Russia has struggled to meet all of its top strategic goals in Ukraine, but the U.S. and its NATO allies may be on the verge of meeting one of theirs.
Estimates underscore the depth of damage to Russia’s military nearly five months into its invasion. The staggering number of casualties and the vehicles and equipment lost have left the Russian army severely degraded, even as it makes slow, grinding territorial gains in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
That doesn’t count the costs back home. Despite strong energy export revenue, the Russian economy may shrink by one-tenth this year, Russian banks, universities and sports teams are cut off from the international arena, and sanctions have led Western suppliers to cut off key commodities and Western retailers to shutter their Russian operations.
Crushing Moscow’s capacity to wage offensive war has been a central component of the West’s game plan since the early days of the conflict. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spelled out that strategy in April when he said flatly that NATO wants Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t launch another invasion in the foreseeable future.
Russians reacted furiously to Mr. Austin’s comment, and some Western observers felt he might have gone too far, but that was before the costs of the invasion came clearly into focus for the Kremlin.
Western officials aren’t celebrating, but they are zeroing in on the long-term damage to the Russian military machine each day the war drags on. Adm. Tony Radakin, the head of the British military, said over the weekend that Russia has sustained about 50,000 casualties and has lost roughly 1,700 tanks along with a significant number of other vehicles and equipment.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military leadership did not anticipate such widespread death and destruction. By most accounts, they expected a quick, easy victory with relatively little resistance or bloodshed when their forces crossed into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Instead, Russia may be sustaining permanent damage that will compromise its status as a major military player on the international stage.
“Russia is a more diminished nation than it was at the beginning of February,” Adm. Radakin said, according to British media outlets.
For President Biden, a weakened Russian military represents a big-picture geopolitical success, even as the U.S. and its allies face strains in the war.
It also opens the administration to criticism about its long-term plan for U.S. troop deployments in Europe and the Pacific. Some Republicans see little need to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank when Russia is so badly wounded.
“Why is Biden sending more troops, planes & ships to Europe instead of the Pacific?” Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, asked in a Twitter post this month after the White House announced plans to station additional U.S. troops in Europe.
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“Russia’s military is in no condition to invade anyone else right now and it’s China & North Korea who are threatening military aggression,” Mr. Rubio said.
Mr. Putin rejects the notion that Russia’s military is becoming a shell of its former self. The losses his country has sustained in Ukraine, he said Monday, won’t affect the country’s long-term trajectory or its spot as a global military powerhouse.
“It is clear that this is a huge challenge for our country, but … we are not going to give up and stay in a state of disarray or, as some of our well-wishers predict, go back decades. Of course not,” the Russian leader said during a video conference with government development officials.
The numbers suggest otherwise. The 50,000 figure cited by Adm. Radakin is difficult to confirm. If it is correct, then Moscow has lost nearly 6% of its active-duty military personnel in less than five months of combat against an opponent that, on paper, is much weaker. Although Russia has made some gains in southern and eastern Ukraine, progress has been slow and bloody.
The online clearinghouse Globalfirepower.com lists Russia’s active-duty force at about 850,000, with another 250,000 reserve forces and 250,000 in paramilitary groups such as the Wagner Group.
The paramilitary forces are now playing a much larger role in Ukraine, British military officials say, as Russia struggles to replenish its ranks and keep the pressure on the Ukrainian front lines in the Donbas.
In its battlefield update Monday, the British Ministry of Defense said Wagner Group security personnel have played an increasingly prominent part in Russia’s conquest of the Luhansk province, one of two provinces making up the Donbas. Still, the group’s involvement is another signal that Russia is having trouble supplying trained regular army troops for the mission, and that has come at a price.
“Wagner are lowering recruitment standards, hiring convicts and formerly blacklisted individuals,” British officials said in a Twitter post. “Very limited training is made available to new recruits. This will highly likely impact on the future operational effectiveness of the group and will reduce its value as a prop to the regular Russian forces.”
Indeed, Moscow has relied heavily on the Wagner Group and other paramilitary arms to do its bidding in Syria and other war zones. Serious damage to the group will dramatically limit the Kremlin’s ability to project power outside its borders without directly using its soldiers, which has become a hallmark of Mr. Putin’s approach to military and foreign policy over the past decade.
The Kremlin also is trying new tactics to boost the ranks of its enlisted force. Mr. Putin so far has stopped short of a full-scale draft, but specialists say Moscow is mounting a concerted push to find more troops to reinforce the Russian military in Ukraine.
“The Kremlin has decided on a two-pronged approach,” Paul Goble, a researcher with the Jamestown Foundation, wrote recently for the organization’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.
“On the one hand, it is radically expanding its efforts to recruit volunteers, mostly in rural areas far from Moscow; on the other, it is calling on the governments of Russia’s predominantly ethnic Russian regions and its non-Russian republics to form battalions that can be dispatched to Ukraine,” he wrote. “The first has not yet proved successful. And the second, now just beginning, is sparking as much concern as hope that it can produce what Moscow wants without issue.”
Although Mr. Putin’s power base is seen as largely unchallenged, the Kremlin appears fearful of a popular backlash if it resorts to a major civilian draft for what officials still call a “special military operation.”
Russia also appears to recognize the potential long-term ramifications of its war in Ukraine. Researchers with the Institute for the Study of War said Sunday that Russia’s Young Army Cadets National Movement has opened 500 more cadet classes and 1,000 junior army classes in Belgorod and other cities near the Ukraine border.
Children as young as 8 can enlist in such programs, but they won’t be eligible for combat for years. That suggests Russian officials realize they need a long-term plan to avoid a massive manpower shortage down the road.
Manpower is just one of Russia’s challenges. Although Russian military leaders have improved their battlefield tactics and limited the damage from Ukrainian drone and artillery strikes, the number of vehicles lost will likely take years to replace.
In addition to a massive number of tanks, Russia has lost at least 490 armored fighting vehicles, 953 infantry fighting vehicles, 127 armored personnel carriers, 90 command posts and communication stations, 65 surface-to-air missile systems and a host of other equipment, according to the military blog Oryx, which closely tracks Russian and Ukrainian losses.
Russia also has reportedly turned to Iran to replenish its fleet of drones after steep losses in Ukraine.
Such damage will likely impact Russia’s military capabilities, perhaps achieving one of the West’s key objectives.
On a visit to Kyiv alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken in April, Mr. Austin said he could see signs of a Russian “weakening” that could curtail Moscow’s ambitions for years.
Russia “has already lost a lot of military capability and a lot of its troops, quite frankly,” Mr. Austin said. “We want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.”
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at email@example.com.
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