Logistics: The Higher Costs of Invasion


October 8, 2023: History regularly repeats the fact that going to war brings with it unexpected costs. Russia didn’t expect its invasion of Ukraine to cost so much. This began with Russian leaders convincing themselves that Ukrainian resistance would not be a problem and would be over quickly. Many Russian government and military officials knew otherwise but the senior decision makers dismissed such pessimistic assessments. To make matters worse, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is determined to wear down Ukrainian resistance, despite heavy Russian losses. The Russian plan includes reducing Russian casualties by continuing to spend heavily on weapons, munitions and missile attacks on Ukrainian economic targets.

Russia has coped a fair amount with Western economic sanctions and convinced the Russian population that the war effort is for the defense of Russia against NATO aggression. Russia can afford this because they have an annual GDP of over two trillion dollars and the ability to increase annual defense spending to over $100 billion. That’s up from $86 billion in 2022 and $66 billion in 2021. A decade ago, annual defense spending was $20 billion. This is tolerated by Russian taxpayers because, before 2022, the military threat was hypothetical. That changed in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine as part of an effort to protect Russia from purported inevitable NATO aggression. All that makes no sense to most Westerners, but Ukrainians understood as did NATO’s East European members, especially Poland and the Baltic States.

Russia does not have a blank check for defense spending. The invasion of Ukraine triggered massive Western sanctions. These did not stop Russian aggression but did impose limits to what Russia could do with a larger defense budget,

A wartime defense budget has very different priorities than it does in peacetime. For Russia, this is a major problem in Ukraine, where their faltering invasion effort turned out to be a lot more expensive than expected. While the salaries of the troops and operating costs of the military came to $85 billion, the additional wartime expenses included $34 billion for lost weapons and equipment as well as $21 billion for medical care of those wounded and $26 billion for compensating the families of those killed in combat. The latter is also a good way for foreign intelligence agencies to estimate Russian casualties. Those families, especially if they consist of a wife and children, need continued support. Without this compensation you cannot obtain volunteers who join to be career officers and NCOs. For these men the military is a job that they will normally hold for about twenty years before they are eligible to retire with lifetime monthly pay. This compensation is 2.5 percent of monthly pay for every year served. Retire after 20 years and you get half your active duty pay. Retire after 40 years and you continue getting the same monthly pay received while on active service. There are large one-time payments for those badly wounded and even higher payments to families of soldiers killed. These payments go only to career officers and soldiers because conscripts only serve one year and are prohibited from being sent to a foreign war. Families of conscripts get lesser death benefits.

In 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, over half of Russian military personnel were either volunteers serving on contracts or career officers. The ability of the military to hold onto those contract (“contrakti”) soldiers is always weakened if there are a lot of casualties or too much chance of being sent to a combat zone. This manifested itself in 2022 when contract troops refused to renew contracts. Most of the combat units sent into Ukraine were composed of contract troops who 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 most contract troops were near the end of their 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 far fewer vets willing to sign these short contracts because so few recent short-term contract soldiers had survived service in Ukraine.

Soldiers with time left on their contracts were a liability because they told anyone who would listen that the Ukraine “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 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.

Without a lot of contract soldiers Russia could not replace initial 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 the vehicles combat ready. This was nothing new and has been common since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and the mighty Red Army lost 80 percent of its personnel strength but few of its ships, aircraft, vehicles and heavy weapons. Most of these were “in reserve” even though many were found abandoned throughout Russia, and new groups of these abandoned vehicles are still being found in forests while known concentrations of these vehicles or aircraft have been picked clean of useful 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 semiannual 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-held portions of Ukraine (since the 2014 invasion) and this was the excuse the government used in 2022 as it claimed they were not invading Ukraine but reuniting Ukraine with Russia. The Ukrainians as well as Russian conscripts and their families disagree 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 either (or all) in poor physical shape, addicted to drugs, or have 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, the lowest ranking enlisted troops, they were supposed to have. The Russian military, mainly the Army and Interior Ministry paramilitary units, are supposed to have 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 military is keeping many of the reservists for six months or more. This was one reason for the short-term (less than 12 month) contract. Doing this too often made reservists refuse to appear when recalled. The economic recession since 2014, caused by oil prices and Western 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.

Before the Ukraine invasion the military had 220,000 officers, also on contracts, many veteran "contract personnel" who provide technical experts, and other senior enlisted personnel. These 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's getting 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 the inexperienced junior officers and a much smaller number of career NCOs. A third of the military are more enthusiastic volunteers and conscripts. These staff the elite special operations, airborne, security and specialist units. In other words, while the government claims to have a million military personnel on duty, the reality is that there are only about 200,000 troops on active duty who are good at what they do and want to be in the military.

Conscripts are inducted twice a year, in April and October. In 2011, the April intake was nominally 220,000 but fewer than that actually made it into uniform. In 2018 the April draft was 128,000. In 2011 only about 75 percent of the men who showed up were considered fit to take. In 2018 standards of “fitness for military service” are much less strict and the military has to cope with a lot more recruits who are of marginal use.

In 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 (particularly 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 Moslems there would be morale problems or 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. 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 attitudes, drug users) 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 police) 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 stuff. 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. This has caused a suicide rate that is among the highest in the world. 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 the hazing has led to a massive increase in draft dodging. Bribes, and document fraud 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 the 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 (praporshchiki) was difficult to fix. Just promoting more troops to that rank, paying them more, and telling them to take charge, did not solve the problem. 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 a lot more of the 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 the NCOs were.

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 has 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 to one year (from two) 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 recent reform ordered 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 showers (a 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.

The war in Ukraine made military service for Russian men something to be avoided, even if that meant illegally leaving Russia. After 1991 Russia was no longer a dictatorship and that provided Russians more opportunities to avoid military service. Avoiding serving in Ukraine was considered a matter of life or death for Russian soldiers. There was not much good news to report and lots of evidence that Russian casualties were high. This could not be hidden because there were many news reports of Russian communities commemorating local men who were sent to Ukraine and never returned or did come back wounded, sometimes to the point of permanent disability.




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