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What’s left of the Russian army after seven months at war
Just how much has the war on Ukraine weakened the Russian army? Will the hastily declared mobilization and domestic defense industry help the Kremlin make up for its losses of men and equipment?
Date
29 Sep 2022
Author
What’s left of the Russian army after seven months at war
Photo: JUAN BARRETO / AFP / SCANPIX / LETA

The seventh month of Russia’s war on Ukraine proved to be particularly difficult for the Russian army: the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU)'s successful counterattack forced the Russian army out of more than 450 settlements in the Kharkiv Region alone, while Russian troops west of the Kherson Region ended up caught in a trap

That same month, the Russian army also lost a record number of soldiers and military equipment along with the captured territories, according to IStories calculations. 

This begs the question: What state was the Russian army in exactly when the Kremlin declared mobilization?

"A monstrous shortage of manpower" 

Military experts interviewed by IStories all agreed that the Kremlin’s decision to begin mobilization was dictated by a shortage of personnel in the forces currently fighting in Ukraine. "The primary goal of the mobilization is to prevent disasters like those that happened near Kharkiv," said Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) analyst Kirill Mikhailov, referring to the retreat of the Russian army in the Kharkiv region in September. "All the existing issues inside the Russian army — its rigid hierarchy, its lack of reliable intelligence and [low] morale are compounded by a dearth of soldiers on sections of the frontlines. The Russian command hopes that if they enlist enough people to at least sit in the trenches and defend [the territory], catastrophic situations like this can be avoided." 

The Ukrainian Armed Forces don't have personnel problems, explained a Russian military industry expert who requested his name not be disclosed. “The Ukrainian leadership has repeatedly stated [to foreign partners]: ‘Give us the equipment, we have enough people,’ so it may well be that one of the goals of mobilization is to achieve overwhelming superiority in numbers [on the Russian side]," he said.

Although the Russian army comprises more than 700,000 servicemen, not all of them can be deployed in combat. This explains why the Kremlin had to send newly mobilized soldiers to the frontlines.

"The armed forces are divided by type of soldier. The majority of those [in Ukraine] are ground troops," explained Luzin. "There were a maximum of 280,000 troops in the ground forces, a maximum of 45,000 in the airborne troops, and a maximum of 35,000 in the marines. Among those 360,000, there are a lot of auxiliary units, not all of which are suitable for combat operations. There were anywhere from 134,000 to 168,000 men designated as ‘permanent readiness’ troops. But seven months in, what is left of those ‘permanent readiness’ units? Don't forget that people don't just die. They get wounded, and they get dismissed. We saw a mass exodus from the army during spring and summer. There's nothing left of the original army there." 

Like other military experts, Luzin attributes the Kremlin’s decision to mobilize to the Russian army’s "monstrous shortage of manpower" in Ukraine. It won't be effective, though, he believes: "Mobilization will in no way amend the difficult situation [of the Russian army] on the battlefront because one cannot fight in a modern war using untrained men."

One explanation for the low number of Russian soldiers in Ukraine is that many have been lost in combat. Over seven months of fighting in Ukraine, Russia lost anywhere between three and eight percent of its entire army, according to IStories calculations. The lower end estimate reflects U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s announcement in early September that more than 25,000 Russian soldiers were believed to have been killed already. Taking into account, however, those wounded, taken prisoner and deserters, in addition to those killed, the Russian army lost more than 80,000 people, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defense. 

As of September 26, Russia had already lost more than 57,000 servicemen, or eight percent of its entire army, per figures from the General Staff of the AFU. That said, Ukrainian estimates of losses on the Russian side include those killed and seriously wounded, according to Luzin. In his opinion, half of these irretrievable losses can be considered deaths. 

Meanwhile, the Russian side continuously underreports its losses. "Our losses in the special operation amounted to 5,937 people," Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared "partial mobilization" in the country. Yet, IStories reporters alone have compiled more names of dead soldiers than Shoigu claims: based on our data, more than 6,000 people have already died in the war, although even this figure only reflects the number of publicly known cases.

According to the CIT analyst Mikhailov, the actual number of personnel lost is two to three times higher than what open sources can confirm. Taking this into consideration, the real number of losses falls somewhere between the journalists' estimates and the AFU General Staff's data.

Russia has lost more than half of all its tanks, one third of which is now in the hands of the AFU

The Russian army is also losing a high percentage of military equipment on the battlefield. In September, the first month of a successful Ukrainian counterattack, the Russian army lost twice the amount of military equipment it lost the month before. Both Oryx project data, which is based on the analysis of photos and videos of lost equipment, as well as data from the Ukrainian side, indicate this. 

The only time Russia lost more vehicles monthly was at the beginning of the war in March and April. The Russian army was using more military equipment at the start, helping explain the higher losses; during the war’s seventh month, the Russian army was using less military equipment but still losing comparable amounts. 

Tanks and armored vehicles have been hit hardest by the war. This is the primary type of weapon used by the Russian side — more precisely, by the ground forces, which are most heavily involved in the fighting. According to IStories calculations, the Russian army lost between 35% and 67% of all its operational tanks, and between 12% and 27% of its armored vehicles.

The Oryx project estimates minimum losses at 1,192 tanks (35% of the total number of operational tanks) and 2,259 armored vehicles (12% of its total). According to CIT analysts, The figures represent around 70-80% of the total actual losses of equipment. 

Ukrainian data shows that the Russian army lost 2,290 tanks (67%) and 4,857 armored vehicles (27%). Mikhailov believes that the actual amount of equipment lost falls somewhere between the data provided by Oryx and the General Staff of the AFU. Luzin is inclined to trust Ukrainian data more: those numbers take into account hits on military equipment, which are likely to result in more reliable figures than those based on photos and videos of damaged equipment.

A large part of the tanks and armored vehicles that Russia lost over seven months of war ended up in the hands of the Ukrainian army. Thirty-seven percent were either seized by the AFU or abandoned by the Russian army while retreating, according to Oryx project research. 

It may take years to rebuild, and the Russian defense industry will only be able to produce the simplest models in large quantities, experts explain. "Even if we look at the minimum estimate, these are very significant losses. On the one hand, it is possible to get the tanks from the stockpiles: Russia has huge stockpiles inherited from the USSR — 10,000 tanks — but they have to be repaired and upgraded," said the Russian military industry expert.

This expert believes the Russian military-industrial complex may run into issues when trying to build up its number of tanks. "If necessary, Russia will be able to produce several hundred tanks a year. But those would be simplified tank models, whereas for example, making several hundred Armata tanks is not feasible,” he said. “We also will not be able to implement the most advanced [T-90 tank] modifications even if we want to, because the process requires appropriate electronic equipment. We do not have the technological capabilities to produce several hundred sets of tank electronics a year. We can make tanks with simplified technical capabilities in large quantities, but we definitely cannot make tanks with the most advanced thermal imaging equipment and communication systems in large quantities. Even if our Chinese partners secretly help us — because they cannot do it officially [due to sanctions] — we will be able to produce between 50 and 300 tanks a year." 

It would take Russia years at that rate to restore the number of tanks it has lost in Ukraine. If the production rate is at 300 tanks a year, it will take the industry four to eight years. If it’s 50 a year, then 23 to 46 years.

Things are easier with armored vehicles, the Russian military industry expert assures: "With armored personnel carriers, "Tigr" armored vehicles and BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles it is a bit easier: we are able to produce almost everything ourselves as almost all parts are locally made. We've had BMP-3 models in the past, for example, with French thermal imagers, so those will be missing, but in all other respects it will be completely normal new equipment. The question is, how much and how quickly we will be able to produce it." 

It could take Russia years to take its fleet of tanks and armored vehicles back to pre-war levels, explained Luzin: "Over the past decade, since 2011, Russia has been modernizing and producing 150-160 tanks and about 500 other armored vehicles each year.” That means it would take five to eight, or 10-14 years for the factories to rebuild the equipment lost in the seven months of the war, depending on whether we take minimum or maximum loss estimates.

Ukrainian military with a downed Russian tank in the liberated Kharkiv region
Ukrainian military with a downed Russian tank in the liberated Kharkiv region
LEO CORREA / AP / SCANPIX / LETA

"We will have to import illegally"

Another problem for the Russian army is that it has lost a significant number of its drones. The lower end estimate is seven percent of their total amount, based on Oryx project data, whereas the Ukrainian side estimates Russian drone losses at 49%. "A whole bunch of important electronics is used in drone production, and the big question is whether it will be possible to find analogs to make them," said Mikhailov.

According to a Russian defense industry expert, Russia does not have an established drone production industry. "The Russian army lacks drones, anyway. No matter how many of them are available [now], their number would never be enough, even if there were no losses,” the expert explained. “Drones are a must for any modern combat operation, defensive or offensive, be it for intelligence purposes, combined with strike systems, or in artillery fire adjustment. Artillery is especially effective when it receives data on targets, and the data depends on the number of drones and the ability to use them." 

In Luzin's opinion, the drone problem will not be solved in the near future: "The majority of drones [in the hands of the Russian Armed Forces] are Orlan-10, used for artillery fire adjustment. Several hundred of them have been shot down. And even if they are not shot down, many break down because the parachute landing system does not always work, and the engine wears out. Russia won't have any drones — only those Maverick drones they buy from China, and some Iranian crap that will run out soon, too."

"We still have not been able to solve our drone problems. There needs to be a clear message from above saying that drones are necessary [for the army] so that they would finally move on from competitions, elections, and fighting to mass production. Before that, the government had spent quite a lot of money just on conducting various studies, building prototypes, and organizing competitions," said the Russian military industry expert. "We used to buy drones from Israel. Now we are probably buying them from Iran, though almost any country, especially a country with an aircraft manufacturing industry of Russia’s scope, can produce any kind of drones. All it takes is the decision to do it, money, and making sure that nobody steals this money. If those three issues are solved, we can make any number of drones we want, because making them is a thousand times easier than making airplanes. But this will require electronics, and we will have to use "gray imports" to buy parts illegally somewhere in Southeast Asia or China. There are no other options at this time in history.” 

"Shell Famine"

Between February 24 and early September, the Russian army fired a total of 3,500 missiles at Ukraine, according to Ukrainian data. Luzin estimates that Russia can produce no more than 225 cruise and operational tactical ballistic missiles a year. At this rate of production it would take at least 15 years to recover the losses. 

The Russian military industry expert suspects that Russia has already begun producing missiles again, but their quality is questionable. "Apparently, we have started mass production of Iskander and Kalibr missiles, both cruise-type and ballistic missiles. This is clear at the very least from the fact that there are occasional emergency launches of such missiles, for example, when the missile [after launch] goes sideways. Ordinary people have no idea this is an emergency launch, but experts can see it. The emergence of those [sideways] launches is probably due to a defect in the course of accelerated production, or insufficient quality control when items are delivered, including through accelerated delivery. Since evidence about faulty items being handed to the troops emerged relatively recently, we can infer that the accelerated production is already bearing consequences," he said. 

The Russian army also suffered significant artillery losses: by the seventh month of the war, according to lower end estimates, Russia had lost seven percent of its artillery pieces, and according to the higher end estimates, 28%. "Almost all of the artillery can be restocked from stockpiles or by transferring artillery units [in Ukraine] from non-military to military districts, which is exactly what seems to be happening now. This is a problem that can be solved very quickly and which doesn't require additional production. There may be problems with artillery ammunition, but those are not as difficult to make as aircraft, ships or submarines are. Shells can be made at any plant that has mechanical engineering production, even not highly developed, not very high tech," said the Russian military industry expert.

Soviet stocks of artillery shells are already running out, and by the end of the year the Russian army will find itself face to face with "shell famine," explained Luzin: "Being cut off from supplies of Western equipment, spare parts and materials, while also facing limited human capital and labor productivity, Russian artillery and ammunition manufacturers will inevitably face not so much stagnation as production cuts in the foreseeable future. It is possible that in 2022-23 they will still be able to maintain the production rates reached in the previous years, but in the following years a decrease is inevitable.”

The war on Ukraine has weakened Russia's air force fleet, too: the country has lost between four and 17% of all its aircraft, including between three and 15% of its helicopters. "It will be difficult for the Russian industry to make up for the loss of the most high-tech aircraft, like the Su-57 fighter jets, but even at this point we only produce two of those a year. Even now, there are not enough of them in the air force to be used en masse," said the Russian military industry expert. "We build one or two bombers a year, not from scratch, but using the old Soviet reserves. In Soviet times, and even in the 1990s, the industry produced two to four Tu-160 bombers and 30 Tu-22M bombers per year. Right now, our military-industrial complex is not able to work with this speed and volume.” 

Will the intensified work of defense enterprises help recover those equipment losses?

Defense enterprises have already started working harder than usual, for instance increasing the number of worker shifts, according to the Russian military industry expert. "Initial information on the transition to the reinforced regime started to appear this summer. Now, after the announcement of partial mobilization, the transition to military mode is clearly happening: since defense enterprises are exempt [from mobilization], it means they are working harder. If people working in those factories, who potentially could have joined the army are told, 'No, better to let them work,' it means they are already practically working in wartime mode." 

Luzin has a different take: "[The military transition of the industry] is an unsolvable task for Russia. All this talk about the factories of the military-industrial complex working in three shifts — there's nothing of the sort. In order to work three shifts, you need people. You can divide the same number of people between several shifts, but that will not increase the number of people or the production capacity. And manufacturing defects are more likely to happen during night shifts."  

Even if the production capacity of defense enterprises were to increase, that wouldn't improve the quality of equipment, explained the Russian military industry expert. "We will be able to produce medium-tech weapons in large quantities," he said. “But we’re talking about combat systems from 20 years ago, not about the most advanced weapons systems."

Edited by Alesya Marohovskaya (if you have a story idea, you can reach her at alesya.marohovskaya@istories.media)

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