsimlyansky added in another statement, “I want to assure you all that there is no second wave of mobilization in the plans of the General Staff.”

Russia continues to rely on reservists, experienced soldiers and convicts who were eager to get out of prison to fight its war in Ukraine. But the authorities have urged some conscripts to stay in the military after their year of mandatory service, offering cash bonuses as an incentive.

The Kremlin has also tried to ramp up pressure on Ukraine’s Western supporters, but its options for doing so have narrowed over 13 months of war. Europe has largely weaned itself from reliance on Russian gas and oil, and Moscow has not followed up on often vague vows of retribution.

Many Western officials and analysts see the detention of the American journalist, Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal, and the Kremlin’s talk of nuclear weapons, as efforts to find new leverage.

Russia has often used jailed Westerners as bargaining chips, as it did last year in arresting and prosecuting the basketball player Brittney Griner on drug charges. Moscow eventually won the release of a convicted Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the United States in a prisoner swap for Ms. Griner negotiated with the Biden administration.

The White House and a coalition of news organizations, including The Journal and The New York Times, have condemned the arrest of Mr. Gershkovich and defended him as a respected reporter. The government in Moscow had expelled some Western journalists, particularly since the invasion began, but had not arrested and charged any since 1986, during the Cold War.

And less than a week after Mr. Putin said he would position nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, the Belarusian president on Friday joined his close ally in raising the prospect of nuclear war. Because of the conflict in Ukraine, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko told Belarusian lawmakers, “a third world war loomed on the horizon with nuclear fires.”

Mr. Putin has repeatedly raised the specter of using nuclear weapons, a prospect that many analysts view as bluster aimed at igniting fear and pressuring Western leaders to halt the delivery of arms to Ukraine.

But Mr. Lukashenko, although almost entirely dependent on Russia for economic, political and security assistance, has also apparently resisted a complete embrace of the Kremlin’s ambitions. While he allowed Russia’s military to use Belarus as a staging ground for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, he has so far refrained from sending his own soldiers to help Russia on the battlefield.

Anton Troianovski, Ivan Nechepurenko and Andrew Higgins contributed reporting.

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