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OPINION

Enough cannon fodder, not enough cannons: Russia struggling to equip its mobilized troops

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The war in Ukraine has proven yet again that, despite advanced concepts and state-of-the-art weapons, old military truths are still relevant. In particular, personnel numbers still matter. One should carefully interpret this statement, though. A bigger army does not always guarantee victory; it would be too simple. In reality, meeting an objective requires a sufficient number of troops, while quality alone gets you nowhere. However, Jacques d'Éstampes’ maxim that “God always favors the big battalions” does not nullify the saying “God helps him who helps himself”. Alexander Suvorov's call to “wage war with skill, not numbers” does not mean that numbers are irrelevant either; what he said is that putting numbers to good use also takes talent.

The number of troops and the quantity of equipment for a specific mission are calculated based on national military standards but generally depend on two variables: enemy numbers and area size. Judging by either of these criteria, Russia has not engaged enough forces in the war. It was clear as early as in spring that the total of Ukrainian troops (the AFU, territorial defense, and the rest of them) outnumber Russia’s invasion grouping. This imbalance is the root cause of all of Russia's problems in the war. The Russians faced an enemy so numerous that they were physically unable to advance.

It's common knowledge that the operation was not initially planned as a war effort but as a combination of politics, reconnaissance, and propaganda: the first blow was supposed to inspire “fear and trembling” and break apart the centralized command of the Ukrainian army and the country's governance, leaving Russia to suppress local defense units and establish control over territories with its fifth columnists. That is, Russia never counted on waging a full-fledged war with the large Ukrainian army. When Russia had to, it faced a shortage of forces.

The historical forte of the Russian and Soviet armies was their ability to quickly deploy immense numbers of troops and equipment at the front. The inherent pitfalls of the Russian war machine are unchanged: logistics, communication, reconnaissance, and coordination. These have always been problematic and will likely remain so, stemming from the nature of the military apparatus. Yet the advantage of numbers was always there. Now it has all the drawbacks but cannot leverage its traditional advantage, failing to mobilize the droves of soldiers that Imperial and Soviet armies were used to. As a result, there are no pros to balance out the cons. The equation doesn't work.

When the Russian forces were stalled after the first offensive, it became obvious that turning the tables would require reserves that can only be secured through mass mobilization. For political resources, Russia kept postponing the mobilization until the last moment.

Improvise to mobilize

Available estimates suggest that Russia has 170,000 troops deployed in Ukraine at the most, including the Armed Forces as such and other services involved. With a contact line 1,300 kilometers long and an outnumbering enemy, the equation does not add up, and we are here to witness the outcome. The Ukrainian command understands perfectly well that size matters; hence the mass mobilization early on and a ban for eligible men to leave the country in case of further mobilization efforts. Ukraine avails itself of around 1 million troops, of which 700,000 belong to the AFU. Some guard the northern borders, some are deployed around Odesa, some are in reserve, and some in training, but even those who are at the front outnumber Russian forces manifold in a few areas.

Faced with such a shortage of personnel, the Russian army relied on its artillery and aviation superiority, slowly advancing in the period from April to July 2022 by concentrating large groupings of cannon and rocket artillery in narrow areas and following up on heavy bombardment with a slow progression of infantry and motorized units to occupy new territories. However, the approach has outlived itself, in particular, due to Ukrainian strikes on munitions warehouses. Since early July, when the Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk operation concluded, the Russians were making all but little progress, save for two- or three-kilometer advancements near Bakhmut and Piski.

Yet mobilization had not begun, as Russia’s political leaders were putting off this highly unpopular move. A “special military operation” is something that happens far away to a limited number of professionals and volunteers, while ordinary citizens support it by watching TV at home, without getting directly involved. To announce mobilization would be to dismantle and overhaul the entire political and propagandist approach to war (including Putin’s promise made on March 8 about leaving reservists alone), so Russia was avoiding it like the plague - until the plague finally got it.

To announce mobilization would be to dismantle and overhaul the entire political and propagandist approach to war

While the slow advancement of Russia’s troops was tolerable, a successful AFU counteroffensive brought the issue to a head. The Balakliya and Izium operation showed that the Ukrainian army both has the resources and knows how to apply them in practice – for practice is the criterion of truth. Russia’s military commanders must have hit home with Putin that he had to choose between mobilization and withdrawal from Ukraine because there was no going on. So he chose mobilization. All political drawbacks of this decision had to be swallowed.

The Soviet system of deploying a giant reservist force in case of a great war has long since gone into decay because Russia’s Armed Forces never prepared for such a war, unlike their predecessors. Enlisting designated reservists, cadre divisions, and the army's mobilization deployment as such – none of the above exist anymore, the army's grandeur is long-faded. The Soviet military may not have been the most advanced in terms of quality but was always good at meeting quantitative objectives, unlike its modern counterpart. The Russian Armed Forces banked on “units on permanent alert” and swift operations. Therefore, the ongoing mobilization is largely being improvised. Neither the establishment of the mobilization human reserve in 2015 nor the creation of BARS (the National Combat Army Reserve) in 2021 resulted in anything to speak of. Even on paper, BARS is limited to tens of thousands of fighters. To compare, Russia is looking to mobilize hundreds of thousands or even millions.

Russia's mobilization needs

As we mentioned earlier, personnel and equipment needs are dictated by national army standards. Most importantly, there is a gap between defensive and offensive standards.

A Russian motorized battalion defends an area three to five kilometers long (the contact line) and three kilometers deep. Mobile defense allows for stretching out across ten kilometers of the contact line, but the Russian army is yet to demonstrate mobile defense skills, so we’re left with the traditional limit of five kilometers. Holding a 1,300-kilometer-long contact line takes 260 battalions. Of course, the estimate is not comprehensive because the area is not homogeneous: some sections are more dangerous than others and geographic features vary from forests and plains to water bodies and urban settlements. That said, we’re not here to squeeze the Chief Operative Directorate of Russia's General Staff out of their jobs. Instead of detailed maps and tables, we're offering a ballpark estimate, not a precise calculation. Battalion tactical groups of Russia's Armed Forces normally include 600-800 troops. Since we’re in the “best-case scenario” mode, let's go with 800. Therefore, manning 260 battalions takes 208,000 troops. The standards imply that a battalion defends five kilometers of the contact line not only with its personnel but also with a due amount of firepower, armored vehicles, and so on, but we will expand on this later. For now, let's focus on the personnel.

To ensure rotation for 208,000 troops instead of keeping them on the frontline permanently, another 52,000 fighters are required. In addition, the army needs operative reserves for counterattacks, follow-up forces, artillery units, and other units of the army and front command totaling at least 100,000 troops. This is what goes for combat units alone, and then there are numerous outfits and units providing logistical, engineering, and medical support, communications, military police, commandant's offices, headquarters, rear security, checkpoints, and so on. For a grouping this size, auxiliary units also need around 100,000 servicemen.

Apart from combat units, the army needs numerous supporting units

That gives us a total of 460,000 troops. Notably, the number does not include reserves to make up for losses. To err on the safe side, Russia would need at least 40,000 troops in reserve for the upcoming campaign alone. In other words, the total just reached 500,000 troops. Such personnel numbers can drastically improve operative density at the front and narrow down or eliminate weak areas, like the location of the AFU's recent breakthrough near Kharkiv. That is, Ukraine's subsequent offensive efforts in such conditions would require more forces.

If we have an offensive to consider instead of pure defense, a Russian battalion is expected to cover two kilometers of the front line or one kilometer in the case of a breakthrough. The indicated personnel numbers could be sufficient for an offensive effort too: thus, the rotational 52,000 troops alone could be divided into 54 battalion tactical groups (BTGs), 800 troops each. Coupled with reinforcement units of army and front command, it is a force to be reckoned with – roughly one-half of Russia’s BTGs concentrated at the Ukrainian border at the beginning of the war. Naturally, the command should commit them to breakthroughs on narrow areas of the frontline instead of scattering them across multiple operative directions like before. But that's theory; in practice, however, there are two factors at play: an efficient offensive requires a higher level of training and operational coordination than defense, which could be problematic for newly mobilized troops; furthermore, offensive groupings have to be fully equipped with vehicles and weapons, not only personnel, and this is a much bigger challenge at the moment than in the early days of the war.

In all, with sufficient materiel, the 260,000 troops on the frontline and the rotational forces combined could yield 325 BTGs. In August 2021, Russia's Armed Forces had only 168 BTGs on permanent alert and engaged around two-thirds of them in the first stage of the war. That is, to wage war properly, Russia would have needed twice as big a land force from the onset. This way, the results may have been different from what we see today.

To wage war properly, Russia would have needed twice as big a land force from the onset

At the end of the day, if Russia indeed mobilized 300,000 troops to reinforce the existing 170,000, it would have enough personnel for defense: the gap between 470,000 and 500,000 is not that great. If the additional requirements were met, it might even be enough for an offensive. However, continuing the war means sustaining more losses, and the AFU has no intention of holding back either, so Russia’s mobilization effort is highly unlikely to stop at 300,000 recruits.

Ideally, with a contact line this long, an army would need one million troops, including armored corps, to act without hindrance. And yet, while recruiting one million soldiers is possible, equipping new armored armies is unrealistic. As we may see, the target of half a million has already been set.

Managing the mobilized

There are additional criteria worth taking into account. We touched upon them earlier and will now expand.

Firstly, not all that glitters is gold; it's also true about soldiers. Understandably, the mobilized lag behind career officers and their limited time of training does not enable them to catch up. However, it’s what Russia has been dealt. The choice is not between “good soldiers and bad soldiers” but between “bad soldiers or no soldiers”. In 1941, the professional Red Army was mostly exterminated, and it was the mobilized who bore the brunt of the subsequent war effort. The differences are well-known: fighting to expel a malicious invader from your homeland is a stronger motivation than a “special military operation”. Besides, the political regime, the ideology, and life in general have changed. Nevertheless, professionally speaking, the mobilized can fight; those who don’t get killed right away will become seasoned and skilled. The AFU also has plenty of mobilized fighters without combat experience, but their experience is a matter of time as long as they stay alive.

Experience is a matter of time as long as you stay alive

The most rational approach for Russia would be to use its mobilized to reinforce existing units, some of which have lost half of their personnel. This way, recruits will learn from their more experienced comrades. New outfits and units compiled exclusively of fresh troops will have it harder. Finding commanding officers for such units is another challenge. WWII-era tactics will probably be employed as well: some of the officers will be called up from the reserve, some will get their military academy degrees ahead of schedule, a handful more will come from regular army units across the country, and after that, soldiers could be promoted to officers after brief wartime training or simply on the battlefield.

Secondly, even with sufficient personnel numbers, the issue of arming and equipping troops still stands. Problems with uniform, ordnance weapons, and accouterments for the mobilized have been so apparent that the State Duma’s Defense Committee has scheduled a hearing, which is uncharacteristic for Russia's day-to-day politics. Meanwhile, the Deputy Minister of Defense Dmitry Bulgakov, who is responsible for the materiel support of the entire army, was dismissed even earlier. That said, we are witnessing issues typical of the first stage of mass mobilization when the army needs a lot of resources at once and has nowhere to procure them from. In theory, these issues are manageable. Internal army reserves will cover some of these needs; the mobilized could buy everything they need, get assistance from volunteers – or simply make do without it. After all, the Russian army has always waged wars like this: lots of soldiers lacking much of what's necessary.

The Russian army has always waged wars like this: lots of soldiers lacking much of what's necessary

However, vehicles and heavy weapons are harder to procure. If Russia continues withdrawing vehicles and weapons from storage and repairing them, deploying maintenance capabilities, it might be able to equip at least some of the newly-formed units with enough armor and artillery. As the ongoing war has shown, outdated specimens are better than none at all: T-62 tanks and BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles are once again on the battlefield, and so is the M113 armored personnel carrier with minimal upgrades. These models are old and prone to malfunctioning, and spare parts aren't young either. Still, it's better than nothing.

However, for a war like this, Russia is facing an acute shortage of materiel. While it just might have enough for defense – given sufficient personnel numbers – outfitting new units for an ambitious offensive presents a challenge. We have seen Russia struggle with the creation of the 3rd Army Corps; the 4th, the 5th, and subsequent corps will be even harder to equip. Without adequate materiel supply, the Russian army will have to make do with innumerable light infantry regiments that can only be used as a follow-up after a suppressive artillery strike on enemy positions – in other words, as cannon fodder in its most literal sense, WWI-style. We have seen reports of mobilized troops from the “DPR” and the “LPR” being used like this and may see it again on a greater scale. Whereas defense can largely rely on entrenchments and permanent fieldworks, minefields, and other engineering structures with limited use of equipment, especially considering the surplus of battalions, a proper offensive needs large amounts of armored vehicles and other machinery because you can't advance in a concrete bunker. Meanwhile, Russia’s stock of vehicles in storage falls behind Soviet standards, and the defense industry cannot commit to large volumes anytime soon.

The frontline geography is similar to that of WWII; the army numbers are lower than in WWII but will increase with the mobilization; however, the industry and the economy at large are still in peacetime mode, and even the growth of military manufacturing is still nothing out of the ordinary. Plants aren't being bombed yet, but they are under pressure from the sanctions, primarily in terms of parts, equipment, and so on. Even more importantly, while Russia isn't getting any lend-lease supplies, its adversary is. Joseph Stalin wouldn't have approved of this setup. Now that Russia has come to the point of mobilizing its reservists, which many have long believed to be the only way to continue fighting, a logical subsequent step could be to mobilize industries, primarily to manufacture vehicles, weapons, and munitions. The question is whether any of it will make a difference.

Now that Russia has come to the point of mobilizing its reservists, a logical subsequent step could be to mobilize industries

Thirdly, the overall efficiency of a mobilized army does not only depend on personnel and materiel but also on the war context. Had the mobilization begun several months ago, when many suggested it, Russia may have been able to prepare and deploy a larger force under more favorable conditions. For obvious reasons, reinforcing an ongoing offensive with fresh troops to cement the progress made is more efficient than trying to patch up a breached defense line during the retreat. So when the Russian army was still on the offensive or at least holding its ground, the mobilized would have done more good. Besides, the Ukrainian army did not have so many HIMARS, 155-mm cannons, or other Western weapons back in the day. That is, deploying mobilized troops will be less productive now that the enemy has reached a qualitatively new level of firepower and other capabilities despite having lost much of its artillery in combat. The Russian army, in turn, has also sustained heavy losses of artillery and materiel but is not getting any reinforcements, save for maybe Iranian drones.

The frontline has been shifting lately, and not in Russia's favor, while the influx of mobilized troops has been all but scarce. Once they are finally deployed, there is no telling where they will have to stabilize the contact line, or how favorable their positions will be. Summer would have been a better time for mobilization even in terms of weather. By fall and winter, new recruits would have adapted to living in field conditions and gradually obtained winter uniforms and other accouterments. By contrast, deploying them on the frontline now, with the current medical support, living conditions, and provisioning, will lead to many cases of disease early on, further deteriorating their already low fighting capacity.

In a nutshell, the tactically advantageous time for mobilization is long gone. However, as was previously mentioned, the Russian government avoided mobilization for as long as it could for political reasons, so efficiency is not their main preoccupation now. Something is better than nothing and better late than never.

The considerations listed above invite two conclusions. On the one hand, we should refrain from the extremity of thinking that “Russia will overcome by sheer numbers as usual” because the numbers currently come with many challenges. On the other hand, we shouldn't dismiss its numerical advantage, saying that “they’ll all get killed or flee anyway”. Not all will flee, and killing all of them does not only mean using a lot of munitions but also spilling a lot of blood: we are not in a video game. Any resource, no matter how big, can be wasted if applied the wrong way; however, the fact of having this resource also matters. Earlier, Russia didn’t have it; now it has tapped into the reservoir, even if the decision was long overdue from the military perspective. The question is whether Russia will manage to use it to its advantage.

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