Is Russia's army starting to stall out?

AP Photo/Andrii Marienko

I’ve been writing variations of this post since the first month of the war. “They can’t keep taking casualties at this rate! Their army’s going to break!” Almost six months later, the Russians are still slogging forward. Putin keeps scrounging for recruits and tossing them into the blender in Ukraine, keeping his military machine going.

But “going” is increasingly a figurative, not literal, term. There are signs lately that the Russians really have begun to scrape the bottom of the barrel to solve their manpower problem. Once that barrel is scraped, they’ll either need to bring in foreigners for reinforcements, like the Belarusian army, or Putin will need to grit his teeth and declare a draft. And the Kremlin is very nervous about public reaction to a draft. If it weren’t, it would have declared one months ago.

The surest sign that the Russian manpower problem is growing dire is that their offensive in the Donbas has all but ceased. It’s been about six weeks since their army took the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, giving Russia control of one of the Donbas’s two major provinces. With Luhansk in their pocket, the obvious next move was to take Donetsk and finish off the Ukrainians in the east. That’s turned out to be easier said than done. A few days ago the Times of London cited sources in Britain’s defense ministry who claim that some Russian forces have advanced as little as two miles in Donetsk over the past month. The most successful advance was a mere six miles. Yesterday Ben Wallace, the defense minister, insisted at a press conference that the Russian army had begun to “fail.”

How bad is it? Circumstantial evidence is circulating:

The Times has a story out today citing American sources who’ve arrived at a conclusion similar to Wallace’s, that Putin might not have enough men left in fighting condition to take Donetsk after all. The army isn’t “broken” in the sense that it’s about to disintegrate in the field but it may lack the legs to advance meaningfully anymore, at least in the near term. Either the Russians are going to fight a defensive campaign against a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the east and south or the two sides will end up in a stalemate if the Ukrainians prove unable to advance as well.

“I think it’s safe to suggest that the Russians have probably taken 70 or 80,000 casualties in less than six months,” Colin Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday, referring to deaths and injuries…

The result, Mr. Kahl said, is that “conditions in the east have essentially stabilized” and Russia has been forced to redeploy its forces to the south, as Ukraine intensifies a campaign to retake territory there…

“The Russian Army is seriously depleted,” said Seth G. Jones, the director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That has implications on their ability to fight an effective ground campaign in Ukraine.”

Jones thinks Russia doesn’t have the juice at this point to complete its conquest of the Donbas. Their offensive campaign may have culminated. Unless, that is, they can find some more recruits somewhere.

Which brings us to the “scraping the bottom of the barrel” part.

My first thought upon seeing that was that it might be Ukrainian propaganda aimed at amplifying the message that Russia’s army is composed of butchers and criminals. But it isn’t. CNN and the LA Times have also heard of Russia trying to find “volunteers” in its prisons. “They will accept murderers, but not rapists, pedophiles, extremists, or terrorists,” one prisoner told CNN. Supposedly recruits get a mere two weeks of training before deployment, no previous military experience required. One activist from a prisoner advocacy group suspects that prisoners are being used in the field as bait for the Ukrainians: They’re sent out ahead of regular Russian troops to draw enemy fire, exposing the Ukrainians’ position. Cannon fodder, almost literally.

One woman told the LA Times that her boyfriend was invited to become a volunteer but chose to continue serving his long sentence in prison when he heard that eight of the previous 11 volunteers didn’t come back from battle. KIAs aren’t Russia’s only problem either: “We’re seeing a huge outflow of people who want to leave the war zone — those who have been serving for a long time and those who have signed a contract just recently,” one legal aid group told the paper, describing the mood among Russian conscripts.

A former NATO commander claims that the manpower shortage has gotten so desperate that in some cases Russian units have tried to force captured Ukrainian POWs to fight on their side. When you replace experienced, reasonably well trained, reasonably fit soldiers with demoralized barely trained rabble — or even imprisoned enemy soldiers — your military isn’t going to run like a well oiled machine.

The only good news right now for Russia is that they still have an artillery advantage over the Ukrainians. They can’t advance but they can still make it hard for the Ukrainians to advance. Which is why the vaunted counteroffensive in Kherson, which aims to liberate the province, has already bogged down.

For weeks, Western intelligence and military analysts have predicted that a Ukrainian campaign to retake the strategic port city of Kherson and surrounding territory is imminent. But in trenches less than a mile from Russia’s positions in the area, Ukrainian soldiers hunker down from an escalating onslaught of artillery, with little ability to advance…

The progress Ukrainian forces had made here in recent months — recapturing a string of villages from Russia’s control — has largely stalled, with soldiers exposed in the open terrain…

[I]f Ukraine is to conduct a counteroffensive “the clock is ticking,” Mikhailov said. It’s going to be the muddy season by October, making military movements difficult.

The Ukrainians insist they’re simply waiting on the next shipment of weapons from the west and will begin moving with alacrity once that arrives, but the delays have allowed Russia to move men and equipment into the province in the meantime and to dig in. Maybe that’s what the Ukrainians want — there’s a theory out there that they’ve been baiting the Russians to pile into Kherson for a big encirclement — but if it turns out the Ukrainians can’t move forward due to Russian shelling and meanwhile the Russians can’t move forward because their army is out of gas, we’re looking at a long stalemate. At least until Russia runs out of shells.