krainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, along with top military and defense leaders and experts largely agree the much-vaunted counteroffensive that built up throughout the summer and fall failed to culminate in the strategic achievements that were hoped for. Now, Ukraine is struggling to maintain a supply of new soldiers to fight against Russia, which has a population three times that of Ukraine from which to draw its troops.
“When you take two grindstones, and one is significantly larger than the other, even if they wear each other down the same size, the larger one is going to win,” said George Barros, an analyst for the Institute for the Study of War.
“Moscow will be able to outspend Kyiv in almost every aspect, from military production to being able to sustain higher losses,” of men and equipment, Konrad Muzyka, director of the Poland-based Rochan Consulting firm tracking the war, told The Financial Times.
The torrent of Ukrainian men and women who poured into recruitment centers early in the war was driven by a zeal to defend the Ukrainian homeland, but has trickled down nearly two years into the war, the FT reported. Selective conscription was utilized since the beginning of the war, but even conscripts are now difficult to come by; the pool of available men is older, less skilled and less healthy.
The problem is “quality and capacity to command operations at scale,” Jack Watling, a senior fellow at the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute, told the FT.
“Our capacity to train reserves on our own territory is also limited,” Ukrainian commander in chief Gen. Valery Zaluzhny wrote in a Nov. 1 opinion article for the Economist. “We cannot easily spare soldiers who are deployed to the front, [and] Russia can strike training centers. And there are gaps in our legislation that allow citizens to evade their responsibilities.”
A BBC investigation in November found that 20,000 Ukrainian men managed to escape mobilization orders.
“The Ukrainian military has some 500,000 available warfighter manpower in uniform now — albeit the exact numbers are classified,” Can Kasapoğlu, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “The force-to-terrain and force-on-force ratios favor the Russian Federation with its 7 million military-aged male potential that can mobilize and conscript.”
Ukraine does not disclose troop strength or casualty numbers. Its initial army of 500,000 active duty, reserve and paramilitary troops is estimated to have grown up to one million including territorial defense, secret service and border guard forces, the FT reported, citing experts and local officials.
The New York Times reported U.S. officials estimated in August that Ukraine had lost nearly 200,000 fighters, with 70,000 killed and between 100,000 and 120,000 wounded. Russia’s military, despite weathering higher casualty rates, still dwarfs the Ukrainian army three to one.
Russia’s population can easily sustain a steady resupply of troops, although they have decreased in quality. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian army to recruit 170,000 more troops on Friday while avoiding conscription.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense estimated roughly 70,000 Russians were killed in action between February 2022 and November 2023 and between 220,000 and 280,000 wounded. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense has put the number of Russians killed and wounded at more than 300,000.
Now, Ukraine is scrambling for troops and taking steps to squeeze available manpower out of the population.
Officials have set up roadside checkpoints to catch people seeking to evade the draft. To expedite training, the military is experimenting with “placing newly mobilized and trained personnel in experienced frontline units to prepare them,” Zaluzhny told the outlet. The military is also advertising roles that don’t involve combat.
“From what I can see, there is a shortage of military personnel, sometimes a critical shortage. Besides, a variety of military positions require different skills – some require physical training, some require intellectual skills. Everybody has different skills,” Maj. Viktor Kysil, who was recently a recruiter for the “Khartiia” brigade, told CNN.
Ukraine realizes that the conscription model does not produce motivated, effective soldiers.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Natalia Kalmykova said the ministry hopes to phase out conscription when “enough” new soldiers have joined up involuntarily.
“We need to look for this solution, we need to find this gunpowder, quickly master it and use it for a speedy victory. Because sooner or later we are going to find that we simply don’t have enough people to fight,” Zaluzhny told the Economist.
“Ukrainians can’t rely on a strategy of attrition. They actually need a lot of equipment to be able to do maneuver warfare. They actually do need all the training and equipment necessary to operate the way you would expect a conventional, highly technologically sophisticated army to operate.”
Ukrainian troops were deep in the months-long battle to defend Bakhmut, a city in the east U.S. officials viewed as more symbolically than strategically important, when the counteroffensive finally began. Already Russian and Ukrainian troops were being rapidly consumed in the fight to maintain control of the city, now a vast landscape of rubble and bombed-out concrete buildings.
U.S. officials urged Ukraine to relinquish the city to Russia. The Kremlin seemed to have a never-ending supply of conscripts to feed into the Bakhmut grinder, making up for the disproportionate losses they took from Ukraine’s troops.
Officials said Western tanks would give Ukraine the tools it needs to improve maneuverability and force back Russian lines. They urged Ukraine to hinge operations on mechanized maneuver units.
Tactically, Ukraine emphasizes artillery as the principal method of doing combat damage, requiring a volume of fire much higher than that called for under U.S. military doctrine, Barros explained to the DCNF.
Initial operations of the summer counteroffensive progressed more slowly than Western defense officials and analysts expected as Ukraine’s forces struggled to penetrate dense minefields on the edges of Russian-occupied territory under fire. Despite U.S. training rotations of Ukrainian troops in complicated Western maneuvers using Western armor, Ukrainian commanders reverted back to building operations on artillery to spare troops from even more dangerous close-range combat.
“The underlying assumptions about what would be necessary for Ukraine’s success were invalidated,” Barros said of the disappointing counteroffensive.
In addition, introducing new and advanced capabilities throughout the course of the counteroffensive and as it was winding down also hamstrung Ukraine’s ability to plan and conduct operations, he added.
U.S. tanks didn’t reach the battlefield until September, and long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) have only been used in one known instance.
“The Ukrainians rightfully understand that the center of gravity for them, for the prospect of being able to come out of this alive, is the lifeblood that is Western military support,” Barros said. Manpower “is a limiting factor, but It’s not the limiting factor because the limiting factor is very clearly equipment,” he said.
The Ukrainian military referred to Zaluzhny’s description of what Ukraine needs for the fight. ✪