Why Russia Will Run Out of Soldiers Before Ukraine
One of the most damaging leaks of classified documents ever to hit the United States occurred earlier this year on the popular web app, Discord. It involved dozens, some say over a hundred, previously classified intelligence reports, analyses, and briefing documents. One of these documents from February 2023 painted a bleak picture of Ukraine’s ability to successfully prosecute the war, pointing to significant “force generation and sustainment shortfalls,” and the likelihood that any future Ukrainian offensive, if not properly supported with enough troops, would result in only “modest territorial gains.” Such a report raises the question: is Ukraine running out of its most vital military component, trained soldiers? If they can’t recruit and train enough soldiers, will all of the incoming aid from the US and other Western nations have enough effect for Ukraine to defeat Russia? And will these shortfalls become even more acute if, as the leaked documents suggest, the war drags on into 2024? Perhaps a better version of this question would be, “Does Ukraine have enough troops to defeat the Russian invasion?” Before we can decide if Ukraine has enough troops to withstand a country with almost four times its population, we must also address a few other questions first: - What is an accurate estimate of Ukraine’s population? - If Ukraine isn’t running out of troops, are they running out of anything else? Do they need aircraft, ammunition, missiles and drones? Do they need more anti-aircraft systems as well? - If Ukraine isn’t running out of troops, is Russia having that problem? - Is Russia running out of anything else? Only when we answer these questions will the overall answer become clear. Ukraine’s Population Crisis, its Casualties, and its Rate of Volunteers Ukraine has exceeded all expectations in lasting more than a year against a country nearly thirty times its size in area (17 million km² versus 603,000 km²), and more than triple its size in population (143 million versus 43 million for Ukraine). That widely accepted estimate of the Ukrainian population of roughly 43 million is contradicted by other sources. According to statistics compiled by England’s The Economist newspaper,
Ukraine (including Crimea and the Donbas) has lost about 16% of its population between its independence in 1991 from the former Soviet Union, and the eve of the 2022 Russian invasion. These numbers suggest instead that Ukraine now has a population of only about 36 million (compared to around 52 million in 1991). But that’s to be expected in a country where the invader, Russia, has indiscriminately attacked civilian population centers, and has leveled whole cities, like Mariupol, which has seen its pre-war population of 400,000 reduced to less than 5,000. This same Russian effort to depopulate any area of resistance has been repeated across whole regions of Ukraine. It’s clear that for some time, both Ukraine and Russia have seen a decline in their populations.
For Ukraine, the 2014 invasion of the Donbas region and Crimea initiated their population decline. Their population loss has significantly increased since the February 2022 invasion, coupled with the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and brutalization of any population that didn’t evacuate. According to the Joint Research Centre of the European Economic Union (the EU), Ukraine will continue to see a steady decline in its population over the next twenty to thirty years, even under the most optimistic of circumstances. The JRC has estimated that by the beginning
of February 2023, around 5.3 million Ukrainian civilians had been displaced internally across Ukraine, while approximately 7 million had emigrated to other countries, with around 4 million of those fleeing to nearby EU countries, especially Poland. This means that the invasion has displaced close to 30% of the entire Ukrainian population both inside and outside Ukraine. That accounts for the disparity between the pre-war estimates of 43 million for the Ukrainian population, and the more recent 35-36 million figure. It would seem, then, that Ukraine could be facing a shortfall of the younger demographic that usually makes up military service recruits. However, those numbers don’t account for the overwhelming number of volunteers that have flooded into Ukraine, more than they can adequately train and supply. Since the beginning of the invasion in February 2022,
Ukraine has seen an overwhelming response not just from within its own borders, but from abroad as well. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 foreign fighters are believed to be serving in three battalions of a unit named the International Legion, according to analysts and academics monitoring them. But because the Ukrainian government wishes to keep such figures private, these numbers are just best-guess estimates. In the early months of the war, Ukrainian officials estimated that as many as 20,000 volunteers from more than fifty countries had arrived to help fight against the Russian invasion. But according to analysts and interviews with many of the foreign fighters who stayed, the vast majority appear to have returned home before the summer. Hundreds of the better-trained volunteers have also been integrated into smaller units that operate independently of the International Legion. These include groups led by longtime regional opponents of Moscow,
such as the Georgian Legion and Chechen battalions, as well as other primarily Western units with names like Alpha, Phalanx and the Norman Brigade. Some of the foreign volunteers who stayed are being used to train young Ukrainian recruits, though their training is often rudimentary. Where a western nation like the US would spend up to 10 weeks of training in boot camp, the Ukrainian recruits often get as little as 3-5 days, though most will get around two to three weeks. It’s not just the total number of troops that Ukraine has that is important, but also the number of troops who are trained well enough to survive the most dangerous first few weeks of their deployment. It’s also clear that the numbers of Ukrainian men and women who volunteered were more than the Ukrainian army could train early in the war. "More than 140,000 Ukrainians, mostly
men, have returned from Europe," according to a social media post by Ukraine Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov from March 2022. "Tens of thousands joined the Territorial Defense Forces. (T)he whole world sees the Ukrainian people fighting for their country." Now that the winter of 2022-2023 is over and the spring muddy season is about to end, there has been much speculation that Ukraine will unleash a massive counter-offensive against the four Russian-occupied eastern regions, called oblasts, and possibly strike towards Crimea as well. But would Ukraine have enough troops to conduct such a massive operation, especially against Russian troops that have had more than six months to fortify their positions? According to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, eight new assault brigades totaling 40,000 men have been training for months to help spearhead this planned offensive. Their numbers were swelled by country-wide media campaigns that called on young Ukrainians, both men and women, to join up and help rid their country of the Russian invaders. As of the first week of May 2023, Ukraine has weathered any planned “winter” offensive that Putin’s Russia had planned to make. Despite Russia having integrated somewhere
around 300,000 new troops into their existing formations and combat roles, no significant advance has been made by these newly reinforced Russian army units. Meanwhile, analysts and some Ukrainian insiders have hinted that their massive counterattack, months in the planning, is only days or weeks away. The Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) have received what are arguably the best tanks in Europe, the Leopard II from Germany, in small but growing numbers. They’ve also received more ammunition and artillery systems,
making Ukraine stronger than the recent Discord leaks suggest. The leaks painted a bleak picture of Ukraine’s military capabilities. For one, they suggested Ukrainian air defenses were depleted, making any new offensive vulnerable to Russian air superiority. And the United States does not expect the war to end this year. One of the leaked assessment documents from February 2023, titled “Russia/Ukraine - Assessed Combat Sustainability and Attrition,” suggested that Ukraine has suffered as many as 130,000 total casualties, including 17,000 killed in action and another 113,000 wounded. Ukraine has been very tightlipped about their own casualty figures, so these numbers are merely best guess estimates from the US Defense Intelligence Agency. Overall, it can be seen that Ukraine does indeed have less population from which to draw its military recruits, while also sustaining very large losses over the first year of the war. Offsetting this has been a continued strong volunteer effort from both inside and
outside Ukraine. The violence that Russia has unleashed on the Ukrainian civilians has convinced many in Ukraine who would have normally let others do the fighting, to step up and join their country in defending against the Russian invaders. No matter how long this war goes on, whether months or years, it doesn’t appear that Ukraine will run out of highly motivated volunteers any time soon.
Is Ukraine Running Low Elsewhere? There are, however, multiple resources Ukraine has admitted they are running low. The most significant of these are artillery shells and missiles for their US-made Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS), and in fighter jets. In early May 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that whatever shortfalls in artillery shells and missiles that Ukraine may have been suffering from earlier in the year, which includes the time period covered by the leaked documents, those deficits have been made up by newly arriving supplies and reinforcements. “Where Ukraine might have
been a month ago, two months ago, three months ago, is not where it is now in terms of its ability, for example, to prosecute a counteroffensive and to deal with the ongoing Russian aggression,” Blinken said. It’s important to realize, however, that the year-long war has depleted ammunition stockpiles in both the US and Europe. That’s why in March 2023, EU officials and government representatives from Poland initiated a new $2.2 billion program that would help resupply Ukraine with more ammunition, rockets and missiles. and to also begin to replenish Europe's dwindling stockpiles of those same munitions.
The EU isn't the only place where ammunition and other critical military supplies are in short supply. Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) told PBS NewsHour in March 2023, “What the U.S. has been able to do is use a range of its existing stockpiles of weapons,” to supply Ukraine through 2022 and into early 2023. Now, though, “the number of those stockpiles are decreasing.” Along with the EU’s commitment to increase ammunition production, the United States is doing the same. In late March 2023, the US Army announced it would increase its production of the most common artillery shell, the 155mm, by more than sixfold to 85,000 shells a month through the fiscal year of 2028. The Army also announced they would increase spending
to improve its organic industrial base from a planned $16 billion to more than $18 billion over the next 15 years. It should be noted, however, that the increased production will start off slow. The Army’s plan is to expand 155mm artillery production from the current 14,000 shells a month to over 24,000 later this year.
One of the most significant weapons systems that Ukraine has relied on in the war is the extremely useful Javelin antitank missile system. The US had shipped around 5,500 shoulder-fired Javelins to Ukraine by April 2022, shortly following Russia’s invasion. Approximately 7,000, or about a third of the total US stockpile, were sent by May 2023. Anticipating a greater need for these effective weapons, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon announced in early May 2023 that the first installment of what could be a $7 billion deal for the anti-tank missiles had been signed. The agreement allows for increased Javelin production to 3,960 missiles per year by late 2026, according to Lockheed. But as with the 155mm artillery
shells, increased production will start off slow. Analysts also estimate that the United States has sent about one-quarter of its stockpile of shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to Ukraine. Raytheon Technologies CEO Greg Hayes told investors last week during a quarterly call that his company that they wouldn’t be able to ramp up production of the system until next year due to parts shortages. The other area that Ukraine is feeling the pinch is in jet fighters. At the beginning of the war, Ukraine had around 120 operational combat aircraft, largely made up of MiG-29s and Su-27s, leftovers from their time as a member of the former Soviet Union. As of May
2023, analysts believe they’ve lost around half of those aircraft. Western allies have tried to provide additional Soviet aircraft, including four Mig-29s sent from Poland, with another eight due before the end of the year, and thirteen more from Slovakia. So far, the US has not agreed to send any of its fighters to Ukraine, despite President Zelenskyy’s numerous requests for F-16s to combat Russia’s large advantage in fighter aircraft. However, the US has said it’s willing to “backfill” their NATO allies who might send outdated Soviet aircraft to Ukraine, with newer F-16 replacements. For
example, to replace the thirteen jets Slovakia is sending to Ukraine, they are receiving 200 million Euros (around $213 million) from the EU as compensation, along with an unspecified arms package from the US worth an additional $745 million. Slovakia can afford to send those planes due to a previously agreed-upon deal with the US for fourteen F-16 Block 70/72 fighter jets, though delivery for these aircraft has been pushed back to early 2024. Both the US and NATO are keenly aware that sending more advanced front-line fighters to Ukraine risks pushing Russia too far. And while Ukraine can put the older Soviet aircraft from allied countries into immediate use alongside their own Soviet aircraft, sending them any fighters manufactured in the US or Western European countries would require a long training period, as well as an extensive and independent supply and support chain. For now, Ukraine will have to make do with any ex-Soviet aircraft their allies can spare. One reason that Ukraine has survived without an absolute need for more fighters is because of their use of US Stinger missiles, categorized as MANPADS: man-portable air-defense systems.
Raytheon Technologies CEO Greg Hayes told investors in April of 2022 that the US had sent almost a quarter of its stockpile of Stingers, and that production to replace them would be slow until they acquired more parts, by mid-2023. He also said that Stingers and Javelins were two of the most useful, and most used, weapons systems that the US could supply to Ukraine. Another weapons system that the US has been reluctant to send to Ukraine, for fear of escalating the conflict, are longer range rockets, ones that can hit Russian bases more than 200 miles (300 km) from the front lines. The UK has opened up inquiries for weapons of that range that could be procured by the British-led International Fund for Ukraine.
No official decision has been agreed upon, according to one anonymous British official. There is currently no confirmation of the type or quantity of the missiles being considered, but just presenting the subject to other European nations represents a big step forward in providing Ukraine with ability to strike distant airfields and munitions supply locations that are being used to prosecute the war against Ukraine. The US has also thrown its hat into the ring in this regard, as the Biden administration is clearly willing to supply any weapons short of front-line fighters and long-range missiles. On May 9, 2023, the US Department of Defense announced the latest package earmarked for Ukraine totaling $1.2 billion, under a sweeping program called the Ukraine Security Assistance
Initiative (USAI). This package will supply additional air defense systems and munitions; equipment to integrate Western air defense launchers, missiles, and radars with Ukraine's air defense systems; ammunition for counter-Unmanned Aerial Systems (to bring down Russian drones); more 155mm artillery shells; and commercial satellite imagery services, as well as support for training, maintenance, and sustainment activities. Much of this is not a direct expenditure, but is allowed under the Presidential Drawdown authority (PDA), which allocated an initial $11 billion in aid, much of it drawing from existing stockpiles of US material, with additional supplemental allowances of more than $3.7 billion for the fiscal year of 2023. Any discussion about supplying Ukraine with more advanced US tanks, long-range missiles, or front-line fighter aircraft from the US or the West has always been met with stiff opposition from Russian diplomats and government officials as well as nuclear saber-rattling.
But Ukraine is defending itself from an illegal invasion. Many of the attacks, like stand-off missiles fired by Russian Tu-160 bombers in early May 2023, are being launched from deep inside Russian territory. Ukraine has every right to ask for and receive military aid that can defend itself from such attacks. How Bad Is the Troop Situation for Russia? However bad the casualty situation and the need for replacements may seem for Ukraine, the situation for Russia is even worse, according to those same leaked documents. The analysts that prepared those assessments suggest that Russia has suffered as many as 223,000 overall casualties, including 43,000 killed in action and as many as 180,000 wounded.
Russia’s ground forces have lost a significant portion of their combat veterans and are approaching exhaustion, while they’re being replaced with untrained and unskilled replacements. Those areas where new recruits were being drawn from are now beginning to run dry: the private military group Wagner has found fewer volunteers from Russia’s prisons, owing to Wagner’s extremely high casualty rate. There are reports that Wagner is even being denied access to recruit from Russian prisons, as Russia’s own military wants to use them as their own recruiting grounds. Meanwhile, reports indicate that Wagner has turned to Belarus’ prisons for additional recruits.
The most significant battle area for the first five months of 2023 has been the area around Bakhmut. The fighting and combat losses in Russia’s continued efforts to take the city have been extremely high, and have been compared by some to the same kind of losses suffered in the fighting around Stalingrad, though a neutral observers would say they are still magnitudes apart. The Soviet Union may have lost more than 750,000 troops defending Stalingrad, over the course of five months of intense fighting. In comparison, Germany lost more than 500,000 troops over the same time period. In comparison, estimates published by Ukraine about the lengthy battle for Bakhmut, which began around August 1st, 2022 and has continued through early May 2023, suggest Russia may have had as many as 45,000 soldiers killed and as many as 75,000 wounded, but again, those numbers are coming directly from the Ukrainian Eastern Command so it’s very likely that they’re overestimated. Ukrainian forces, on the other hand, may have lost about one
fifth as many, or around 9,000 killed and up to 15,000 wounded, according to US intelligence estimates. Much of the Russian losses have been suffered by the Wagner mercenary group, who formed the leading elements of the attacks into Bakhmut. But despite Wagner forces supposedly being better trained and equipped than the average Russian army units, they haven’t made much headway in taking the town. As of the first week of May 2023, Ukrainian forces still held onto the western sections of Bakhmut, and had been successful in repeatedly denying Russian advances. Often, when Russian forces did manage to make a successful advance, Ukrainian
forces time and again counterattacked and retook the same ground. This has happened in other areas as well, including most recently the areas around Vuhledar to the southwest of Bakhmut, an area where the Ukrainian military may be preparing for their long-awaited offensive. It was clear within the first few months of the invasion that the Russians had failed to allocate enough forces for the complete subjugation of Ukraine. In September 2022, Putin announced a “mobilization” of 120,000 new troops, though a law was also passed making it a crime for anyone in Russia to call the invasion a “war.” Those 120,000 weren’t enough, however, and further conscriptions raised the total to around 300,000 by the end of the year. These nationwide call-ups have had a serious side effect: on top of losing a quarter of a million men as casualties of war, an additional 1.3 million other young men and women have
fled Russia ahead of the conscriptions and frequent impressments of citizens from right off the streets. Many of those who left are the young professionals that Russia desperately needs and cannot replace. These migrants have left for various reasons, but primarily to escape the military mobilization, and to flee Western sanctions that have caused enormous economic distress within the nation. This has led to a significant manpower shortage all across Russia. In an intelligence update released on May 7th, 2023, the British Defense Ministry observed that a survey conducted by the Russian Central Bank involving 14,000 employees had found that the national labor force was at its lowest level since 1998.
In addition to the losses from the war and emigration to avoid the draft, the survey also showed that the Russian population had previously decreased by up to 2 million over the past three years, in part due to the poor Russian response to the COVID pandemic, and an increasingly aging population. Nowhere has this lack of workers been more acutely felt than in the tech sector, where shortages of trained workers have hit the electronics and programming sectors hard. This brain drain, along with continuing Western sanctions, has caused what Laura Solanko, a senior advisor for the Bank of Finland, described as “reverse industrialization.”
This means Russia has not only seen a shrinking of its economy, but has had to replace overseas investment with funds supplied by the state. "Such policies can only succeed with huge investments in domestic production to replace lost imports, as well as the construction of new transportation links to the east and south," Solanko reported. "As resources are limited, this implies less investment in other sectors, including potentially more productive areas." The country's investments will continue to move away from the technological frontier, she said, referring to the economy's current state as the "reverse industrialization." Despite the fear that Ukraine may have a hard time recruiting enough troops with its shrinking population, Russia appears to be having an even greater problem. There is unlikely to be enough young men and women for Putin to initiate an equivalent sized draft in 2023, as he did in 2022.
What Else is Russia Lacking? On top of these potentially catastrophic manpower shortages and economic struggles, Russia is also facing several other areas of concern. One of the most widely reported problems is a distinct lack of unity of command. As noted previously, one of the few areas where the Russian military has been successful is with its private military companies, like Wagner. But there have been highly publicized clashes between Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the Russian army leadership in Moscow.
Prigozhin has complained on multiple occasions that his private military group’s needs have not been met. Meanwhile, whenever a high-ranking officer from the regular Russian army is fired, Prigozhin scoops them up and adds them to his own private army, further distancing himself from Moscow. Prigozhin announced on May 5th that Wagner would leave Bakhmut on May 10th, right after the Russian nationwide celebration of the end of World War II on May 9th. This statement
was originally thought to be a signal of the end of the importance of Wagner as a military spearhead for future Russian offensives. But after May 10th came and went, and Wagner forces remained in Bakhmut. Prigozhin’s statement was mostly released so he could voice his frustration with the current Ministry of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, especially with what Prigozhin claims is a lack of artillery shells, which he claims is 70% less than what they have on hand.
This feud has also highlighted the lack of ammunition that Russia is facing. Ever since the Ukrainians received the Highly-accurate HIMARS Multiple Launch Rocket Systems from the US, they’ve wisely used these systems to attack Russian logistics, from ammo depots and fuel supplies, to command bunkers, while Russia has been wasting their missiles on civilian targets. These Ukrainian attacks have throttled Russian logistics to a point where front-line commanders like Prigozhin have complained bitterly about a lack of ammo and artillery shells. These targeted attacks against Russian command and control centers have exacerbated Russia’s lack of experienced combat leaders. As described over an extensive Twitter thread by Mick Ryan, retired US Army Major General and Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Ukraine has been especially effective at targeting and eliminating Russian commanders near the front lines. Because Russia doesn’t have an NCO, a non-commissioned officer corps, with sergeants and corporals who deal with most of the front line decision making, Russia has relied on a top-down system with their general officers, primarily colonels, majors and generals, personally directing any attacks and counter-attacks. This puts
them within range of very accurate HIMARS strikes, and coupled with Russia’s reliance on unencrypted cellphones to stay in contact, has led to catastrophic losses in the Russian high command. As of November 2022, Russia had lost more than 1500 officers in the first nine months of the war according to estimates by Ukrainian colonel Anatoly ‘Stirlitz’ Stefan, and backed up by estimates by the US Centre for Naval Analysis. 160 of those were generals, major generals and lieutenant generals, as well as more than 150 colonels and lieutenant colonels, 205 majors, 296 captains and nearly 500 senior lieutenants, in descending order of rank. Russia is also lacking material support in many areas, from drones and missiles to simple items like rifles, armored vests and even uniforms. It’s been clear since early in
the invasion that Russia has run low on their drones and missiles. The problem has gotten so bad that they’ve turned to Iran to supply both the internal components for Russia’s own drone construction programs, as well as buying full drone launch systems. Those Iranian drones, most often the Shahed-136 “suicide” drone, contained Western-made parts that have somehow escaped the sanctions imposed on Russia. China has also sent equipment to Russia, including
assault rifles and bullet-proof vests. Once these transactions were discovered, both the Western companies and China stated publicly that they would try and halt such shipments in the future. As far as ammunition and artillery shells, there have been reassurances from military leaders in Moscow, like Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who claimed in early May 2023 that they had all the ammunition they needed. At the very same time, however, Shoigu called on Russia’s primary rocket producer to double its production of advanced missiles immediately. Shoigu’s assurances have also been proven false by the import of more than 300,000 artillery shells from Iran during the period from November 2022 to April of 2023. In addition to seeking
shells from Iran, Russia has received artillery shells and small arms ammunition from stockpiles in Belarus and, according to U.S. intelligence sources, have also received some shells from North Korea. Moscow has reportedly asked China for artillery ammunition, as well as “suicide” attack drones similar to the Shahed-136 drones already provided by Iran. So far, China has publicly refused to supply lethal aid, banking on their attempt to lead a diplomatic effort to broker a cease-fire. There’s also been continuing evidence that Russia has suffered such catastrophic tank losses that they’re pulling 80-year-old tanks out of storage, including the 1950s model T-55s. Videos have surfaced of them being transported by train towards the Ukraine
region, while satellite images that show large storage fields being emptied confirms the rumour. These desperate measures have been taken because, according to some neutral observers like Oryx, Russia has lost close to 2,000 front line tanks, more than half of what Western observers say they had available before the invasion started. This is in addition to more than 800 armored fighting vehicles (AFVs), 2300 less heavily armored infantry fighting vehicles (like the ubiquitous BMP), 300 armored personal carriers (like the almost-as-ubiquitous BTR), along with 80 fixed-wing aircraft, 84 helicopters, and a dozen ships, including the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva. There have been promises that Russia will have the capability to produce 1500 frontline tanks a year, including a stated goal made by Dmitry Medvedev earlier in 2023. But interviews
with employees working for weapons manufacturers in Russia's defense industry suggest that these industries have deep weaknesses which will make hitting these government targets for boosting production unlikely, neither this year nor in the coming years. Independent Russian news outlet Verstka –yes, there are still a few indie news outlets left in Russia— has spoken to workers at Uralvagonzavod (UVZ) in Nizhny Tagil, Russia's largest armored vehicle manufacturer, and to workers at other arms manufacturers. They say that poor wages, difficult working conditions, staff shortages, unfilled vacancies and so-called "voluntary-compulsory donations" for the war effort are seriously undermining production. No war is ever easy. The casualties on both sides are often enormous, along with damage to infrastructure that will need to be repaired after the war ends. In this war, Ukraine has
borne an extremely heavy cost, with cities like Mariupol and Bakhmut being practically levelled to the ground by artillery and demolitions on both sides. But while Ukraine seems to be overmatched, their population is willing and determined to defeat the invaders, no matter what the cost. Meanwhile, Russia is losing more troops, more tanks and armored vehicles, more officers, and is seeing their economy being slowly strangled to a point where they will no longer compete with any European nation. If the question is, “Will Ukraine have enough troops to defeat Russia,” the answer is an overwhelming “Yes.” Now go check out Russia Just Lost Biggest Tank Battle of Ukraine War, or click this other video instead.