Putin Wants to Keep Fighting. Who Will Fill the Ranks?

Moscow has to figure out how to replenish unprecedented losses in just under three months of fighting.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Victory Day parade.
Russian President Vladimir Putin watches the Victory Day parade.
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to watch the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in central Moscow on May 9. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

As Russian forces continue to take significant battlefield losses in Ukraine, the Kremlin is struggling to plug the gap as Russian President Vladimir Putin remains reluctant to call for a full-scale military mobilization. 

British military intelligence estimates that Russia has lost one-third of the ground combat forces it had gathered ahead of its invasion as Moscow’s forces have been bedeviled by both their own operational shortcomings and a fierce Ukrainian resistance, backed by sophisticated Western weapons. The U.S. Defense Department has not seen evidence of a mass Russian mobilization so far, officials said. But as Russia is trying to throw more forces into the fight, it is sometimes bringing in combat groups at less than full strength, including units that took losses in their failed effort to capture the capital, Kyiv.

In lieu of a mass mobilization campaign, which is likely to prove unpopular, Russia has cobbled together reinforcements by redeploying troops from occupied territories in Georgia, bringing in mercenaries from Syria, recruiting civilians in occupied regions in the Donbas, and coercing soldiers to stay on the battlefield by dangling financial incentives at new recruits. Ukrainian officials and lawmakers have also noticed Russia taking less experienced troops from more far-flung areas, such as the easternmost Russian port city of Vladivostok, instead of using elite units that suffered severe casualties in the beginning of the war. And the Pentagon believes that the paramilitary Wagner Group is active in the Donbas region. 

As Russian forces continue to take significant battlefield losses in Ukraine, the Kremlin is struggling to plug the gap as Russian President Vladimir Putin remains reluctant to call for a full-scale military mobilization. 

British military intelligence estimates that Russia has lost one-third of the ground combat forces it had gathered ahead of its invasion as Moscow’s forces have been bedeviled by both their own operational shortcomings and a fierce Ukrainian resistance, backed by sophisticated Western weapons. The U.S. Defense Department has not seen evidence of a mass Russian mobilization so far, officials said. But as Russia is trying to throw more forces into the fight, it is sometimes bringing in combat groups at less than full strength, including units that took losses in their failed effort to capture the capital, Kyiv.

In lieu of a mass mobilization campaign, which is likely to prove unpopular, Russia has cobbled together reinforcements by redeploying troops from occupied territories in Georgia, bringing in mercenaries from Syria, recruiting civilians in occupied regions in the Donbas, and coercing soldiers to stay on the battlefield by dangling financial incentives at new recruits. Ukrainian officials and lawmakers have also noticed Russia taking less experienced troops from more far-flung areas, such as the easternmost Russian port city of Vladivostok, instead of using elite units that suffered severe casualties in the beginning of the war. And the Pentagon believes that the paramilitary Wagner Group is active in the Donbas region. 

“They’ve been really scraping every barrel’s bottom that they can possibly find,” said Frederick Kagan, director of the Critical Threats project at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Draft legislation posted to the website of the Russian parliament on Friday indicated that Russian lawmakers are set to weigh measures that would scrap the upper age limit at which Russians can sign up for military service. The amendment, introduced by the head of the parliament’s defense committee, Andrey Kartapolov, argued that it was necessary to recruit specialists with years of experience under their belts. The current cap stands at 40 years old for Russians and 30 years old for foreign citizens. 

For the first several weeks of the Donbas campaign, after Moscow’s disastrous effort to storm Kyiv ended in failure, Russia tried to overwhelm Ukrainian forces with strength in numbers on its flatter terrain by saturating targets with heavy rocket and artillery fire before sending in waves of ground units. But progress is falling far behind Putin’s expectations in the contested region, and Russian units are getting pushed away from Ukrainian border cities like Kharkiv. That’s leading to yet another change in Russian tactics. On Wednesday, a senior Pentagon official speaking on background under ground rules set by the Defense Department said Russia is beginning to scale back the size of its attacks using smaller units in the northern Donbas, likely in response to the heavy attrition sustained in the war so far. 

“The wheels are sort of coming off the Russian army,” Kagan said.

On Friday, British defense intelligence assessed that Russian commanders are under increased pressure to achieve their objectives, forcing them to redeploy forces exhausted by battle without sufficient time to replenish, risking further losses. British officials believe that in some areas of the Donbas, despite outnumbering Ukrainian forces by more than three to one, Russia’s poor integration of artillery and ground units has hindered progress, though Ukrainian officials believe that Russian fire has been effective in inflicting far more casualties than during its failed effort to take Kyiv. 

“They still having a problem delivering the effect they want, partly because of that integration challenge, partly because, if in doubt, go back to Soviet tactics of massive bombardments and barrages with fairly inaccurate artillery followed up by push yourself, turn [down] one road, and get whacked,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told reporters last week during a visit to Washington. “That’s what’s happening every day. They are not really progressing in many areas, … and their solution is just cannon fodder.”

Moscow’s increasingly mauled and ad hoc forces are likely to translate into further difficulties on the battlefield. “Even if he announced mobilization tomorrow, the attack currently underway will almost certainly culminate within the next couple of weeks,” Kagan said. “There just isn’t a wave of trained personnel that they can bring in that can really rejuvenate it in any short period of time.”

The senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Thursday that Russia had about 106 battalion tactical groups (BTG) fighting in Ukraine, the same number as earlier in the week. “They did push some units back into the Donbas that were not at 100 percent,” the official said. “We just had indications that not every BTG they put in was at the same level of readiness as before the war. Some BTGs were so depleted that they simply disbanded them and combined them into others.” Wallace, the British defense minister, said Russia had also tried to stem losses in units that ranged up to 35 percent—close to rates that would render most military units inoperable—by augmenting them with unprepared troops. 

Western officials believe that Russia has already put nearly two-thirds of its front-line ground combat units into the fight in Ukraine. But the senior U.S. defense official said Russia has still struggled to move large masses of troops because of failures in logistics and sustainment efforts. And some of Russia’s military failures in the conflict, including the sinking of the cruiser Moskva in April and the failure to seize Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has prompted Putin to suspend two top commanders. 

There are also rumblings of discontent within Russia. Russian military recruitment offices across the country have been targeted with Molotov cocktails, likely to protest Russia’s backdoor efforts to mobilize troops, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War reported on Thursday. Russia’s usually patriotic military bloggers have also come to question Moscow’s execution of the war, the institute noted last week, after almost 500 troops and 80 pieces of military equipment were lost in a disastrous attempt to cross the Siverskyi Donets River. 

“The Molotov cocktails are a canary in the coal mine,” Kagan said. “The military bloggers are a very loud canary in the coal mine. And this can become a problem to the stability of Putin’s regime.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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