By MICHAEL WASIURA
As Ukrainian forces continue to use Western-supplied weaponry to execute precision strikes on Russian military targets, the Russian response remains largely limited to the rhetorical realm. Military experts tell Newsweek that the reason behind the Kremlin’s seeming restraint is simple: the Russian military is no longer able to deploy significant numbers of additional conventional forces to Ukraine in the short term.
“In the short-to-medium run, Russia isn’t capable of generating much more effective conventional force than it has already deployed,” said George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
“Of the observed units that the Russians could have pulled to go into Ukraine, almost every existing maneuver brigade and regiment within the Russian military has deployed and has taken some form of combat losses,” Barros told Newsweek. “We assess that they essentially have no pristine regiment or brigade reserves back home that they can pull from.”
Despite Russia’s status as an authoritarian state with a conscription system that rotates approximately a quarter million young men through the armed forces each year, the country’s capacity to put additional armies in the field is limited by political, logistical and human factors. Rather than making a formal declaration of war and calling up its reservists, the Kremlin has attempted to replenish the military’s ranks with volunteers recruited from the provinces.
“The way the Russians have gone about doing their force generation indicates a strong desire to avoid mass mobilization, because if they could have done it, they probably would have already done it,” Barros said.
But Russia has not taken such a step, and there is no indication it is preparing to do so.
“Instead, Russia is increasing their financial incentives to prey off of the economically vulnerable,” he added. “There’s footage of training grounds that shows who is signing up, and they’re not the kinds of people that would perform well in combat situations even if they were given proper training, which they’re not.”
Despite the fact that, on paper, so many military-aged Russian males have military experience, there appears to be no quick fix for the Russian manpower shortage. Even if the Kremlin leadership were to change tack and put its reserves into uniform, there is serious question as to how quickly these call-ups could be transformed into an effective fighting force.
“It legitimately takes a long time to form a good soldier, and it takes even longer to take a bunch of good soldiers and put them into a unit, exercise them, have them go out and successfully
accomplish tactical tasks on the battlefield,” Barros explained. “Because of the very high attrition rates that the Russian officer corps has suffered in Ukraine, it’s going to take a generation to retrain the kind of military leadership that’s necessary to effectively coordinate all of these moving pieces.”
The Russian military’s problems also extend to equipment. By all indications, Russia’s stocks of Soviet-era artillery shells and similarly low-tech kit remain abundant. However, reserve quantities of more sophisticated weaponry may be running low, and Western sanctions against dual-use technologies make it more difficult for Russia to replace spent supplies of weapons systems that depend on imported components.
“Russia is making efforts to conserve its stocks of precision-guided munitions,” Dr. Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analysis, told Newsweek. “Initially, they didn’t hold a lot back because they didn’t seem to expect the war in Ukraine to last more than two or three weeks, and so they went for a kind of shock and awe strategy, thinking they wouldn’t have to sustain those kinds of expenditures. Now though, they’ve started using them more judiciously.”
On the manpower side of the equation, Gorenburg agreed that without a dramatic shift in domestic policy towards mass mobilization, Russia is not capable of generating the quantity of forces necessary to make a significant difference in the situation on the battlefield.
“It’s becoming harder and harder for them to recruit as people hear stories about the lack of training, about the actual conditions in Ukraine, about the levels of losses in those hastily formed units,” he said. “If the economy continues to deteriorate, they’ll continue to get people from poorer regions who don’t have any better alternatives, but we’re not talking about a sudden influx of 100,000 troops.”
Russian messaging in this regard does not match its actions. In July, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the provision of long-range Western weapons to Ukraine meant that Russia’s “geographical tasks will move from their current lines.” Kremlin-sponsored domestic propagandists are still calling for an expansion of Russia’s war to include targets in NATO countries.
Vladimir Putin recently signed a well-publicized order calling for the armed forces to increase its number of combat personnel by 137,000. However, despite the bluster, neither mass mobilization nor the promised Russian escalation of the war has occurred.
“Russia already has a manpower shortage just from fighting in Ukraine,” Gorenburg said. “What are they going to do, say, ‘Oh, you sent ATACMs, now we’re going to launch an airstrike on Poland’? It doesn’t make sense from a capabilities perspective.”
Even if more new recruits are brought in and trained this year, with the attrition and turnover in the Russian military, the overall size of the force is not guaranteed to increase.
“Realistically, there are going to be people leaving the army, saying, ‘I’ve had enough, I’m getting out,'” Gorenburg added. “A net increase of 10,000-20,000 is certainly possible, but without a call
for mass mobilization, I would put the range at something like negative 30,000 to positive 20,000.”