Attrition: Old School Solutions Come Up Short

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July 3, 2022: The Russian military has a manpower problem in Ukraine, where heavy losses among officers and troops have been difficult to replace. This includes senior commanders. Not only have more than a dozen generals been killed in combat, but even more senior generals have been fired (relieved and often forced to retire) for lack of success. The senior generals are replaced by recently retired generals who, while older, have more experience and a record of success in combat situations. But no Russian generals alive today faced a situation like modern Ukraine, where the opposition is composed of fellow Slavs who are better prepared, armed, led and more numerous than the Russian invaders. Worse, Russia doesn’t consider Ukraine a combat situation but rather an internal security matter as Russia seeks to pacify what Russian leaders consider part of Russia. The rest of the world and many, if not most Russians disagree with this fantasy and are not willing to die trying to make it work. This is a rather unique, and tragic situation that Russian history is full of. Russian leaders, especially the current president-for-life Vladimir Putin make it work by observing a few rules to prevent Russia from blowing up in their faces. Post-Soviet Russia only works if the leaders comply with certain public demands. One such here involved an end to conscription. That was supposed to happen gradually as Russia hired more contract (volunteer) soldiers. Eventually all Russian troops were to be better paid volunteers with conscription retained only for use in a national emergency, which invading Ukraine is not. For the Ukrainians the Russian invasion was a national emergency and conscription was not needed because there were so many volunteers. Russian troops in Ukraine are outnumbered a Ukrainian force that is about fifty percent larger than what the Russians have in Ukraine. The better led and motivated Ukrainians face reluctant and often poorly led Russian troops who suffer higher casualties.

Russia still depends on conscripting up to 300,000 conscripts a year, who serve for a year and are banned by law from being sent into combat unless it is a national emergency. Putin refuses to declare Ukraine a national emergency because it isn’t, and too many Russians will actively oppose such a move. Putin was supposed to have more contract troops in the Russian military by now but he is short of cash because his initial 2014 land grabs in Ukraine got him Crimea and part of two provinces in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). The international response was economic sanctions on Russia and military and economic aid for Ukraine. Putin’s response was not to back off but to attempt to seize all of Ukraine in February 2022. This brought more economic sanctions on Russia and substantial military aid for Ukraine.

The Russians discovered early on that their invading troops suffered enormous casualties because the Ukrainians were better prepared and armed for such a foolish move by Russia. The invasion force contained some conscripts, who were told they were still in Russia until the well-armed locals tore their unit to pieces and within weeks forced the survivors to retreat back to the border. That was because about a third of the invaders were lost. This included those who surrendered or deserted as well as those killed or wounded. Russia tried to limit the spread of this bad news but could only slow it down. Soon conscripts were refusing to respond to conscription notices while many contract soldiers quit or refused to return to Ukraine, which their contracts allowed them to do because Ukraine was not a war. The government responded by accepting this but adding a notation to contract soldier records and personal ID about what these soldiers did. The contract soldiers saw this as official recognition of how they beat the system and legally avoided certain death if they returned to Ukraine, where depleted and demoralized Russian forces were ordered to carry out suicidal attacks that rarely succeeded.

In response to this troop shortage, Russian again changed the recruitment rules. Age limits on new contract soldiers were raised and non-Russians were accepted as long as they knew enough Russian to handle military service and were fit to fight and willing to do so in Ukraine. Another change was allowing new conscripts to become contract troops. Previously, only Russians who had completed their year of conscript duty could become contract soldiers. This meant a new category of contract soldier with no military experience and only the paramilitary training available to high-school students. It would require at least four months of training before these inexperienced contract soldiers were ready for combat.

Youthful enthusiasm helps but is not enough. You need some experienced troops as cadre and, while these are available in Russia, they are expensive and wary about going to Ukraine. The best source of these experienced mercenaries is the Caucasus, where three million non-Slav Moslems live. There are several different groups and the most well-known are the Chechens. It took Russia several tries and great violence to pacify the Caucasus after 1991 and they offered the survivors the usual deal; some autonomy under a local faction loyal to Russia. It worked in the past and works now. The Chechens are the most notorious group and require financial incentives for difficult jobs, like fighting Ukrainians. That’s because several hundred Chechens were sent in with the initial 2022 invasion with orders to get to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and kill the Ukrainian president. The group failed, with heavy losses. After that the Caucasus mercenaries raised their prices for returning to Ukraine. Russia agreed to the higher pay and sent some more Caucasus troops into Ukraine. The Caucasus troops were effective, but still suffered losses and found that Russia did not pay on time at the agreed-on rate. This, more than formidable opposition in Ukraine, discouraged a lot of Caucasus troops from going, or going back. Russia blames the payroll problems on corruption, but is unsure if it is Russian or Chechen corruption. The Chechens aren’t the only ones suffering from corruption in Ukraine. It is also a problem there and the current Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected in 2019 because he promised to oppose Russian threats and deal with corruption in Ukraine. Zelensky did both. There is not as much wartime corruption in Ukraine because when Zelensky learns of incidents he removes the guilty officials quickly and very publicly. That encourages less corruption and improves morale for Ukrainian troops. Zelensky is still on the Russian hit list while corrupt Russian officials are often not. That means Russian efforts to rebuild their invasion forces with well-trained, well-equipped and motivated troops are not working. Russia often falls back on their traditional use of indiscriminate violence and lots of firepower. Ukrainians have been the victims of this several times in the last century but this time the Russians do not have overwhelming superiority in firepower and troops available. Since 2014 Ukraine has received military, economic and diplomatic support from the West, it had received little or none in previous battles with Russia. It makes a difference that most Russians understand but their leader, Vladimir Putin is a determined traditionalist who believes that destroying enough of Ukraine and killing enough Ukrainians will eventually work. This is causing more resistance within Russia and Putin seems to believe that this will not do to his Russia what it did to the Soviet Union in 1991.

 


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