Attrition: Expanding the Shrinking Russian Army


January 21, 2023: The Russian government increased the legal maximum number of its active-duty military personnel from 1,013,628 to 1,150,628 personnel. It is unlikely that this number will ever be reached. At the end of 2021 the 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. Right now that means the heavy Russian losses since the invasion began, and failure to mobilize many replacements, reduced the army to about 250,000 personnel. 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 far fewer soldiers providing logistic and transportation services. These 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 operated by civilians who are trained for such support. For a major war against Russia, civilian trucks and drivers are mobilized for this. Such a mobilization disrupts the economy but that is seen as necessary t0 defend Russia.

This 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 guided GMLRS rockets that hit Russian supply depots because of information supplied by Ukrainians or NATO supplied aerial and satellite surveillance. Russian forces inside Ukraine are chronically short of ammunition, food, fuel and much else by these Ukrainian tactics. Resorting 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. That is now about 400,000, including the air force and navy. Mobilizations of new conscripts and men who had served the one year of conscript service 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 replacements take months to train. 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 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 planet of untrained Ukrainians were used to halt the invasion. Since then, Ukrainian troops get more training and are led by officers and NCOs in combat. Ukrainian troops don’t suffer from supply shortages and suffer relatively few casualties than the Russians.

Since the invasion began in February, Russia has suffered enormous losses in terms of combat personnel, military equipment and the reputation for quality/reliability/effectiveness of Russian weapons and personnel. Even the Ukrainians were surprised at how unprepared the invaders were for combat and dealing with Ukrainian superiority in weapons (often Western), leadership (all Ukrainian) and tactics. 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.

Their currently alleged key to Russian victory are disagreements among NATO members about whether Ukraine can win a military victory. NATO is in agreement about the Russia’s inability to win in Ukraine but many politicians in some of the larger, and more distant from the fighting NATO nations (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.

Many Russians now openly oppose the war even though Putin quickly created laws to make such public dissent illegal. That law’s failure 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 (“fragging”). 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 the combat losses and veterans refusing to stay in, even though being a contract (volunteer) soldier is one of the few jobs Russians can get because of Western sanctions. The Russian economy is shrinking and unemployment, along with poverty, is increasing.

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 often used for support operations outside Ukraine during their one year in uniform.

Ukrainians are running short of artillery ammunition so they use their mobile artillery only for counterbattery (firing on Russian artillery). The Russians initially used artillery ammo at an unsustainable level and, as the Ukrainians receive more artillery ammo from NATO, Russia’s artillery superiority faded. Vladimir Putin knew his artillery munition reserves could not sustain a long war and now it is the Ukrainians who have more munitions because of massive shipments from NATO nations.

Russian plans include increasing the number of volunteer contract troops who are paid more than conscripts and serve longer. The government claims it will have 521,000 “contracti” by the end of 2023 and 695,000 a year or two after that. That is 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.


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