With Russia massing its troops in Eastern Ukraine for a major offensive to take the entire Donbas region (or maybe stupidly drive into central Ukraine), there is increased chatter about the state of Russian forces. Specifically, what do they even have left to send there, and in what condition? And even if they amass all that combat power, would they even be able to coordinate a massive all-out offensive? In short, I’ve identified the five following key problems bedeviling Russia today.
- Russia was undermanned even before the war began
- Russia has suffered grievous losses
- Some of those shredded units are being recommitted to the Donbas front too quickly, and without proper rest or reinforcement
- Russia is out of experienced troops
- Russia can’t attack with massive force
So I’ll try to concisely explain each one of those issues, since that’ll be foundational to the events that take place in the weeks ahead.
The Russian Battalion Tactical Group (BTG)
The BTG is Russia’s basic combat maneuver unit. On paper, it has anywhere between 600 to 1,000 soldiers, so it’s usually rounded out to 800. A BTG is supposed to have 10 tanks and 40 infantry fighting vehicles (IFV). Three BTGs make up a regiment (which has additional resources, like artillery). Of the 800 soldiers, only 200 are infantry, and according to a U.S. Army analysis, “as many as 50 percent of infantry soldiers can be required for local security and routine administrative tasks. This leaves relatively few infantrymen available for mounted squads.” As I’ve repeatedly written, the bulk of soldiers in an army are in support roles, and don’t fire or shoot anything.
Russia undermanned their BTGs, even before the war began
U.S. intelligence estimated that Russia had 120 BTGs at the start of the war. That means 1,200 tanks, 4,800 infantry fighting vehicles, and 96,000 troops. The other ~100,000 Russian troops massed in the area were likely additional support units, combat aviation, engineering detachments, etc. Note that some estimated Russian strength up to 130 BTGs, so it’s not a precise count.
Thing is, we’re not even sure that many BTGs deployed. Turns out that the BTG system was a fantastic vehicle for corruption and graft. A regiment commander could keep one of his three BTGs fully operational for deployments like Syria or to squash a rebellion in Kazakhstan. The other two could be pilfered from the top, for Italian villas and super yachts, in the middle for a country dacha, to the lowliest supply officer, for vodka. Just a few checkmarks on a spreadsheet, and no one would ever need to know. That’s what Russia’s nukes were for—to make sure they never had to fight a real war!
Furthermore, a big part of a pre-war BTG infantry was conscripts doing their one-year-and-out. While we know that many ended up deploying to Ukraine, contrary to Russian law, apparently many did not. Makes sense that various units across such a vast country would handle the situation unevenly.
So there’s a good chance that up to a third fewer BTGs ended up in Ukraine than those original estimates of 120-130, and the ones that did go in were undermanned and under-equipped.
Russia has suffered grievous losses
Ukraine claims 20,000 Russian dead. Last I saw, Western estimates were around 60,000 dead or wounded and out of the fight—a frighteningly high number. Russia obviously won’t release any numbers, not even bullshit ones, though Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson admitted that “[w]e have significant losses of troops and it's a huge tragedy for us."
The BBC reported that “the number of Russian battalion tactical groups (700-1k soldiers each) rendered combat ineffective in the Ukraine war so far has been reassessed at 37-38 according to a western official, leaving 90 operational.” Meanwhile, the Pentagon is saying that “Russia has more than 60 battalion tactical groups currently inside of Ukraine” and another 20 are “regrouping” in Russia and Belarus. Okay, so between 80-90 are left.
However, get this: All it takes for a BTG to become combat ineffective is a loss of 30% of its armor. According to the Oryx database of visually confirmed Russian losses, Russia has lost 475 tanks—the equivalent of entirely wiping out the tanks of 47 or 48 BTGs! And remember, a BTG only has to lose three tanks to be rendered combat ineffective. So presumably, even more BTGs are affected.
Likewise with infantry. Assuming the BTG’s entire 200-man infantry contingent is deployed (which the U.S. Army says doesn’t happen, but let’s assume a desperate Russia is pushing everyone to the front), only 60 need to be killed before the BTG is combat ineffective. So if 60,000 Russians soldiers are out of the war … you can see how that would affect far more BTGs than 37 or 38.
So how does this square with Western estimates? It seems clear that even more BTGs have been knocked out of the war, though it’s very plausible that reinforcements have arrived, others have been combined, bringing the number of available BTGs back up to 80-90.
But given that Russia only had around 170 BTGs in their entire armed forces to start with (assuming that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu wasn’t lying or exaggerating), they don’t have a limitless supply.
Some of the those shredded units are being recommitted to the Donbas front too quickly, and without proper rest or reinforcement
Lots of news like this the last two weeks:
Radio Svoboda published images of a document on April 10 that it reported was issued by the Russian Ministry of Defense on April 2 offering specific bonuses for Russian troops in Ukraine. The document specifies large payments including 300,000 rubles [$3,600 at the official rate] for destroying a fixed-wing aircraft, 200,000 for destroying a helicopter, and 50,000 for armored vehicles and artillery. Radio Svoboda stated the payments are intended to coerce units withdrawn from the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions to reenter combat. We have previously reported several instances of Russian soldiers refusing orders to return to Ukraine after being pulled back.
Russian troops around Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions got absolutely mauled. They just lost a battle, saw unspeakable things, committed unspeakable things, and want nothing more to do than get their war loot and themselves back home. There are ample stories of desertion and mutiny, and while they are usually sourced to Ukrainian intelligence (which are listening in on cell phone calls and other unencrypted communications), stories like the one above lend supporting credence. (That’s a big part of trying to see through the fog of war, finding corroborating evidence for such assertions.)
But even if such reports were not true, you just can’t take a broken, traumatized unit, and send them to a new front in the span of a couple of weeks. You can’t take two broken units, smush them together, and call it an operational unit. Training matters—even the most talented musicians need to practice their symphony before performing before an audience, and they don’t have to worry about dying if they get a note wrong.
Russia is out of experienced troops
Western intelligence estimates that Russia still has 80 to 90 of its BTGs available, and the U.S. estimates 60 of them are in the country. However, the U.S. also says that only 20 BTGs are currently in the Donbas region. If you’re asking yourself, where the hell are the other 40 if Donbas is the main axis of attack, join the club! We know there are around six near Kherson in the south, and another six trying to take Mariupol. Beyond that, the math doesn’t add up. UA War Data, an open-source effort tracking all Russian units in Ukraine, has found around
40 51 BTGs in the country [see update below]. Doesn’t mean there aren’t more! Just that no one has found visual confirmation of their existence inside Ukraine. But if all that combat force is available near Donbas, you’d think that U.S. satellites would pick them up.
We also know that Russia is resorting to some extreme measures to maintain combat operations. There was this anecdote which I included in my morning update:
Three officers to crew an armored personnel carrier? Ludicrous. Three officers, none of them in the combat arms? Unfathomable. But it was clearly either that, or turn the vehicle over to poorly educated conscripts or other non-combat arms contract soldiers. They don’t have experienced crews left to operate their equipment.
We also saw Russia’s troop and equipment shortage in another anecdote I’ve previously discussed:
Click here if you want my full analysis of the implications of that ambush, but in short, it was a BTG-sized attack with a fraction of the vehicles that BTG was supposed to have. Indeed, it was combat ineffective the second it rolled out of its staging area to the front lines. Instead of 10 tanks and 40 IFVs like it’s supposed to have, it rolled out with around six tanks and 25 IFVs.
Now check this out:
I sat there and counted. It’s not gigantic. It’s a BTG. Except that instead of 40 IFVs, I counted 30 or so (the camera work isn’t always steady). No tanks, but let’s assume those are assembling elsewhere, otherwise this BTG is in even worse shape. Lots of supply cargo and fuel trucks—a reminder that most of the BTG’s manpower isn’t firing guns. But ultimately, it’s an undermanned BTG. On paper, it looks impressive. Driving along the road, it seems massive. But it’s already down 25% of its supposed IFV allotment.
Russia can’t fully man its BTGs, and what they do send out aren’t experienced contract soldiers who know what they’re doing. Is it any wonder that Ukraine has so far been able to chew them up?
Russia can’t attack with more than one or two BTGs at a time.
This is the big one. During this entire war, we haven’t seen Russia attack with more than two BTGs at a time. Maybe it’s happened! Fog of war and all. But we have no public evidence of it. All the way back on March 9, barely two weeks into the war, the analysts at the Institute for the Study of War were already doubting Russia’s ability to take Kyiv for this precise reason:
Individual Russian attacks at roughly regiment size reported on March 8 and March 9 may represent the scale of offensive operations Russian forces can likely conduct on this axis at any one time. The possibility of a larger and more coherent general attack either to encircle Kyiv or to assault it in the coming days remains possible, but the continued commitment of groups of two to five battalion tactical groups (BTGs) at a time makes such a large-scale general attack less likely.
They said two to five, but they were being generous. Two really seems to be the magic number.
I mean, think about it—they have four to six BTGs around Izyum, they’re stuck trying to push further south, and they can’t just roll that entire contingent south? Okay, maybe leave one BTG to hold Izyum, or better yet, park some separatist scrubs in some foxholes there. Regardless, they have a fair amount of combat power around the city, yet they rotate them so only one or two of them are on the offensive at any given time. As I noted earlier:
[W]e see it time and time again. The small, ineffective probes with little power, and no follow up elements to exploit any breakthroughs. Early in the war, observers thought these were “reconnaissance probes,” trying to suss out the location of defensive positions. Turns out, they were actual attacks, the most Russia could muster.
Thus, Ukraine continues to play rope-a-dope, letting the attacking BTG punch through, then slamming it from all sides. Nothing else is coming to its aid. And these attacks happen daily along this [Donbas front] line. Three such attacks yesterday, which was a relatively quiet day, seven on Friday, at least four on Thursday, seven on Wednesday, and so on. Imagine if Russia took those 20+ attacks, and combined them into one massive push? What a crazy idea! It would inevitably be far more effective! Instead, Ukraine continues to benefit from Russia’s rank incompetence
Ukraine gets to handle the drip-drip-drip of Russian attacks, because their enemy can’t open up the spigot. Everyone is expecting a massive Russian offensive in Donbas. No one should underestimate Russia, and NATO needs to hurry up with promised weapons shipments, while making new promises, daily. (That’s starting to happen now, but more urgency is needed.) Ukraine is obviously preparing for a worst-case scenario.
But do I think it’s going to happen? I’ve seen no evidence that Russia is capable of anything “massive’ other than killing civilians. They’ve got that down to a science. But taking and holding contested ground is a whole different skill set. And here’s hoping that they can't fix their issues—new supreme commander notwithstanding—given their severe equipment and personnel shortages.
Oh, and weather. Check out Izyum for the next week:
Don’t expect much territory to change hands this next week, but lots and lots of Ukrainian ambushes as Russia is forced to stay on easy-to-target roads.
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Putin purges one of his intelligence services, with the head sent to prison.
In an article for The Moscow Times, Soldatov suggested that it was possible Beseda was suspected of having passed information to the CIA.
Before taking over the Fifth Service, Beseda worked in counter-intelligence, a role that involved close liaison with the CIA station in Moscow. Were he to be a double agent, it would explain the Kremlin’s suspicions as to how US intelligence had been so accurate in the build-up to the invasion.
Soldatov said he did not believe Beseda was a double agent, but said it suited Putin’s purposes to suggest so.
“It’s good to be able to blame things on a traitor. It’s a very Russian thing to do,” he said.
55 from Kherson all the way to Luhansk in the northeast. That’s still a lot less than 90, and there’s nowhere else for Russia to stash forces, except a handful of BTGs around Kharkiv.
Schlottman runs the UA War Data site which I mention in the story.
Once again, just two BTGs.