Both sides have suffered heavy losses of men and materiel, but Moscow is more dependent on its shrinking economy to replenish supplies
By Stephen Fidler and Ann M. Simmons
Nov. 22, 2022
The Wall Street Journal
Russia has been burning through equipment, ammunition and weaponry at rates that have raised questions about how effectively and for how long it can continue to prosecute its war against Ukraine. The challenge of sustaining the military effort isn’t unique to Russia, which after making significant territorial gains early in the war has been yielding territory back to Ukraine in phases. Both sides have suffered heavy losses of men and materiel since the invasion began in February, but Moscow is more dependent on its own shrinking economy to replenish supplies than Kyiv is. Ukraine’s economy has been more devastated than Russia’s, but has more powerful backers in the U.S. and its allies, which are providing billions of dollars of military and economic aid. “They are running low on everything,” Eliot Cohen, chair in strategy at the Washington, D.C.-based bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the Russians. A significant proportion of the Russian arsenal brought out of storage has deteriorated because of corruption, mismanagement and poor maintenance, he said.
Western and Ukrainian officials and military analysts say there have been indications that Russian stocks of certain critical weapons systems, including precision missiles, are running low. Moscow can’t use its entire inventory of precision missiles—some of which are also used to carry nuclear warheads—because it has to hold some back for use in case of other eventualities, including to deter NATO forces.
Russia continues its occasional barrages of missiles to attack ground targets in Ukraine—now focused on energy and heating infrastructure aimed at sapping the morale of Ukrainian citizens—as happened on Nov. 15 when almost 100 missiles were fired, according to the Ukrainian government.
But the rate at which these missiles are used has dropped significantly from an average of two dozen daily launches in the first months of the war. Yuriy Ihnat, spokesman for Ukraine’s air force command, said last week that just 15 Kalibr cruise missiles were launched in the entire month of October.
One wild card is the significance of Russian imports of weaponry from Iran. The fact that Moscow, one of the world’s largest producers of military equipment, has been forced to turn to outside suppliers is another indication that the Russian military-industrial base is struggling to resupply the country’s forces. North Korea has also begun shipping artillery shells to Russia, according to the U.S.
Iran’s Shahed-136 suicide drones, which began appearing on the battlefield in mid-September, have had a significant impact on the campaign so far. While a large proportion of these cheap weapons is shot down, Ukraine often must use expensive and scarce air-defense missiles to do so—increasing the challenges Kyiv faces in securing resupplies for its air defenses. Ukrainian officials also say Tehran has agreed to supply two types of ballistic missiles—with ranges of 180 miles and 430 miles—to Moscow.
In what analysts and officials say is another possible indication of shortages, Russian missiles are increasingly used for purposes for which they aren’t designed. Antiship missiles, built to hit large metal objects, are being used to attack land targets, as are S-300 air-defense missiles, one weapon that Ukrainian officials say remains in plentiful supply for Moscow’s forces. Both are inaccurate in many ground-attack roles and have caused significant civilian casualties.
Military analysts from the Royal United Services Institute, a London defense-and-security think tank, suggest—using estimates from Ukrainian officials—that Russia may have used only 10% of its inventories of S-300s. But
they say that it has probably expended half of its stock of Iskander ballistic missiles, estimated at 900 before the war, and that its remaining stores of Kalibr cruise missiles are running very low.
Russia has also used vast amounts of cheap low-precision ammunition, firing many thousands of artillery shells a day over months. The rate of fire has now dropped significantly, analysts say, possibly suggesting that even these munitions might need to be rationed—though some of the drop may also be explained by a shift in the nature of the battle.
Losses of soldiers on both sides have also been heavy. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs, estimated that more than 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed and wounded, and probably about the same number of Ukrainian troops. Many of the Russian casualties will likely include many of the military’s more experienced troops, who are being replaced by less-qualified reservists.
Ukraine claims it has destroyed more than 2,800 Russian tanks and more than 5,700 armored personnel vehicles. Losses verified through photographic evidence by the Oryx website, which likely significantly underestimates actual losses, confirms more than 1,500 tanks destroyed, captured or abandoned and more than 2,700 armored vehicles of various types. Oryx, an open-source intelligence tracker, has also identified 49 Russian attack helicopters destroyed or damaged.
Confirmed Ukrainian losses have been much smaller—370 tanks and fewer than 800 armored vehicles, according to Oryx—but its military and its stockpiles were much smaller than Russia’s to start with.
Ukraine is on edge despite the recent retaking of Kherson, with a looming winter, food and power shortages, and a missile blast in Poland that raised fears of a Russia-NATO clash. At 1 p.m. ET on Nov. 22, WSJ Ukraine Correspondent James Marson discusses the latest developments in the war and what might lie ahead this winter.
Following the battlefield setbacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian industry to ramp up military production. In October, he created a new government coordination council to help speed up the production of these supplies, saying that Russia needed to more rapidly resolve issues associated with providing support for the military operation and to counter Western sanctions.
However, the Russian economy is contracting and its workforce is shrinking.
Data from Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development showed that the economy contracted by 5% year on year in September. The latest forecasts from Russia’s central bank predicted that the country is set for the deepest recession of any large economy this year and a drop in gross domestic product of between 3% and 3.5%.
Mr. Putin’s call-up—launched Sept. 21—of 300,000 reservists is beginning to have a noticeable effect on the labor market. The mobilization sent hundreds of thousands of working-age men fleeing the country, exacerbating an already existing shortage of personnel that followed immediately after the Feb. 24 invasion.
In September, the labor force shrank by 600,000 people and was 700,000 lower than a year earlier, a fall of 1%, according to data published by Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service. Local economists said the full effect is likely to be far more significant when October numbers are tallied. “Mobilization affects hundreds of thousands of economically active Russians and cannot but affect the economy,” said Alexei Klimovskii, an economics researcher and analyst and a member of National Expert, an association of experts in Moscow. “Of course, this influence is negative, because economic chains are collapsing and valuable specialists in various industries are leaving,” he said.
Western officials also say sanctions limiting Russia’s access to microchips and other high-tech equipment are constraining Russia’s ability to increase production of precision missiles, even though the sanctions aren’t watertight. In a report this month, RUSI analysts, citing an interview with a Ukrainian official, estimated that Russia’s monthly production capacity of advanced Iskander 9M723 ballistic missiles was just six.
Western officials said Russian industry is likely facing serious bottlenecks as it tries to increase military production. Mr. Putin contends Russia has adapted well to the sanctions, and that the West has failed in its
objective to crush his country’s economy. “Our economy has indeed become much more adaptive and flexible,” he said last month.