Has Ukraine Broken the Russian Military?
With thousands of troops dead, Russia seems desperate for new soldiers—allowing enlistees as old as 50, U.S. defense official says.
There’s no way to verify that 29,600 Russian troops have died in the invasion, as Ukraine’s defense ministry claimed on Thursday, but what is known is that Russia is calling for more volunteers and raising the upper age limit of enlistees.
The Russian military has also lost thousands of weapons, and in the last few weeks has scaled back from a three-pronged attack on Ukraine to a narrower effort to take the whole of the Donbas—and retain the parts it captured in 2014. The losses could make it difficult to wage war anywhere else in the short term, defense experts and officials said.
“Russia has taken heavy losses in this campaign, which will reduce its ability to engage in conflict over the next few years,” said Ryan Brobst, a research analyst for Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
As of press time, the independent site Oryx has used photographs to document 4,150 destroyed or damaged Russian pieces of equipment, including 734 tanks and 148 aircraft (fighter jets, helicopters, and drones).
But human casualty figures are harder to fix. This week, British Ministry of Defence officials estimated that Russia has lost as many troops in the past three months as it did during its nine-year war in Afghanistan. If public sentiment about that war is any indication, the MoD tweeted, the losses could elevate “public dissatisfaction with the war and willingness to voice it.”
Pentagon officials have declined to estimate Russian personnel losses but said Thursday that the equipment losses are significant.
“We believe they've lost or rendered inoperable almost 1,000 of their tanks in this fight,” a senior defense official told reporters at the Pentagon. “They've lost well over 350 artillery pieces. They have lost almost three dozen fighter or fighter-bomber fixed-wing aircraft, and more than 50 helicopters.”
At full strength, Russia’s active-duty Army, including conscripts, has about 280,000 troops, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which publishes an annual assessment of military end strengths and weapon worldwide. IISS reported in its February 2022 Military Balance report—the final one ante bellum—that Russia had more than 2,900 tanks in active use, including 2,000-plus T-72 variants, and another 10,200 T-72s and T-80s in storage.
“They still have the significant amount of the majority of their capability left to them,” the senior defense official said Thursday.
FDD’s Brobst said that while Russia will be challenged in the short term, it will pull weapons from storage, and would likely cut non-defense budgets to fund its re-arming.
Sanctions have already shut down two of Russia’s tank factories, Uralvagonzavod Corporation and Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant and will make it harder for Russia to obtain computer chips and electronics components for new weapons, Brobst and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
Personnel-wise, Russia has gone all-in on Ukraine, and it’s taken a toll.
The senior defense official said Russia has committed more than 80 percent of “their entire battalion tactical groups” to invading Ukraine, 110 of which are currently in the Donbas region.
“They've invested an awful lot of their hardware and their personnel in this fight,” the official said.
A Russian battalion tactical group can be as large as 600 to 800 personnel. The units fighting in Ukraine are likely smaller than that, because Russia has classified the attack on Ukraine as a “special military operation” and not a war, so their reserve forces have not been activated, Brobst said.
Russia recently put out a call for volunteers from the Army Reserve to come fight in Ukraine, the official said, and it’s recently increased the age of enlistment to 50 years old to replenish troops it has lost.
“It used to be that you couldn't be any older than 40 to join the Russian army. Now you can be 50 years old, and they've been public about that,” the official said.