A year of fighting in Ukraine has left the Russian army defeated, depleted and demoralized. Most of the army personnel available before the invasion have been killed, wounded or missing (captured, deserted or body not found). About half the troops were conscripts untrained for combat. Conscripts only serve for a year and are called up twice a year (spring and fall) and, by the time they have acquired useful skills, they are discharged and placed in the reserves. In Russian the government has your last known address and will try to notify you if there is a national emergency and all veterans of the military are needed quickly.
Few conscripts were prepared for the intensity of combat encountered in Ukraine. The other half of Russian military personnel joined voluntarily to serve longer and receive higher pay. These somewhat more experienced troops are what passed for NCOs, since Russia has not been able to recreate the NCO Corps it had a century ago but destroyed because the new communist government believed (with some justification) that sergeants are more likely to lead a revolution than more carefully selected and trained officers. Using junior officers to supervise the troops and lead them in combat did not work as well as the Western system of having sergeants supervising the troops and a junior officer to command and lead them in combat.
Junior officers in combat units, who aren’t already veterans, require years more of training and dutifully try to carry out their orders. In Ukraine that got them and most of their troops turned into casualties, or prisoners of war. Russian combat zone medical care was also a mess and not able to handle the large number of wounded. As a result, most of the wounded died or developed conditions that rendered them unfit for further military service. Russia still has not solved this medical problem, even after trying to improvise by taking over local civilian hospitals and their staffs to just treat military casualties.
There was an officer reserve (men who had served as officers for a few years and then left the military). They were also on a “reserves” list and many were called up to replace combat losses. Many of these former officers could not be found, usually because they had moved and left no forwarding address for the army to use. Many more of these men were aware of the bad state the army was in and the heavy losses to junior officers in Ukraine. These former officers often avoided government efforts to contact them and mobilize them for active service. This was a problem the government handled by sending all mobilized reserve officers to combat units. Many of these officers were not trained combat officers, and many were doctors or other non-combat specialists. Mobilized doctors got themselves killed trying to lead a combat unit while the Russian medical support units needed all the doctors they could get.
All this made the combat officer shortage worse, to the point where newly mobilized men were sent into combat with little or no training and rarely saw an officer for very long because there were not enough officers to supervise and lead troops in combat. As a result, combat operations often failed, with troops panicking and fleeing the battlefield. This included the crews of armored vehicles, which is how Ukrainian forces acquired over a thousand tanks and other armored vehicles intact. These had their Russian army markings painted over with Ukrainian symbols. One problem with this was that the Ukrainians did not have sufficient spare parts to keep many of these vehicles operational. Neither did their previous Russian users, who often had these vehicles long enough to make them vulnerable to problems if spare parts and mechanics were not available. This was long a problem in the Russian army where the doctrine was that, in combat, armored vehicles would not last long and so were not expected to need spare parts and mechanics.
The loss of officers and combat vehicles was made worse by the mobilization of equipment and instructors from military training centers. These instructors also quickly became casualties and this slowed down efforts to provide training for newly mobilized troops. The army is slowly trying to rebuild and expand its training establishment. New training camps are being built and the shortage of officers in combat units is made worse by pulling experienced troops and officers out and assigning them to the new training schools. It will take about a year for this new training establishment to show results and the government expects to have better trained newly mobilized troops to show for it.
Replacing combat unit officers required a different approach. Soldiers with combat experience and demonstrating some leadership abilities were offered promotions to officer rank. This meant higher pay, prestige and risk of getting killed in combat. Many contract soldiers, and a few conscripts who qualified, accepted the promotions. This was not enough to make up for all the officer combat losses but did prevent utter chaos among the many newly mobilized troops. The Russian army is trying to rebuild itself with such improvisations.
One problem with this is that the Ukrainians have no similar problems. That’s because between 2015 (when NATO forces began assisting the Ukrainian army) and 2021, the Ukrainian forces were reformed and that meant training lots of veteran NCOs and officers who were competent and did not take as long to train. All those NCOs made a big difference in combat because NCOs are trained to take over if there are no officers available. The NCOs provided the needed leadership that so many new Russian troops lacked in or out of combat. Ukrainian units took few casualties compared to the Russians and were more capable of treating combat wounds quickly and returning more wounded men to service. As the war went on the differences between Ukrainian and Russian troops became more of a factor. The Russians were “mobilizing “anyone that seemed physically capable of carrying a rifle. This eventually led to the army officially mobilizing men in prison who had military experience. These policies put a lot of older men into uniform as well as a lot of men with families. As long as these newly mobilized men stayed in the army the government paid them and sent additional money to any family members. There was also a relatively large payment to families of soldiers killed in combat. This reduced desertions somewhat. Many men left the country or tried to disappear inside Russia to avoid mobilization.
While most Russians still supported the war in Ukraine, they also realized that no one was invading Russia and that was often enough justification to avoid mobilization. Another incentive was the high number (over 100,000) of soldiers killed in Ukraine so far. That was more combat deaths than the Russian army has suffered in all its wars or sundry operations since 1945. In that respect the war in Ukraine was an unprecedented disaster for the Russian army. The government noted this and quickly passed laws prohibiting any public discussion of the war losses or how the war was being waged. That did not stop Internet-based commentators and critics. This group not only reported on the war but often did so faster and more accurately than the military itself.
That failure of government intel agencies was another scandal the government has still not learned or recovered from. The government depended on the FSB (successor of the communist KGB) to accurately report on the ability of the Ukrainians to resist a Russian invasion. The FSB failed, just as the KGB had failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since the Ukraine war began the FSB has been more active inside Ukraine and suffered lots of casualties without much to show for it. Their Ukrainian counterparts were quick to go after FSB operatives inside Ukraine. That was also bad news for the Russian military GRU (military intelligence) which, while smaller, often competed with the FSB in operations outside Russia. Ukraine proved to be a very hostile environment for both FSB and GRU operatives. The FSB and GRU reports were secret while the Russian Internet commentators were not. Some of these commentators went to Ukraine and spoke to troops and junior officers as well as Russian civilians in Russian occupied Ukraine. Some Russian government officials admitted that these Internet-based reporters were providing more timely and accurate information than the government concerning what was going on in Ukraine. While nearly all these reporters were pro-Russia and most supported the Russian war effort, they were not afraid of reporting what was actually going on. The Russian government tolerated these Internet reporters, even when they were critical of government policies. It turned out that the government was not always united when it came to some war-related policies.
An example of this is the January 2023 Russia announcement of increasing the legal maximum number of its active-duty military personnel from 1,013,628 to 1,150,628. The problem was that the original million-man force was never achieved and Vladimir Putin soon discovered that this increase was an empty gesture. For example, at the end of 2021 the Russian military had 700,000 personnel on duty. The ground forces had about 400,000 men while the navy and air force each had about 150,000. About a third of air force personnel were paratroopers or air mobile infantry. The navy had about 12,000 marines who guarded naval bases in peacetime. That means that heavy Russian losses since the invasion began, and failure to mobilize sufficient replacements, reduced the army to about 250,000 personnel. Ukraine’s ground forces now outnumber the Russian army by over two to one, and Russia’s total ground forces in general. Not just in Ukraine, but in all of Russia and Ukraine.
Russia’s airborne forces and marines as well as special operations (spetsnaz) also suffered heavy losses but more of them are still in service. Since 1991 Russia has sought to maintain about ten percent of the army as an elite force of airmobile, special operations and marine force. The reason for this was simple and practical. Russia, even after the 1991 losses, was still the largest (in terms of territory) country in the world. Russia has over 22,000 kilometers of land borders and barely enough border guards to man the official crossings. The military provides ground forces for some key border areas. For example, the short Norwegian border with Russia is guarded by two brigades of marines because that border is adjacent to some of the largest and most important naval bases and shipyards in Russia. Since the war in Ukraine began the Norwegians have noticed there are far fewer Russian marines guarding the border. Military-age men seeking to leave Russia illegally are often getting across this border, where they asked the Norwegians for asylum. Most of the Russian marines were killed or wounded in Ukraine and the survivors returned to their Norwegian border duty and the additional chore of replacing their losses. It takes a long time to train a Russian marine.
There were token Russian army forces in many other parts of Russia, including NATO nations. This land border was only 1,240 kilometers at the end of 2021. This included the 196-kilometer Norwegian border. Since then, the border with NATO nations tripled to over 3,000 kilometers. That’s because the war in Ukraine prompted neutral Finland to join NATO and add its 1,340-kilometer Russian border. Ukraine wanted to join NATO, which Russia used as an excuse to invade. Suddenly Ukraine was an unofficial member of NATO, where Ukrainian troops were fighting with the help of NATO supplied weapons, munitions and much else. Everything except NATO troops were sent to Ukraine where the frontline between Ukrainian and Russian forces is over a thousand kilometers long.
Russia also keeps somewhat more than token forces on portions of its 4,200-kilometer Chinese border. There Russia faces, for the first time, a larger, better armed, trained and led Chinese army. China has unresolved claims on most of the Russian Pacific coast territories. Russia also has a 17-kilometer border with North Korea and Russian troops are sometimes seen here as well. Since the Ukraine War began, fewer Russian troops have been seen on other foreign borders. That’s because the crisis in Ukraine demanded more troops to replace losses.
Something else Russia lost was most of its sparse combat logistics forces. Heavy combat losses reduced personnel strength so sharply because the Russian army has far fewer soldiers providing logistic and transportation services. These are provided by government or private contractors who assemble and move supplies close to the combat zone, where military trucks and drivers move the supplies to army-maintained collection points or the combat units. This works inside Russia where the state-controlled railroads are equipped for operation by civilians who are trained for such support. For a major war against Russia, civilian trucks and drivers are mobilized for military transportation. Such a mobilization would disrupt the entire economy but is seen as necessary t0 defend Russia. During World War II Russia received lots of trucks, combat vehicles, ammunition, food and other much needed items from the United States. This is why the Ukrainian invasion was not called a war but an “internal operation” in what Russia declared was Russian territory controlled by rebels who were receiving the military aid in quantities to what Russia received in World War II. This time the Russians are playing the invaders and not doing as well as the Nazis.
Russia did not expect the Ukrainians’ massive resistance or their destruction of so many Russian trucks and supply collection points. This dramatically weakened Russian supply capabilities inside Ukraine, especially after Ukraine received guided GMLRS rockets that hit Russian supply depots using information supplied by Ukrainian and NATO aerial and satellite surveillance. Russian forces inside Ukraine are chronically short of ammunition, food, fuel and much else because of these Ukrainian tactics.
Mobilizations of new conscripts and men who had served the one year of conscript service failed to replace all the losses, in part because the mobilized men knew that the war in Ukraine was not going well and most men sent there had little training, equipment or leadership. Most of the trained and experienced junior officers were killed or disabled during the first months of the war and replacements take months to train to minimal standards. Peacetime officer training takes years and now there is a shortage of trainers for troops and officers because most of the existing ones were sent to Ukraine as replacements for the catastrophic losses the Ukrainians were inflicting.
The scale and scope of Russian army losses in Ukraine is unprecedented. While air forces and navy losses were relatively minor, the SRF (Strategic Rocket Forces) and their thousands of nuclear warheads were not hurt at all, so the Russian State is still secure. Neighboring China also has lots of nukes, with more of them aimed at Russia than ever before. That is not the major Chinese threat to Russia. Rather it is the Russian dependence on Chinese economic and military cooperation. China remains on good terms with Russia economically and militarily. China warned Russia to back off on nuclear threats over the Ukraine War and made it clear that China considered the Ukraine War a major mistake. Before 2022, Russia and China were seen as a powerful military and economic alliance. Now the Russian military is revealed to be much less capable than previously thought. Western sanctions have devastated the Russian economy and China will benefit from that at the expense of Russia. What happened to Russia in Ukraine also caused China to review its own military policies in the South China Sea, against Taiwan and, less obviously, the Russian Far East territories.
The NATO nations that supported and supplied Ukraine also learned much from the Ukraine War. How many of those lessons will be acted on is still unclear.