Moscow’s new troops are unlikely to be fully integrated for several months, giving Kyiv time to press its offensive

By Thomas Grove

Sept. 23, 2022

The Wall Street Journal


After seven months of war, Ukraine now faces Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to mobilize more than a quarter of a million men for his invasion, in what the Kremlin hopes will be a display of the massive human resources available to it. Kyiv’s response: Keep calm and continue tactics that have proven to work.

Moscow is banking on its efforts, which are already under way, to throw another 300,000 mobilized soldiers into its faltering attack on Ukraine. Russia’s goal is to harden battle positions that it gained in Ukraine’s east and south and prevent further losses like those it suffered earlier this month in the northeast, when its forces were routed by a swift Ukrainian advance and driven from the strategically important city of Izyum.

Ukraine still has months to make gains before the mobilized troops are integrated into the Russian army, giving it a window of opportunity to carry on with plans to win back territory. For now, Kyiv is unlikely to accelerate any offensive operations in the south or east of the country, Ukrainian and Western military analysts say.

Even with the new forces in place, Ukraine’s use of Western weapons and nimble force structures will likely give it the upper hand against Russia’s reliance on sheer numbers of likely demoralized troops, they said. “They’re trying to boost their numbers without remedying their weaknesses,” said Mykola Bielieskov, research fellow at the Kyiv-based National Institute for Strategic Studies, a government-backed think tank.

Since Mr. Putin’s mobilization announcement earlier this week, thousands of men across Russia with prior military service have been rounded up at home and their places of work to start a planned two-week training period before they are deployed in some cases to front lines.

The Kremlin leader said in a nationwide address Wednesday that the measures were necessary “for the protection of the motherland, its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

For Russia, mobilization will ensure that the conflict continues for the foreseeable future, even if it doesn’t bring any immediate gains. It plays to Russia’s belief it can tolerate the pain of the war longer than the Ukrainians or their Western backers in Europe, which will be paying more for energy over the winter months. “Even if it’s not delivering results on the battlefield, prolonging the conflict is consistent with [Russia’s] theory of victory, which is undermining Ukraine’s depth, which is us” in the West, said Jack Watling, senior research fellow of land warfare and military sciences at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London.

For now, Ukraine’s strategy is to continue to probe Russian front-line weaknesses to find the right opportunities to attack with minimal losses. While Ukraine still has a massive advantage in manpower, it must remain selective in how to apply pressure to Russia’s front to preserve both valuable Western equipment and energy for a fight that will likely continue for months at least.  “The Ukrainians do have time and they do not want to conduct increasingly risky offensive operations in which they’re attacking larger Russian units without the necessary conditions of optimal attack,” said Mr. Watling. “They don’t want to deplete their troops and their logistics and then be hit by new Russian units when they’re most exhausted.”

Even with an overall advantage, Ukraine’s offensives in the south and northeast have depleted the manpower and equipment it has available to advance on Russian positions.  “We also need to regroup forces and also have to rotate forces quite a lot,” said Mr. Bielieskov.

The Russian military’s most immediate challenge is to decide how to absorb such a large number of people. Russian military training isn’t centralized, like in the U.S., and is done instead within the units where soldiers will serve. With the best officers of those units already on the front, the quality of training might be compromised, analysts say.

The Russian armed forces also must decide how to use the incoming manpower in ways that maintain morale and unit cohesion. Newly mobilized soldiers might be used to backfill the hardest-hit units, which in some cases have lost well more than half their soldiers. That move could upset already flagging spirits among combining battle-weary soldiers with new troops who aren’t there voluntarily, said Mr. Watling. “That won’t massively increase combat power,” he said.

The other alternative is to create entirely new units from scratch. Russia experimented with such a move in June when it created the Third Army Brigade from volunteers in various battalions over the spring and summer, when the Kremlin hoped to avoid the politically risky move of calling for a mobilization.

The brigade, however, never had the chance to fight as a cohesive force. It was initially expected to be deployed in the Donbas area in Ukraine’s east, but some units were sent to the Kharkiv region to reinforce Russian positions against Ukraine’s advance. Those units formed part of the mass retreat by Russian soldiers several days later. Other units were then sent to southern Ukraine.

For Moscow, the mobilization is aimed at trying to repeat successes its forces achieved in May and June, when their advantage in artillery and manpower enabled them to slowly and methodically mow through Ukrainian positions to take the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.

Since then, Ukraine’s use of Western weaponry, in particular High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or Himars, has helped stop Moscow’s advance and left Russian positions vulnerable to Ukraine’s smaller and faster units. “Russians want attrition, they want formations clashing en masse—that’s where they’re used to having the advantage,” said John Spencer, chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum. “But the Ukrainians won’t give them that.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons and mobilize 300,000 reservists for the war in Ukraine drew widespread condemnation from world leaders.

With winter coming, both sides will have to think about the logistical challenges that lie ahead. Ukraine expects Western aid to help it weather the cold months ahead, while Russia has longer supply lines to feed. Massing troops on the front will likely only aggravate those challenges and might force Russia to decide whether to give priority to supplies for troops or ammunition for the conflict. “This winter, Russian forces will face the same dilemma as German forces invading Russia in 1941, that is, do you deliver ammunition and fuel or will it be food and clothes, because logistics will already be less robust,” said Mr. Bielieskov. “We’ve destroyed thousands of their trucks.”