Putting aside Russia’s advantages in military hardware (missiles, artillery, aircraft, more modern tanks), there is an assumption that Russia can also overwhelm Ukraine numerically, that no matter how bad things go for the invaders, that there’s always more bodies they can throw into the wood chipper. But is that really true?
This was the pre-war numbers on the respective sizes of the two militaries:
Let’s focus on the “ground forces” numbers, because Russia’s navy is mostly irrelevant in the conflict, and it is unable to move more naval resources into the Black Sea given that Turkey has shut down access to military ships. The Air Force? Well, it looks huge on paper. Not that we’ve seen those numbers in the skies of Ukraine. But what about the ground forces?
That 850,000 number above, oft-cited, is actually all Russian military personnel—including Air Force, navy, and other security forces. The actual number is around 280,000, of which ~190,000 has already been committed to the war. Russia has an additional 2 million potential reserves. The separatist Donbas republicans had 44,000 men to add to the mix.
Meanwhile, Ukraine had 215,000 in its army, plus 53,000 border guards, 60,000 national guard, plus another 167,000 in the territorial defense forces. There were 220,000 in its reservers, which have obviously been called up. So altogether, we’re talking around 715,000. Now, some of these might be double-counted, they might be exaggerated, they may be sitting in western Ukraine waiting for equipment to show up. But fact is, there’s a lot of bodies to call on for as long as Ukraine has the will to take combat losses.
Russia will be getting its Spring draft April 1, and expects to get ~130,000 warm bodies for its war machine. However, Russian law limits their use outside of Russia, which is why Vladimir Putin had to feign shock and horror when Russian media reported the presence of conscripts in Ukraine. Not a problem, for the Russians. They just force those conscripts to sign contracts under threat. Given that captured Russians say Russians political commissars are killing those who retreat, like in the good ol’ Soviet days, it seems particularly easy to get these poor saps to sign any piece of paper with a gun literally to their heads.
Still, Russia has to be sweating the release of last Spring’s class of conscripts. Yes, many will have been forced to sign contracts. But all of them? Possibly, but that’ll be just as problematic to Russian moms back home as the thousands of body bags returning from Ukraine, and Putin has to fear the resurgence of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia protest movement.
Meanwhile, as much as Russians publicly proclaim to support the war, fact is thousands are already trying to evade the draft (see here, here, and here). And that 2 million reserve sounds impressive, until you realize that those are former conscripts, none of which ever got any serious training to begin with, but now out-of-shape and likely alcoholics. It’s not like American reserves (both the Reserves and Army and Air National Guards), which train around 40 days a year. These are ex-scrubs, who are even more scrubby today.
Meanwhile, calling up those reserves and legally being able to deploy conscripts to Ukraine would require Putin to admit that yes, this is actually a war, and not some “limited” military action. It seems inevitable that he’ll have to do so, yet weirdly resists. Maybe it’s too embarrassing for him to admit that Ukrainians didn’t welcome Russians with open arms, and Russian supposedly might armed forces can’t even take cities on its border.
Or maybe it’s an equipment issue. While Chechen and VDV elite airborne units seem to have decent enough equipment, it goes downhill pretty fast from there. I ran the picture on the right at the top of my last update, and commenters pointed out that the machine gun in that pathetic little cart was a PM M1910 … from World War One. The first one, from 1910! The rifle in that poor solider’s lap? A Mosin-Nagant, vintage 1938. The world is awash in AK-47s, even the most isolated rebel groups in the most remote parts of the world seems to have large cachets of them. And Russia somehow can’t issue that simple-yet-effective rifle to its forces?
Now add 100,000+ new conscripts, who don’t know shit about shit, unable to properly equip because everything got pilfered by the lowliest supply officer (to get his girlfriend a lovely lake dacha), to the highest-ranking defense-industry oligarch (to get his multiple wives Italian villas). How are they going to add anything of value to the war effort? They’ll just clog up supply lines heading out of Ukraine, as their body bags get returned home.
That’s why Russia is trying to recruit from its client-state armies and militias, like 15,000 Syrians supposedly ready to fight for Russia. But if Russia wanted to pay soldiers to fight, why not find Russians who knew how to fight and, just as importantly, spoke the language? Sure, Russia sucks at command and control, but speaking the local language seems kinda important. Perhaps that’s why despite all the fanfare, not a single Syrian has been flown to the war?
Meanwhile, all those Ukrainian reservists can get high-quality western-style training out west, unhurried, because their active-duty brothers- and sisters-in-arms, plus territorial defense troops, are holding down the fort just fine. We have seen Ukrainians forces fighting without body armor and helmets, so Ukraine faces their own supply issues. Thus it remains imperative that the West continue to supply them with such equipment. But when it comes to actual bodies on a battlefield, it is Russia that seems most likely to run out of bodies before Ukraine ever does.
The positions that Ukraine took on Tuesday suggested this was coming. This could be the most critical confrontation of the war so far, except for the sheer refusal of Ukraine to surrender population centers. If Ukraine can force the surrender, or accomplish the destruction, of these forces, the win will be a lot more than a morale boost.
After days of declining presence from the Russian Air Force, it seems that the number of sorties is up over the last 48 hours. However, those sorties appear to be devoted to bombing runs in Mariupol and other locations in the south. Russian planes are steering clear of Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other locations where air defenses are still operating, Russian planes and UAVs also don’t appear to be providing air support to ground operations in areas where Ukrainian forces with Stingers or other portable anti-aircraft weapons might be present.
in other words, Russia has turned the Air Force into an extension of their artillery campaign.
This will be a big moment. Parts of the preliminary proceedings of this NATO “extraordinary summit” have been streamed to the public, but it’s not clear if this will be.
Pre-summit press conference with NATO Secretary General.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.