How Much of its Army Has Russia Lost?

How Much of its Army Has Russia Lost?

Modern Military

Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Ben Hodges is correct. The Russian Army has reached its culminating point.  It is no longer capable of mounting large scale offensives which is why President Putin has ordered an ‘operational pause’. At the same time, Ukrainian forces are incapable of inflicting a decisive defeat on Russian forces.  Therefore, unless the West collectively becomes prepared to go beyond simply delivering some advanced weapons systems to the Ukrainians it is unlikely Kyiv will be able to recover the 25% of its territory it has already lost to the Russians.  The direct involvement of Western forces is extremely unlikely, and even the indirect involvement through the imposition of a no-fly zone is also very unlikely.

Richard Moore, Head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, confirmed the sorry state of Russia’s armed forces. At a speech to the Aspen Security Conference during which he said the Russian Army finds itself exhausted. Furthermore, London remains bullish about the possibility of further Ukrainian gains if properly supported. 

London also estimates that since February 24th, Russia’s losses consist of more than 15,000 soldiers killed in action.

This is roughly the same number lost during Moscow’s disastrous campaign in Afghanistan. Which occurred over nearly a decade, between 1979 and 1988. However, whilst most democracies struggle to balance time, space and casualties in a war, the Russian way of war is to partly offset incompetence by outlasting an enemy by trading time and space for casualties. Hence the high death tolls each hard yard (seventeen square feet) is exacting on both sides.

Moreover, the US intelligence community believes that Putin remains committed to a long war and his ambitions remain the seizure of much of eastern and southern Ukraine, control over all of Ukraine’s grain producing regions to the west of the River Dnipro. From north to south these are the Cherniv, Sumy, Poltova, Kharkiv, fifty percent or so of Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Odessa in addition to Donetsk and Luhansk.  

The Ukrainians are fighting as clever as they can, by maintaining a significant counterattack on Kherson in the southwest of the strategically critical River Dnipro and Russian forces in the area are at increasing risk of destruction, partly due to new long-range weapons systems, such as HIMARS and Harpoon.  However, Ukrainian forces have also paid a grievous price. Blocking repeated Russian attacks. And for President Putin the Ukraine War is the culmination of his life work. And must be seen as an extended campaign, not a battle. President Putin has to give up on his ambitions of re-creating Novorossiya. Henceforth, Russia will resort to grinding its way forward over space and time.

President Putin also faces several dilemmas.

In Ukraine, Russian commanders face a difficult choice between attempting to maintain the stuttering offensive in the Donbas or defending the territory they have seized in the south and west which is also subject to increased partisan activity.  This explains the relatively small-scale nature of the Russian offensive along the Lysychansk-Bakhmut-Donetsk axis. Putin also has to decide what level of mobilization he is prepared to resort to given the weaknesses from which the Russian Army is suffering, particularly manpower.

It may be that Moscow is no longer able to sustain the Russian way of war without over time facing a mounting threat to the survival of the regime. Russia would need at least 500,000 reasonably capable troops to secure Moscow’s stated war aims. Which is unlikely whilst the advanced age and poor quality of many of those being recruited lends further credence to Moore’s thesis. A leaked closed poll last week conducted by the Kremlin suggested some 33% of Russians want an immediate halt to the war. The likely level of discontent is probably higher, although this is unlikely to lead to any major policy change in Moscow in the short term and Putin’s approval ratings are still robust.   

Geopolitical appreciation

The geopolitical backdrop to the Ukraine War has not been given sufficient attention. Last week at a meeting in Tehran Putin met with President Erdogan of Turkey. (Henceforth, apparently, to be known as Turkiye.) In addition, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini attended.  Putin’s immediate purpose was to seduce Turkey into an anti-Western grouping and thus ease Ankara’s support for Kyiv. Over the medium-term Putin would like to join with Iran and Turkey to divide up both the Black Sea Region and the Caspian Sea Region into three spheres of respective influence.

If Putin could engineer such a grouping that had more political substance than a photo op it would not only mean trouble for NATO and the West.  During the Tehran meeting Erdogan threatened to ‘freeze’ the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO.

It seems ‘Turkiye’ is open to the highest bidder these days. 

It would also give further impetus to Putin’s real war aims in Ukraine which are threefold:

  • The re-establishment of Novorossiya.
  • Control of the Ukrainian bread-basket west of the River Dnipro.
  • The political subjugation of Kyiv.

Novorossiya looms large in Putin’s Peter the Great fantasies of a greater Russia. In fact it was Catherine the Great who in 1764 conquered the lands of what is now southern Ukraine from the Donbas to the Moldovan border following the defeat of the Crimean Khanate and the fading Ottoman Empire.

On Friday, Russia and Ukraine signed a UN-brokered deal in Istanbul to enable Kyiv to resume grain exports from blockaded Ukrainian ports. The deal should not be seen as a sign that Russia is moderating its position. Rather than Moscow demonstrating that it is Russia which decides when Ukraine can export food vital to the people of the developing world, and when not.  Russia is the largest exporter of grain in the world controlling some 18% of the market.  If Russia can control Ukrainian grain exports it would command some 25.4% of the world market.  Given the importance of this grain to many poorer countries, control of Ukrainian grain has for Russia a geopolitical value that far outweighs any market value.

The rest of Europe?

Last month Russia closed the Nordstream 1 gas pipeline. Again for further ‘maintenance’. And it is still only operating at 40% capacity. The message to Berlin, the only European capital that matters to Moscow, is that Russia can close down much of the German economy and much of the rest of Europe. The real price of the folly of Merkel’s Ostpolitik is only now becoming truly apparent. The real struggle will begin in November as temperatures fall and Berlin has to decide which is more important – powering industry or heating homes. 

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For example, the main BASF plant at Ludwigshafen burns half as much gas as Denmark each day. Given such pressures Putin does not believe that Germany, or indeed, France became deeply committed to Ukraine’s struggle. Or that much of Western Europe’s population would be willing to endure gas rationing for the sake of Ukraine. Evidence suggests he may be right. 

Germany’s support for Ukraine has been at best very lukewarm. Whilst France’s call for Russia is not ‘humiliated’ in Ukraine is in fact a metaphor for appeasement.  Consequently, for all the wishful thinking in parts of Western media Putin believes time is on his side and that he will not need to begin negotiations until mid-2023 at the earliest, when the regional-strategic situation will tilt in his favor.

Conclusion and Assessment

The West faces a difficult dilemma if the fragile coalition that has supported Ukraine since February 24th is to survive the winter.  Indeed, if there is a West it needs to collectively decide what would hurt Russia without blowing the coalition apart. The US decision to supply US supply F-16s to Poland so that Warsaw can transfer Mig-29s to Ukraine is an important step forward and should be welcomed if confirmed. To re-state, supplying advanced weapons systems is vital for enabling Kyiv to stay in the fight. However, there are limits to how much can be supplied. And what effect they will have, not least due to the degrading of weapon stocks vital to Allied forces.

What would further hurt Russia? At the very least, the West must reinforce its unity of purpose and effort and significantly increase the costs to Russia for its actions. If the West will not engage directly in the war. Then in addition to arms shipments and force training. Moreover, far tougher sanctions become needed, together with far more assertive diplomatic action.  Sanctions on electronic components are already preventing Russia from increasing the production of advanced weapons systems.

Critically, the Chinese have not funded any new infrastructure projects in Russia for several months. 

Not only is Beijing dealing with a pandemic-induced economic crisis, but many Chinese businesses (and thus the Chinese state) seem concerned they will suffer from secondary sanctions introduced against Moscow.  For all the rhetoric about the Chinese-Russian strategic partnership it is the democratic world that makes China rich and powerful, not Russia. Current diplomatic efforts to convince African and Middle Eastern countries to condemn the invasion also need to be stepped up. In conjunction with a strategy to ease the reliance of many of them on Russian and Ukrainian grain.  

Above all, if Western Europeans really are serious about their support for the Ukrainian people, then their respective leaders will need to properly prepare Europe’s peoples for the coming hardships whilst their respective leaders wean their respective economies off Russian oil and gas supplies. If not, then the ‘most’ that can be expected is a kind of ‘frozen warflict’ in Ukraine. Which in time will lead to something not unlike the 38th Parallel and the division of the two Koreas.  Such a division would suit Moscow as it is almost certain that Berlin and Paris would also over time first afford Russia de facto recognition of its conquests, and in time possibly de jure recognition.        

Fall Of Afghanistan

For those Europeans who talk endlessly about values and a values-based foreign policy it is thus a seminal moment.  In the face of Russia’s monumental breach of international law many who espouse such a creed seem dangerously close at times to tacitly accepting the Realpolitik of Russia’s actions even if they publicly condemn them. In which case, to quote The Who, meet the new boss, just like the old boss!

Ukraine could still win this war, but the real question is not what President Zelensky might settle for, but just how much does the ‘West’ want Ukraine to win, and how far collectively ‘we’ are willing to go and suffer in support.

Julian Lindley-French  

Analyst, author, commentator and speaker with ten books to my name, including two for Oxford University Press (and about to publish my third for Oxford “Future War and the Defence of Europe), My job is to speak truth unto power in an age when the gap between power, people and politics is growing dangerously wide. My focus is the tension between strategy and politics with an emphasis on security and defence policy. My analysis is the product of many years policy and practitioner experience, allied to long and deep research. Sadly, I also support Sheffield United Football Club – the triumph of endless hope over long, hard, and painful experience!
Forthcoming Book
Future War and the Defence of Europe (Oxford University Press English Edition and Kosmos Press German Edition)
Recent Books:
2017: The Geopolitics of Terror – Demons and Dragons (Routledge)
2015: NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2015 (Routledge)
2015: Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power ( 2nd and paperback edition) (Amazon)
2014; The Oxford Handbook of War (paperback edition) (Oxford University Press)
2014: Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power (Kindle e-book)
2012: The Oxford Handbook of War (Oxford University Press)
2007: A Chronology of European Security and Defence (Oxford University Press)
2007; NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2007 (Routledge)
2003: Terms of Engagement (EUISS)
1998: Coalitions & the Future of Security Policy

Modern Military

How Much of its Army Has Russia Lost?