Attrition: Where Have All the Soldiers Gone in Russia


May 19, 2024: Russia is having an increasingly difficult time mobilizing men to fight in Ukraine. After the first year of fighting in Ukraine, most Russians were no longer willing to support the war and by early 2024 only ten percent of Russians supported the war. As support for the war declined, efforts by military age men to avoid military service increased. These potential Russian soldiers were not alarmed because of rumors or media reports, but because so many Russians had been wounded in Ukraine and returned to Russia for long term treatment. This made possible a word of mouth report on what was happening in Ukraine. The Russian government kept reporting that everything was fine and the was proceeding as planned and would be over soon. The reality was that Russian planning for the invasion was haphazard and often counterproductive. The Russian situation never improved. While the Russian media was ordered to ignore reality and provide what the government wanted or else, veterans of the war spoke openly, and risked arrest, or quietly to avoid trouble and spread details of what was happening in Ukraine. Russians are used to this sort of thing and soon figured out what was really going on. As the Russian situation got worse, popular support for or toleration of the war plummeted.

Another disturbing factor was the disparity in casualties between Russians and Ukrainians. Nearly 180,000 Russians have died in Ukraine so far and twice as many wounded badly enough to require time, days to months, for recovery. Because the Russians have usually been attacking, their losses are higher than those of the defending Ukrainians. Another factor is that the Ukrainian troops are better trained and led. Another key factor is morale. Ukrainians are defending their homeland, while Russian troops are invading a friendly neighbor and trade partner for reasons that are unclear to Russian soldiers.

Ukrainian losses have been about 34,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 11,000 civilians killed and about twice as many wounded. Russian civilian casualties have been minuscule because the Ukrainian don’t deliberately attack civilians. So far the Russians have suffered four times as many casualties as the Ukrainians. Russian soldiers and military age civilians have noticed and that has made it impossible to expand the Russian military or even maintain current numbers. Fewer new recruits and increasing casualties and desertions will do that. Getting Russian troops to attack requires their officers to lie, cheat and threaten to shoot disobedient soldiers. That worked during World War II but not anymore. Russian soldiers will shoot back if their officers shoot at them. That ended the brief, early in the war, period when Russian officers were ordered to use force if their troops disobeyed orders.

So far combat deaths on both sides are nearly a quarter of a million, with twice as many wounded and a growing number of Russian deserters. The situation is worse for the Russian because of a long list of reasons. For example, during the current war Russian soldiers discovered shocking differences between how the two adversaries handled casualties and prisoners. Ukraine follows Western practices, including rules specified by international agreements. Russia has a more casual attitude that is opportunistic and very flexible. During combat Russian troops will often take no prisoners and kill any enemy wounded they encounter. At other times, when the Russians are seeking to get some of their soldiers and officers out of Ukrainian captivity, Russian troops will be ordered to take prisoners.

Ukrainian troops follow the rules while the Russians are expedient. Russian troops consider themselves as warriors while the Ukrainians strive to send trained soldiers into combat. Russia does have some well-trained and experienced troops in airborne and special operations units. These professionals will still slip into warrior mode when it suits them, or when ordered to do so. For the other ninety percent of Russian troops, warrior mode is often the default mode. By late 2023 there were few of Russian airborne and special operations troops left.

These are ancient traditions in the Russian military when deadly force is necessary. Another aspect of this is that Russian officers are expected to use deadly force on their own troops in order to ensure obedience. This was often used during World War 2. During some major offensives NKVD (secret police) personnel would be brought in to operate machine-guns behind the troops who were taking part in a major offensive. The NKVD machine-gunners fired on any Russian troops leaving the front-line forces. Many nations consider desertion in the face of the enemy to be treason, but they don’t usually execute the traitorous deserters on sight.

There are other manifestations of this ruthlessness. For example, when there is time and medical personnel are available, new recruits will get their health checked to ensure they are physically able to fight. This exam often includes dentists to check for dental problems that can be taken care of before training begins. This often includes extracting problematic teeth that will progressively cause more pain until dealt with. These teeth are promptly extracted without painkillers. It’s just another way to remind these civilians that they are now in the mighty Russian army. They are expected to act as warriors, not armed civilians in uniform.

Until some overdue reforms are made, these flaws will not go away. The fighting in Ukraine reminded Russian military and political leaders that the long delay is already working on needed reforms so, they hope, that the next time Russian troops are in combat they perform better and perhaps even win. There have been several rounds of unsuccessful military reforms since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. One of the major causes of that collapse was their unaffordable and largely ineffective armed forces. In post-Soviet Russia there were far fewer restrictions on criticizing the military. Most Russians had a very negative attitude towards conscription and the reforms underway because of the Ukraine War disaster are typical of several previous efforts to remedy problems that continue to resist any fundamental change.

In the 21st century, new plans call for a massive training program to replace all the officers lost in the first few months of 2022’s fighting. The immediate problem with that is all the officer instructors were sent to the front in March and April 2022 where they became casualties. Then there is the problem that military and political leaders are still unable to restore one crucial aspect of an improved military: NCOs, as in Non-Commissioned Officers, sergeants in the army, petty officers in the navy. A century ago, Russia abandoned a long tradition of NCOs. Instead, junior officers would try to do everything NCOs handled. That never worked. Providing adequate training for new combat troops is something else that never had a high priority. The new reforms are supposed to change that. There have been similar efforts in the past and none lasted long.

There is another serious problem that few want to discuss, corruption. Even in wartime, especially during the recent fighting, corruption was still a problem. Officers and other government officials continue to put their own financial gain above the need to equip the troops with what they needed to survive and win. The difficulty here is that the military’s corruption is rooted in political corruption at the highest levels (Putin and his cronies) and inevitably drifted downward until even supply sergeants routinely steal back and sell gear issued to new troops when they are outside their barracks just before leaving for the front. Russia is descending into a Third World state known as a resource kleptocracy but run by a for-real gangster confederacy armed with nuclear and biological weapons from before it fell apart.

All this enthusiasm for military reform was thought to have been taken care of in 2022, on the eve to the invasion of Ukraine. As before, it was discovered that previous reforms had not worked or even been attempted. Those who had followed the history of failed efforts to reform the Russian army since the 1990s were not surprised at what happened to Russian troops when they encountered their Ukrainian counterparts. Before the invasion, most Russians believed that the Ukrainian troops were no match for Russian soldiers. Russians also found it hard to believe that the Ukrainians, who were part of the Soviet Union until 1991 had managed, in less than a decade, to implement many fundamental reforms. Some of these reforms were far more ambitious than any Russia ever attempted. After a few months of fighting in Ukraine it was painfully obvious that Russian troops were no match for their Ukrainian adversaries. Before that, Russians believed that their dismal reform efforts had magically worked as nearly half their combat units assembled on the Ukrainian border.

Reports from the Russian capital, which Ukrainian military leaders believed, indicated the decision had been made to invade despite obvious defects in the training, morale, and equipment of Russian units. The reality of the differences between Russian and Ukrainian forces was soon made clear as the advance was stopped short of its goals and suffered heavy casualties in the process. Copies of the attack plan, which were only distributed to a few senior commanders leading the attack, showed that the Russians believed they could quickly reach and take the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and replace the government with a pro-Russian one and declare the war over. At that point the rest of Ukraine was supposed to surrender and get used to being Russian once more.

Many Russians, especially recent veterans or parents of sons approaching conscription age, knew the truth and were perplexed at the decision to invade when so many soldiers were poorly trained and suffering from low morale. Conscripts supposedly prohibited by law from service in a war zone were sent in anyway.

Much of the Russian population continues to cope with the continuing use of conscription, something that has been unpopular since the end of World War II. The post-1991 government goal of having an all-volunteer force failed because it cost more than the government could afford and not enough young Russians were willing to voluntarily serve, even as better paid and treated contract soldiers.

Even though over half of Russian military personnel are now volunteers serving on contracts, or career officers, the ability of the military to hold onto those contract soldiers is always weakened if there are a lot of casualties or too much chance of being sent to a combat zone. Volunteering to be a contract soldier used to be considered a smart move because the Russian economy had been increasingly weak over the last decade. After the fighting began in Ukraine, the contract soldiers suffered as much as the conscripts and junior officers did.

The result of this was contract troops refusing to renew contracts. Most of the combat units sent into Ukraine were composed of contract troops who, once in combat, were killed in large numbers. When the survivors got back to Russia, either because of wounds or because many combat battalions returned because of heavy losses, there was a sudden shortage of contract soldiers. That was because many contract troops were near the end of two-to-three-year contracts and refused to renew. The army had signed up many soldiers for the new (since 2016) short term (six to twelve month) contracts for former soldiers, or conscripts willing to try it, and found that there were suddenly far fewer vets willing to sign these short contracts because, so few recent short-term contract soldiers had survived service in Ukraine. The government tried to solve this reluctant contract soldier problem by changing the contracts so that contract soldiers had to remain in the army for as long as the fighting continued. Realizing that it was a death sentence if they were sent back to Ukraine, many contract soldiers simply refused to go. There were so many men refusing to go that the government backed off from threats to prosecute the reluctant contrakti.

Soldiers with time left on their contracts were a liability because they told anyone who would listen that the Ukraine Special Operation had been a disaster for Russian troops because of determined and well-armed Ukrainians regularly ambushing columns of Russian armored vehicles and quickly destroying most of them. While Russian troops were forbidden to take cell phones with them into Ukraine, the Ukrainians still had them to take photos and videos of the aftermath of these battles, and these were getting back to Russia where Russian veterans of the fighting confirmed they had seen the same grisly evidence of Russian losses or even survived one of these battles.

Russia played down these losses, but the Ukrainian military maintained and published daily updates of Russian losses in terms of soldiers killed, wounded, or captured as well as equipment losses. After thirty days of fighting the Ukrainians were claiming that over a third of Russian troops sent into Ukraine had been killed, wounded, or captured with even larger quantities of vehicles and weapons lost. After six weeks the Russian military admitted that losses were heavier than previously acknowledged but would not give exact figures. In part that was because an accurate count was not possible until most of the combat units (BTGs, or Battalion Task Groups) had returned or confirmed as destroyed.

Few BTGs were wiped out but many were reduced to half or a third of their original size (nominally about 800 troops and several hundred vehicles, but in reality, only about 60-65 percent of that). Communications, even for brigade commanders with several BTGs to deal with, were unreliable inside Ukraine because of defective radios. That meant senior commanders of armies, which controlled several brigades containing over a dozen BTGs and many support units, had major problems. They were always using outdated data on unit strength and capabilities. This was reported back to Russia and was declared a state secret.

In fact, Russia is making a major effort to keep Ukrainian reports on the fighting from spreading on the Russian Internet. That has been difficult because the Ukrainian after-action reports are all Russians can get as their own government refuses to release much data on casualties. Moreover, the Ukrainian data appears accurate because it often includes pictures and identities of the dead Russian troops and details on the losses individual BTGs suffered. The Ukrainians had better access to where these battles took place and proved it with photos and videos showing destroyed vehicles, some of them identifiable as belonging to a particular Russian unit.

Without a lot of contract soldiers Russia could not replace losses. Replacing lost tanks and other vehicles also proved to be more difficult than expected. On paper Russia had thousands of fully armed and equipped tanks and other armored vehicles in reserve for quickly replacing combat losses. Not surprisingly those reserve vehicles were often in bad shape, having been poorly maintained by conscripts and larcenous civilians who made a lot of money by taking key items from these vehicles and selling them on the black market. These missing items were usually not reported missing until troops received these vehicles, which were generally mobile enough to be driven onto a railroad flatcar for transportation to units needing them. Once received these reserve vehicles were found missing equipment and in need of extensive repairs to make them combat-ready. By 2023, much older tanks from the 1960s were being mobilized.

This was nothing new and has been common since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and the mighty Soviet Red Army lost 80 percent of its personnel strength but few of its ships, aircraft, vehicles, and heavy weapons. Most of these were put into reserve. This often led to many of these reserve tanks found abandoned throughout Russia. The military lost track of where many of these armored vehicles were. Journalists or rural Russians with access to the internet did stumble across these storage sites, some of them in forests and none of them guarded or maintained. That’s where most of 50,000 Cold War era tanks and light armored fighting vehicles ended up. New groups of these reserve vehicles are still being found in forests while known concentrations of these vehicles or aircraft have been picked clean of saleable parts.

Conscription was in even worse shape, with the number of conscripts available declining each year. In April 2018 the Russian military only ended up with 128,000 conscripts during the semi-annual draft call. This was the lowest since 2006, a year when there were more young men available as well as more deferments and rampant draft dodging. In the years since 2018 the decline was reversed by issuing fewer deferments, punishing more draft dodgers, and enforcing laws against conscripts serving in combat zones. The one exception was if the fighting was in Russia, which was the excuse the government used as it claimed they were not invading Ukraine but reuniting Ukraine with Russia. The Ukrainians as well as Russian conscripts and their families disagreed with this interpretation of the invasion.

Another reason for fewer conscripts is that there were fewer young men to conscript because of lower birth rates and more young men who were in poor physical shape, or addicted to drugs, or had a police record and considered more trouble than they are worth if conscripted. All this was expected but since the 1990s Russia has been seeking solutions and finding none that work well enough to keep the military up to strength.

As early as 2012 a parliament-ordered investigation found that the army was short a third of the privates, lowest ranking enlisted troops, they were supposed to have. The Russian military, mainly the Army and Interior Ministry paramilitary units, are supposed to contain a million personnel. But officials admitted in 2011, off-the-record, that the real number was closer to 800,000 and slowly but relentlessly declining. A subsequent investigation confirmed this. In 2021 it was still no more than 800,000. Since 2012 the military has come up with a growing list of solutions for the problem, but all these efforts do is slow the decline of military manpower numbers, not reverse it. Current fixes involve calling up reservists, usually for a brief period to test the system. Instead of letting the reservists quickly return to civilian life, the army is keeping many of the reservists for six months or more. This was one reason for the short-term, less than 12 months, contract. Doing this too often made reservists refuse to appear when recalled. The economic recession since 2014, caused by low oil prices and sanctions, was supposed to encourage more Russians to volunteer but that did not happen and there was less money for increasing the pay for contract soldiers. Recruiting foreigners had minimal impact and so the Russian military keeps fading away.

The military nominally has 220,000 officers, also on contracts, and many veteran contract personnel who serve as technical experts. These are sometimes senior enlisted personnel. All of these specialists are higher paid contract soldiers, some with a decade or more of service. who often become the long-absent Russian NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer, or sergeants), but there are not enough of these NCOs to make a difference. Conscripts still make up nearly half of the military and it is harder and harder to find enough people to conscript or willing to sign a contract. This means there are two classes of Russian military personnel. Most, about 70 percent, are much less capable, with most of them conscripts in for one year of service or new contract soldiers on two or three-year contracts. These are supervised by inexperienced junior officers, a few career NCOs, and a splattering of senior contract personnel. A third of the prewar military were more enthusiastic volunteers and conscripts. These staffed the elite special operations, airborne, security and specialist units. In other words, when the government claimed to have a million military personnel on duty, the reality was that there are only about 200,000 troops on active duty who were good at what they did and wanted to be in the military. There are less of those now.

By 2012 the military reluctantly accepted the fact that they would not be able to obtain more than 270,000 conscripts a year needed to reach the official strength of a million personnel. In the last six years maintaining anything close to that number meant taking less willing and able men. Senior leaders now accept that they will never command a million-man force.

Lowering their standards in order to make their annual quotas just fills the ranks with more troublesome people, who cause more of the good troops to get out. In the last few years, the military has quietly stopped accepting many volunteers or conscripts from Moslem areas, especially the Caucasus regions of Chechnya and Dagestan. The wisdom of this was made clear when Russian intelligence reported that the most effective Russian Moslems who joined and fought for Islamic terrorist groups were military veterans. In contrast, Russian Moslems who had not served in the military were less likely to become Islamic terrorists and if they did, they were used as suicide bombers or support staff, not as long-term fighters. Moreover, commanders continued to report that if more than a few percent of their troops were Moslem, morale problems in the entire unit would be worse.

The basic recruiting problem is twofold. First, military service is very unpopular, and potential conscripts are increasingly successful at dodging the draft deliberately or otherwise. The corruption of conscription officials has reached staggering levels. But the biggest problem is that the number of 18-year-olds is rapidly declining each year. By 2009 all draftees were born after the Soviet Union dissolved. That was when the birth rate went south year after year. Not so much because the Soviet Union was gone but more because of the economic collapse (caused by decades of communist misrule) that precipitated the collapse of the communist government. The number of available draftees went from 1.5 million a year in the early 1990s to less than half that today. Less than half those potential conscripts are showing up and many have criminal records or tendencies that help sustain the abuse of new recruits that have made military service so unsavory.

With conscripts now in for only a year, rather than two, the military is forced to take a lot of marginal sickly, overweight, bad attitude, drug user recruits in order to keep the military and Ministry of Interior units up to strength. This worked during the cold war because conscript service was three years for elite units. With one-year conscripts, elite airborne and commando units using some conscripts find that these eager conscripts take a year to master the skills needed to be useful and then they are discharged. Few choose to remain in uniform and become career soldiers. That's primarily because the Russian military is seen as a crippled institution and one not likely to get better any time soon. With so many of the troops now one-year conscripts, an increasing number of the best officers and NCOs get tired of coping with all the alcoholics, drug users, and petty criminals that are taken in just to make quotas. With the exodus of the best leaders and a growing proportion of ill-trained and unreliable conscripts, the Russian military is more of a mirage than an effective combat or even paramilitary organization.

The military is unpopular for conscripts mainly because of the brutal treatment they receive. This has not been getting better and hazing incidents are still increasing each year. This is serious violence that often causes injuries or even deaths. There are a lot of reasons for not wanting to be in the Russian Army but the worst of them is the hazing. One year conscription was supposed to solve this but new conscripts are tormented by conscripts who have been in a few months longer. It was thought that this sort of thing would speed the demise of conscription in Russia once the Cold War ended in 1991. Didn't work out that way. The government found that, even among the contract soldiers, the old abuses lived on and that most of the best contract soldiers left when their contract was up. It was because of the brutality and lack of discipline in the barracks. The hazing is most frequently committed by troops who have been in six months or so against the new recruits. But this extends to a pattern of abuse and brutality by all senior enlisted troops against junior ones. It remains out of control. The abuse continues to exist in part because of the growing animosity against troops who are not ethnic Russians and especially against those who are Moslem. Because of higher birth rates among the Moslem populations, nearly 15 percent of eligible conscripts are Moslems and that is seen as more of a problem than a solution.

This hazing originally developed after World War II when Russia deliberately avoided developing professional NCOs. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The Soviets failed to note that good NCOs were the key to effective troops. The Soviets felt that officers were more politically reliable, as they were more carefully selected and monitored. The NCOs that did exist were treated as slightly more reliable enlisted men but given little real authority. Since officers did not live with the men, slack discipline in the barracks gave rise to the vicious hazing and exploitation of junior conscripts by the senior ones. This led to very low morale, and a lot of suicides, theft, sabotage, and desertions. This hazing has been one of the basic causes of crimes in the Russian armed forces, accounting for 20 to 30 percent of all soldier crimes. It also produced a military suicide rate that is among the highest in the world and contributed to brutal behavior by soldiers towards civilians and prisoners of war. Poor working conditions in general also mean that Russian soldiers are nearly twice as likely to die from accidents, or suicide, then American soldiers. Long recognized as a problem, no solution to the hazing ever worked.

Conscription itself, and the prospect of being exposed to hazing, produced a massive increase in draft dodging starting during the Soviet period. Bribes and document fraud were and are freely used. Few parents, or potential conscripts, consider this a crime. Avoiding the draft is seen as a form of self-preservation. The government has cracked down on parent-backed draft dodging with little effect. That’s because there is still so much corruption in Russia and evading conscription is seen by many as not really criminal, especially when the parents can afford to pay a bribe to keep their only son, and often an only child, out of the Russian military.

The Russian lack of sergeants has been difficult to fix. Just promoting more troops to that rank, paying them more, and telling them to take charge, has not done the job. So going back to look at how Western armies do it, the Russians noted that those foreign armies provided a lot of professional training for new NCOs and more of it as the NCOs advanced in rank. But this is a long-term process and takes years before benefits will be felt. By 2022 there were more veteran NCOs available, and they probably made a difference. But the losses were so heavy in Ukraine that it may never be known how good Russian professional NCOs had become.

All this is in sharp contrast to the old days. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it had five million troops in its armed forces. Now it's less than 800,000 in just Russia, which had about half the population of the Soviet Union but most of the territory. Although the Russian armed forces lost over 80 percent of its strength by the end of the 1990s, a disproportionate number of officers remained. This problem was solved after encountering much resistance from officers in general and, after a series of reforms, the number of officers was reduced by over 50 percent.

The Russian military has an image problem that just won't go away easily. This resulted in the period of service for conscripts being lowered from two to one year in 2008. That was partly to placate the growing number of parents who were encouraging, and assisting, their kids in avoiding military service.

All this comes after more than a decade of reforms in the armed forces, particularly the army. Poor discipline, low morale, and incompetent performance are all legacies of the Soviet era (1921-1991). Russian commanders, envious of the success of all-volunteer Western forces, have long studied their former foes and decided to adopt a lot of Western military customs. For example, one of those reforms decreed that Russian troops would not be confined to their barracks most of the time. In the Soviet era, the conscripted troops were treated like convicts and their barracks were more like a prison than the college dormitory atmosphere found in troop housing for Western military personnel. Russian conscripts are now free to leave the base on weekends and work only a five-day week. All barracks have hot water showers, another recent achievement, and troop accommodations are the best they have ever been. Things like this help a bit but not enough.

Russia tried to change public attitudes towards the armed forces by publicizing all the new changes and programs. But word got around that most of these efforts failed. Blame that on the Internet. Polls consistently show that most military age men do not want to serve in the military and the main reason is the hazing and prison-like conditions in the barracks. As a result of all these factors, prospects of a revival of the traditional large Russian armed forces continues to fade. The defeats in Ukraine have not helped. Several thousand of the many Russians captured by or surrendering to Ukrainian forces are learning more about how Western armies operate and being released in prisoner exchanges. This sends back soldiers who know how Western forces operate and wonder why Russia has not learned from this and made changes.

The heavy losses in Ukraine and declining morale mean that Russia has less than 500,000 troops in Ukraine while Ukrainian forces are about the same size. Both sides have problems obtaining new recruits. In Ukraine the main problem is the labor shortage needed to keep the economy going. Russia has a similar problem and encourages military age men to remain in critical jobs by forbidding the military to take these men for military service. Russia is still on the offensive and needs more men for attacks and the subsequent high casualties. Russian troops are increasingly reluctant, often violently, to carrying out such attacks. Threats of prosecution and imprisonment have no impact. There is also a problem with more Russian men leaving the country to avoid military service. Many of these don’t plan to return because the Russian economy is a mess and the government can’t seem to fix the economy or anything else. There is a labor shortage in Europe and that makes it easier to accept these Russian military age male refugees.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close