Russia Doubled Its Army In 2022. But Its Casualties Doubled, Too.

Russia Doubled Its Army In 2022. But Its Casualties Doubled, Too.

Mobilized Russian marines after they were captured outside Vuhledar.

Via social media

Kremlin officials knew as early as last spring that they had a manpower problem. Russia’s wider war in Ukraine then was only a few months old, but as many as 50,000 Russians already were dead or wounded out of the 200,000 or so men who initiated the attack.

So the Kremlin mobilized another 300,000 men while, at the same time, shadowy mercenary company The Wagner Group also recruited tens of thousands of convicts from Russian prisons. Even taking into account losses, the Russian army roughly doubled in size in a few heady months.

But that didn’t solve the Kremlin’s fundamental problem. Because Russian casualties doubled, too.

Volodymyr Dacenko, a columnist for Forbes Ukraine and a former member of the Ukrainian defense ministry’s reform team, crunched the numbers from open-source data. Prior to the summer mobilization, the Russian armed forces were losing around 380 troops killed per day in Ukraine. After the mobilization, daily deaths nearly doubled—to 650 per day.

So yes, the Kremlin made good its casualties in Ukraine through a high-stakes mobilization. But now it’s digging itself into another manpower hole—one that could require a second mobilization and lead to yet another manpower hole. So on and so forth.

Understanding how this happened is key to making sense of the war’s current dynamics. Russia’s leaders are determined to stay in the war. It doesn’t matter to Russian president Vladimir Putin, his cabinet, the rubber-stamp legislature or regional governors how many Russians die, as long as the army keeps fighting.

For as long as the army is fighting, Russian leaders, a complicit media and a cowed population can spin the army’s efforts—however costly—as victory.

So the Kremlin didn’t make any effort to build a force-generation system for a long-term campaign—nor to pace front-line operations to avoid overexerting that system.

The first thing the Russians did, when it became clear last spring that the war wouldn’t be a quick one, was raid the training base. Russian brigades typically include three battalions: two that fight, one that trains. You can send that so-called “third battalion” to the front, but if you do, you lose the ability to train new recruits. The brigade no longer can rebuild itself to a reasonable level of combat-readiness.

Deploying the third battalions was an expedient. And an ominous sign for the trajectory of the Russian war effort. The Kremlin’s next step was to loosen the draft law and call up hundreds of thousands of men—many of them in their middle age and unfit for combat.

The army’s training base had no hope of bringing these new recruits to the same proficiency as the dead and wounded troops they were replacing. At least not quickly enough to keep the army in the fight as Ukraine’s own army rapidly increased in size, skill and firepower over the summer and into the fall.

Untrained, unfit Russian recruits arrived at the front, marched into battle and promptly got hurt or killed. To see this tragedy in real time, simply observe the Russian “offensive” aimed at capturing the town of Vuhledar, a mile north of Russian-held Pavlivka, 25 miles southwest of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

For around two weeks now, a trio of Russian brigades—two marine brigades and a newly-mobilized volunteer brigade from Russian Tatarstan—have been trying to cross the mile-deep minefield between Pavlivka and Vuhledar.

The Russian brigades not only have failed to advance that mile, they’ve suffered staggering casualties trying and trying again. The Russians lost a whole battalion—30 or more vehicles, potentially hundreds of troops—in one day last week. Subsequent attacks have been no more successful.

Blame sloppy planning and a lack of support on the part of the Russians and clever Ukrainian tactics. But also blame training. That is, a lack of training. Newly-mobilized Russian troops don’t know how to breach a minefield while under fire—and, besides, lack the discipline.

This is the fruit of a diseased tree. Desperate to maintain the illusion of a victorious campaign amid staggering losses, the Kremlin rushed untrained draftees to the Ukraine front. Now that the draftees are dying even faster than did the men they replaced, a second mass-mobilization is unavoidable. The only alternative—a Russian retreat from Ukraine—is unlikely as long as Putin or someone like him remains in power.

But a second mobilization is unlikely to be any more sound than the first one was. The Kremlin hasn’t solved its force-generation problem, so anyone who gets drafted in 2023 is unlikely to undergo more training than did someone who got drafted in 2022. They might even get less training.

All that is to say, don’t be shocked if Russia’s daily casualties double again this year. The first year of war killed or wounded as many as 270,000 Russians. The second year could push the overall casualty count toward one million.

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