Attrition: Russia Regenerates Its Forces in Ukraine


April 25, 2024: Russia has mobilized more troops for duty and now has 470,000 soldiers in Ukraine, compared to the original 360,000. This increase was achieved despite Russian forces suffering over a half a million soldiers killed, disabled, or missing since the invasion of Ukraine began in early 2022.

Russia believed 2023 would be the year they expanded their armed forces. Heavy losses in Ukraine, mostly due to President Putin’s constant insistence on suicidal attacks and the impact of that information on the Russian people, especially military-age men, derailed the expansion plans. A year ago, Russia increased the legal maximum number of its active-duty military personnel from 1,013,628 to 1,150,628. It was believed unlikely that this number would ever be reached. At the end of 2021, months before the invasion of Ukraine, Russian ground forces had about 400,000 men while the navy and air force each had about 150,000. About a third of air force personnel were paratroopers or air-mobile infantry. The navy had about 12,000 marines, who guarded naval bases in peacetime. That means the heavy Russian losses since the invasion began, and failure to mobilize many replacements, reduced the Russian army to about 250,000 personnel, which was less than a third of the Ukrainian Army. The airborne forces and marines also suffered heavy losses but more of them are still in service.

Heavy combat losses reduced the personnel strength so sharply because the Russian army has major recruiting and training problems, plus far fewer soldiers providing logistic and transportation services. The latter are provided by government or private contractors to assemble and move supplies close to the combat zone, where military trucks and drivers move the supplies to army maintained collection points or the combat units. This works inside Russia where the state-controlled railroads are equipped for operation by civilians who are trained to provide such support to the military. For a major war against Russia, civilian trucks and drivers are mobilized to serve military needs. Such a mobilization disrupts the economy but that is seen as necessary t0 defend Russia.

This is why the Ukrainian invasion was not called a war but an internal operation in what Russia declared was Russian territory controlled by rebels. Russia did not expect the Ukrainians’ massive resistance or their destruction of so many Russian trucks and supply collection points. This dramatically weakened Russian supply capabilities inside Ukraine, especially after Ukraine received American guided GMLRS rockets that hit Russian supply depots because of information supplied by Ukrainians on the ground or NATO supplied aerial and satellite surveillance. Russian forces inside Ukraine are chronically short of ammunition, food, fuel and much else because of these Ukrainian attacks. Resort to looting civilian supplies in occupied areas only partially replaces the supplies destroyed in transit or stored inside Ukraine.

Russian armed forces were supposed to have over a million men, but that goal has never been met and at the end of 2021 the total was about 750,000. By the end of 2022 it was about 400,000, including the air force and navy. Mobilizations of new conscripts and men who had served as conscripts for one year failed to replace all the losses, in part because the mobilized men knew that the war in Ukraine was not going well, and most men sent there had little training, equipment or leadership. Most of the junior officers were killed or disabled during the first months of the war and officer replacements take months to train adequately, so new recruits get only a few weeks of training at best. Peacetime officer training takes years and now there is a shortage of trainers for troops and officers because most of the existing ones were sent to Ukraine as replacements for the catastrophic losses the Ukrainians were inflicting.

Ukraine had 250,000 active-duty troops in early 2022 and within months had half a million more in the form of volunteers and conscripts. Normally Ukrainian troops receive a lot more training than their Russian counterparts but in the first months of the war plenty of untrained Ukrainians were used to halt the invasion. Since then, Ukrainian troops received more training and are now led by effective officers and NCOs in combat. Ukrainian troops don’t suffer from supply shortages and suffer absolutely and relatively fewer casualties than the Russians. Russian dead, missing and wounded too severely for further service are at least six times those of Ukraine’s, while the Russian population only outnumbers Ukraine’s by 3.5 to one. If this is a war of demographic attrition, Russia is losing.

Since the invasion began in February 2022 Russia has suffered enormous losses in terms of combat personnel, military equipment and the reputation for quality, reliability and effectiveness of Russian weapons and military personnel.

Even the Ukrainians were surprised at how unprepared the invaders were for combat and dealing with Ukrainian superiority in weapons, which were often Western and superior in performance to Russian models. Ukrainian troops were commanded by Ukrainian officers and NCOs using tactics that emphasized minimizing Ukrainian losses and maximizing Russian casualties.

Russia’s leadership, especially supreme leader Vladimir Putin, was delusional about the continuing lack of military progress in Ukraine. Even Russians who thought restoring independent, since 1991, Ukraine to Russian control was a good thing and worth fighting for, began losing confidence in Putin’s ability to make that happen. Each time failure in Ukraine became obvious, Putin would come up with a new reason why Russia was winning, and each of these was soon shown to be false.

Putin now believes he can eventually prevail because of disagreements among NATO members about whether or how Ukraine can win against the Russian invaders. NATO members agree that Russia must not be allowed to win in Ukraine, but many politicians in some of the larger, and more distant from the fighting NATO nations like the United States, Germany, France, and Italy, openly doubt Ukraine’s ability to regain control of lost territory. Putin supports this attitude by continuing to threaten use of nuclear weapons if Russia is faced with losing all its seized territory in Ukraine. Such a move is also unpopular in Russia and one of the growing number of reasons Russians are losing faith in Putin's promises that Russia will win in Ukraine.

Many Russians now openly oppose the war even though Putin quickly created laws to make such public dissent illegal. The failure of such law’s soon became obvious in many ways. First, there are a growing number of anti-war demonstrations and physical attacks on military facilities, especially recruiting stations. Refusing to report when conscripted became more common. Another form of defiance is veterans of the Ukraine fighting providing details, based on personal experience, of why Russian forces are failing.

Many of these veterans are no longer in the military because they refused to renew their contracts. Many more soldiers remained in the army but refused to return to Ukraine and got away with it. Putin ordered that these soldiers be officially described, in their military records and military ID, as unreliable and unwilling to fight. In any other country a soldier who refuses to fight during wartime is subject to severe punishment, often execution. That still happens to reluctant Russian soldiers inside Ukraine where officers have the authority to shoot reluctant troops. Initially, as Russian casualties grew and progress was nonexistent, some officers did shoot troops refusing to fight. That soon changed as the troops threatened to and sometimes did shoot back or, in at least one known case, ran over an officer with a tank. Not to mention them sometimes shooting undesirable officers first. Ukrainian forces have provided additional confirmation of this violence and collapsing morale within Russian units. Many Russian troops will surrender to the Ukrainians at the first opportunity and admit it to Ukrainian, Russian, and foreign journalists. This prompted Ukraine to equip some of its quadcopters to notify and lead surrendering Russian troops safely to Ukrainian front-line forces.

The number of Russian military personnel is declining because of combat losses and veterans refusing to stay in, even though being a volunteer contract soldier is one of the few jobs Russians can get because of high unemployment rates caused by Western economic sanctions. Russian ground forces have been taking more casualties than could be replaced for the entire duration of the war and are now far outnumbered by Ukrainian ground forces, plus Ukrainian recruits now get two to four months of training which is adequate according to the World War Two American and British standards, while Russian recruits get only one to three weeks, which was what many Russian troops received during World War II.

Russia responded by lowering recruiting standards and accepting recruits or conscripts with physical, mental, legal, or psychological problems that would normally make them ineligible for military service. Russia has also dropped age limits for volunteers and is willing to accept non-Russians as long as they can speak some Russian and are willing to fight. These efforts are not producing enough new troops to be immediately useful because most of them have no military training and at least two months are required to produce useful troops for combat. Conscripts require less training and are generally used only for support operations outside Ukraine during their one year in uniform because of well-justified fears that the newly conscripted will refuse to show up for duty at all if they are forced to fight and die in Ukraine like the contract soldiers. Attempts to involuntarily extend the period of service of contract soldiers resulted in them deserting in such large numbers that the government ceased trying. This is because the post-communist Russian government does not have the coercive enforcement power over the population of the old Soviet Union.

After a year of fighting, Ukrainians ran short of artillery ammunition, so they used their mobile artillery only for counterbattery, which is firing on Russian artillery. The Russians initially used artillery ammo at an unsustainable level and, as the Ukrainians received more artillery ammo from NATO, Russia’s artillery superiority faded. Vladimir Putin knew his artillery munition reserves could not sustain a long war and for a while the Ukrainians had more munitions because of massive shipments from NATO nations. Those shipments declined after two years of fighting and political disputes in the U.S. Congress delayed military aid for Ukraine.

Russian plans included increasing the number of volunteer contract troops who are paid more than conscripts and serve longer. The government claimed it had 521,000 contracti by the end of 2023 and would have 695,000 a year or two after that. That was optimistic considering the number of existing contract troops who are not renewing their contracts. There is no information from Russia about how so many new conscripts or contract troops will be obtained to increase the size of the armed forces to 1.15 million. Russia may extend conscription service from one to two years and keep existing troops in uniform longer because of the war. That is not popular with most Russians, which is how that attitude forced the government to reduce conscript service to one year in the first place.

By late 2023, Russian offensive operations in Ukraine were feeble and ineffective. Low morale, little training and poor leadership were the reasons for this, so the Russian government is allegedly seeking to build up a well-trained force of infantry back in Russia to resume the offensive in 2024. This quite sensible idea by Russian military leaders was defeated in 2023 by Putin’s insistence on politically motivated suicidal attacks so it is unlikely to happen. Russia needs some effective troops inside Ukraine if Putin really wants to prolong the fighting for as long as it takes the West to lose interest in supporting Ukraine.




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