The Russian Strategy:
‘Ignoring Losses and Betting on Superiority in Manpower’
January 15, 2024
  • Alexander Golts
Journalist Alexander Golts explains why military experts have been wrong in their predictions about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. He sees mass mobilization and the entire Russian economy’s being put on a war footing as almost inevitable given the nature of the war.
Those who call themselves military experts and still take the risk of predicting the course of the conflict in Ukraine clearly count on the fact that no one remembers how their previous predictions went.

Wrong predictions

During the first week and a half of the Russian intervention, the dominant narrative was that the Russian army was about to crush the Ukrainian army. However, few people noticed that in the first few days the invasion force failed to destroy the enemy’s command and control system (unlike the Americans in Iraq).

When it became clear that the blitzkrieg planned by the Kremlin had been thwarted, the expert community – notwithstanding the fact that only recently they had been writing about the Russian army’s high combat readiness and major rearmament – set about criticizing the invading force.

Much attention was paid to the long-time Russian diseases of corruption and poor leadership. After the Russian retreat in Kharkiv and Kherson regions in the autumn of 2022, there were predictions that at the very least the Russian army had lost the ability to conduct strategic operations and that possibly the Russian military command would collapse within a matter of weeks.

These forecasts greatly contributed to the building of confidence that the complete liberation of all occupied territories by Kyiv was not far off. At the same time, Russia’s construction of a line of defensive structures, the so-called “Surovikin Line,” was met with much skepticism.

Confidence in an imminent victory spread to the Ukrainian leadership. The views of those who questioned such forecasts were ignored. As a result, when the Ukrainian counteroffensive in 2023 did not achieve its objectives, the expert community once again repented for their mistakes – this time for underestimating Russian capabilities.

Now, almost two years after the outbreak of hostilities, the same experts agree on the obvious: the Russia-Ukraine conflict has taken the form of a long war of attrition, similar to World War I.

Figures out of thin air

There are objective reasons for the experts’ mistakes. Foreign experts on the Russian army had been accustomed to the fact that at least until 2012, the leaders of the country’s armed forces actually shared information with the public about the real state of the army and its problems.
However, starting from 2014, it has become extremely difficult, if not impossible, to objectively analyze the state of the Russian army.
Vladimir Putin, center, together with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, right, at the Vostok 2022 military exercise. Primorye, September 2022.
Source: Wiki Commons
It should be said that when Sergei Shoigu came to head the Ministry of Defense in 2012, he initially tried to speak honestly about the army’s problems. For example, at the beginning of 2013 he noted unsatisfactory results of the first snap inspection carried out.

The practice of snap inspections was very popular with Kremlin’s PR people, who at the beginning of 2013 were concerned about how to stop the slide in Putin’s rating. The personal participation of the stern but fair supreme commander in these surprise inspections seemed an appropriate solution. However, in such a scenario Shoigu himself would inevitably end up as the official scapegoated for the poor performance. He would not allow this to happen, and the surprise inspections soon turned into a ritual show. Putin accepted this. The president would inspect the troops and gladly listen to reports of brilliant successes and how minor shortcomings had been swiftly resolved.

In 2014, after the incorporation of Crimea into Russia and the outbreak of war in the Donbas – in which Russia categorically denied being involved – the Ministry of Defense limited itself to dazzling reports that were supposed to convince everyone (including the commander-in-chief) that things were going brilliantly for the Russian army. Since the data that the ministry reported was largely pulled out of thin air, it was often contradictory. Putin’s recent call-in show and press conference, and the annual meeting of the Ministry of Defense Board, held in December 2023, provided many examples of this.

Among the most striking is the fantastic numbers on Ukrainian losses in the war – the Russian army was said to have destroyed twice as many armored vehicles as the enemy had. According to Shoigu, 14,000 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers were destroyed during the fighting. Meanwhile, at the beginning of the invasion, Ukraine had approximately 2,700 armored vehicles, while during the war, Western countries, according to Shoigu, supplied 5,220 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers. (In reality, it has been much less: less than 800 tanks have been delivered.)
Self-propelled launcher for the RS-24 Yars missile. Source: Wiki Commons
Fulfillment of defense orders: Who is telling the truth?

No less interesting is the information about the Russian armed forces themselves. For instance, during the Board meeting the commander-in-chief said: “by the end of the year, 15 launchers of the Yars and Avangard missile systems will have been put on combat duty with the Strategic Missile Forces.” From the context, it seemed that he meant the total number of launchers deployed in 2023.

A year ago, during the same annual Board meeting, speaking about plans for 2023, the Minister of Defense promised to “put 22 launchers with Yars, Avangard and Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles on combat duty with the Strategic Missile Forces.”

As for the super-heavy Sarmat missile, at the 2023 Board meeting Shoigu did not give any specific figures regarding its deployment, only promising to complete the process of placing the missile on combat duty in 2024 (from which it follows that in 2023 none of these missiles were deployed at all).
“Thus, it turns out that previous plans for the deployment of ground-based strategic missiles were implemented at barely 60% in 2023. Meanwhile, in the same remarks Putin stated that state defense orders had been fulfilled at 98%.”
It is more than doubtful that the two unfulfilled percent points of state defense orders accounted for the undeployed missile systems. Let’s not forget that we are talking about Russia’s nuclear might, which, based on Putin’s repeated statements, ensures the country’s sovereignty.
Moscow Victory Day Parade, May 9, 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
How many people are serving in the Russian army?

Ministry of Defense officials, either intentionally or due to carelessness, have maximally muddled the data that is of fundamental importance for understanding the course of the current war – namely, figures regarding the size of the armed forces. Minister Shoigu reported at the Board meeting in December 2023 that “all plans for recruiting for the army and navy this year have been completed in full. Their number has been increased to 1,150,000 servicemen.”

In addition, he promised in 2024 “to increase the number of contract servicemen, taking into account the recruitment of new formations, to 745,000 people by the end of the year.” But back at the end of 2021, he had announced that the number of contract soldiers was twice as large as the number of conscripts. There were 262,000 conscript soldiers then. Therefore, if you believe that, then back in 2021 there should have been 524,000 contract soldiers. And, according to the defense minister’s latest report, 490,000 people signed contracts in 2023 alone.

Thus, there should already be more than a million contract soldiers in the army. Keep in mind that during war, contracts are automatically renewed and there is no possibility of terminating them. So, Shoigu is assuming that over three years of fighting, the number of contract soldiers will not increase but decrease by approximately 300,000, which could indicate the size of the occurred and expected losses.

There is the same problem with the overall size of the armed forces. From Shoigu’s comments in 2021 it follows that at that time there were over 900,000 servicemen in the army. In 2022, according to official statements, 300,000 were mobilized, while in 2023 490,000 signed contracts. So, the total number should be at least 1,690,000 servicemen.

Yet Shoigu reports that the current number is only 1,150,000. It seems extremely unlikely to me that the minister of defense wanted to hint that in two years of fighting the Russian army lost half a million people. Most likely, whoever wrote these speeches, as usual, took all the figures out of thin air, simply being too lazy to bring them into line with what Shoigu said two years before.

Pouring in more and more troops is key

The obvious conclusion reached when sorting through these piles of fiction is that the Russian military command, to put it mildly, is distorting the real state of affairs. However, one should remember the rule well known to those who analyzed Soviet economic statistics: even with the considerable distortions, the data is still indicative of an existing trend.

In this case, it is the Kremlin’s intention to win a victory in Ukraine by increasing the number of troops. During his annual call-in show, Vladimir Putin put the number of servicemen fighting in the special operation at 617,000. This is more than half the entire armed forces.

I suspect that this figure, as they say, was a slip of the tongue. Later, all pro-Kremlin commentators dutifully avoided it. And that was no accident. At the very least, the figure poorly reflects the effectiveness of the army, which, according to official Ukrainian data, is being opposed by an armed force of 800,000 servicemen, 600,000 of which are on the battlefield. In other words, it is taking more Russian troops to fight on the defensive than Ukrainian troops to fight on the offensive.
There is no doubt that given the current nature of the war, each of the combatants will require mass mobilization to win.
Kyiv has already begun to prepare legislation to put half a million more men under arms. Moscow did all the necessary legislative work in the spring and summer of 2023.

Recently, Putin ordered that a digital registry of those liable for military service should be completed by the 2024 autumn conscription, not by the beginning of 2025, as the civilian officials tasked with building it had planned on. In other words, the target is now October 1. Keep in mind that we are talking about a registry of all those liable for military service, not just conscripts. If there are no drastic changes at the front before then, it seems reasonable to assume that by January 1, 2025, after the completion of the autumn conscription, the country will be completely ready for mass mobilization.

The role of the defense industry

However, such mobilization is constrained by the capabilities of the domestic defense industry. Obviously, the dazzling reports about arms production being ratcheted up by 3-4 times (Putin) and 5-17 times (Shoigu) do not correspond to reality. Nevertheless, the military-industrial complex is able to supply the fighting army with the minimum amount of equipment and weapons it needs.

As far as one can tell, for the most part this is so-called “modernized” military equipment – renovated tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery systems of Soviet production that had sat in storage for decades. The current masters of the Kremlin should thank the old men from the Brezhnev Politburo, who had thousands and thousands of units of military equipment produced in anticipation of a long war with NATO (this, by the way, contributed greatly to the economic collapse of the USSR).

We do not know how much such military equipment remains in warehouses and storage bases after two years of hostilities. The second question that has no answer is: how long will the Russian defense industry be able to maintain the pace being demanded of it? One can dismiss as obviously absurd Shoigu’s statement that he managed to quadruple the production capacity of the defense industry.

Economists define production capacity as the maximum possible annual output. It is obviously impossible to quadruple that in a year. And there is no information about the commissioning of a corresponding number of new plants and production lines.
But the trend is completely clear – existing production facilities are being used to the limit.
The enormous load on the machines (most of which were purchased in the West) should lead to systemic failures within 2-3 years. The decisive factor will be whether Russia can either develop its own machine tool production on a gigantic scale or ensure parallel imports on the same scale as before. It is very hard to answer these questions at this point.

It is much easier to imagine what will happen on the Ukrainian side. The ability of the Ukrainian army to resist Russia’s aggression will depend on whether it can significantly increase numbers of personnel, which, in turn, is contingent on the internal political situation and whether the government in Kyiv can convince the population of the need to continue resisting. The second determining factor will be the degree of Western support, its ability to provide Ukraine with enough weapons to achieve superiority on the battlefield.

Focusing on the nature of the war

It seems that the changes in experts’ assessment of the Russia-Ukraine war have mostly boiled down to revising previous predictions. Initially, the Russian blitzkrieg was expected to succeed, then the weakness of the Russian army was exaggerated, and finally Moscow’s ability to conduct at least successful defensive operations was recognized. All this raises a logical question: if expert opinion is only able to state and explain what has already happened but unable to offer accurate predictions, then why is it needed? It should be emphasized that amid the information warfare, experts simply do not have the minimum necessary data for objective analysis.

In this situation, it seems to me that it would be more productive to focus on the nature of the war – first of all, on the fact that it has taken the form of conflicts of the industrial era of the mid-twentieth century, when it was not the quality but the quantity of armed forces that proved decisive. At the same time, the scale of the conflict (the length of the front line, the potential area that could be contested) is such that neither side has enough human and material resources to win a decisive military victory.

With regard to the Russian army, it is fighting the way it has always fought, be it in World War I, World War II or the wars in Chechnya – ignoring losses and betting on quantitative superiority in manpower. Still, note that making Russia’s large reserves work to ensure superiority on the battlefield will take quite a long time. It is necessary to mobilize along the Soviet model the country’s entire industrial sector, not just the military-industrial complex.

All this leads to a rather gloomy but obvious conclusion: the war has become a protracted, positional one. The situation could be changed by massive supplies of Western weapons to Ukraine in quantities many times greater than currently. But that looks unlikely.
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