VLADIMIR PUTIN’S controversial “youth army” – with teenage recruits shown here swimming in uniform while carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles – has swollen by a staggering 150,000 recruits in one year.

The force of mainly schoolchildren, seen by critics as a sign of increasing militarisation in Russia, now numbers almost 190,000 –and rising. 

YunArmia was started from scratch in May 2016 it is expected to soar above 200,000 by the time President Putin faces a presidential election seeking a new six-year term next month. 

The latest pictures from a competition in Magnitogorsk, a Urals rustbelt industrial city, show cadets in the force – nicknamed the Putin Youth – in swimming races while carrying AK-74 assault rifles. 

Recruits were divided into age groups 14-15, 16-17 and 18-20 over distances of 50 and 100 metres. 

One news agency reported: “It looked rather strange – teenagers dressed in military uniform and swimming caps.  

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“Each swimmer had a Kalashnikov machine gun AK-74 behind his back. 

“It was the first stage of the bigger regional tournament of All-Russia Military Patriotic Movement YunArmia.”

Described as a “military and patriotic” organisation, YunArmia – for girls as well as boys – has been criticised as an echo of Hitler Youth. 

Others see it as a way of instilling discipline in young Russians – and keeping them out of trouble. 

Schoolchildren as young as ten are taught military drills, how to handle Kalashnikovs, practise wrestling and learn to make parachute jumps.  

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