The Russian military is expending thousands of lives in Donbas to make incremental, almost World War I–style, advances over terrain that has no real strategic value. Russia is fighting a war of attrition. In the past, Russia and the Soviet Union had the manpower to make this an effective strategy. However, Russia today no longer has the mechanisms to recruit, train, equip, officer, and deploy substantial new military formations.
In early April, I estimated Russia had suffered approximately 10,000 soldiers killed in action (KIA) and a total of 35,000–38,000 casualties. It is still hard to estimate losses, but if Russian killed-in-action figures are now, per British intelligence estimates, roughly 15,000, then total casualties by early June could be approximately 50,000 men.
Who will replace them? The 130,000 Russian conscripts called up on April 1, 2022, are not supposed to go to a war zone (but many will). Putin, probably fearing social unrest, passed up the opportunity on Victory Day on May 9 to declare war and announce a general mobilization of Russian manpower.
Without a general mobilization, how can the Russian army meet wartime requirements and replace its losses? As word of horrible combat conditions reaches the population, recruiting of contract soldiers will suffer. It probably already has, based on the extreme decision to allow up to 50-year-old men to volunteer. Many contract soldiers are already announcing their intention to leave the army or refuse to serve in the “special military operation” that Moscow claims is not a war. Increased conscription cannot make up for recruiting shortfalls in a country where evading military service is practically a national sport.
If enough soldiers are found, who will lead them? Even before the war, Russia was having a difficult time retaining junior officers. In this war, officers of all levels have borne an extraordinary brunt of casualties. Many officer cadets have graduated early to participate in the war. Furthermore, who will train the new soldiers? Basic and advanced training in Russia’s army is done at the individual unit level, but many training officers and noncommissioned officers have already deployed with their units to Ukraine. This leaves limited cadres at home to instruct new conscripts. Metaphorically speaking, the Russian army is eating its seed corn.
If enough enlisted men and junior officers can be found to serve as replacements for the tens of thousands of casualties, can Russia equip them with modern weapons? Equipment losses are catastrophic. The Oryx website, using conservative, thoroughly documented confirmation techniques, estimates that as of the end of May 2022, Russia had lost 741 tanks, 1,342 armored/infantry fighting vehicles, and 27 fixed-wing combat aircraft. Actual losses are likely higher.
Besides these losses, vehicles, airplanes, and helicopters involved in three months of nonstop fighting require major refitting, which is unlikely to happen while combat operations are underway. War can exhaust machines as well as men, and without proper maintenance, existing hardware will become incapable of supporting operations. New replacements for destroyed equipment will not be coming. Russia’s main tank factories have shut down due to sanctions, which have also hobbled its aircraft industry. T-62 tanks have been pulled out of reserve, but half-century-old tanks are no answer to modern anti-tank weapons. Decades of munitions production have been used up in three months, and the decline in the use of guided and cruise missiles indicates that precision-guided weapons are in short supply.
Ukraine is also facing serious military difficulties. It has not concentrated enough forces in Donbas to match Russia’s current quantitative edge, and it too is suffering high casualties. The previous article in early April estimated that Ukraine had suffered approximately 3,100 killed in action and 16,000–18,000 casualties of all types. On April 16, President Zelensky announced that Ukraine had suffered between 2,500 and 3,000 killed in action and an additional 10,000 wounded. Extrapolating from these figures to the present, Ukrainian military KIA figures could be approaching 6,000 men and approximately 25,000 total casualties due to the high intensity of the battles of the Donbas and Mariupol. Per Oryx, Ukraine has lost 186 tanks, 276 armored/infantry fighting vehicles, and 22 fixed-wing combat aircraft, but these again are conservative figures. Attrition warfare is cutting both ways. The winner may be the side that lasts just a moment longer than the other.
There are strategic differences between Russian and Ukrainian losses. Ukraine is in a better position to replenish its losses of men and materiel. It can afford to trade some territory for time to assimilate Western supplies. With incoming weapons from the West and the training of new volunteers, the Ukrainian army will grow in numbers and capabilities, while the Russian army is unlikely to. When ready, Ukraine will have the forces to counterattack. The Croatian army did the same after losing territory in 1992 to Serbian forces. By 1995, with Western tutoring and supplies, Croatia had rebuilt its army and counterattacked, forcing the Serbs out of the Krajina region within a week. Ukraine could play a similar “long game.”