Iron Cannot Fight: Putin’s Military Dilemma in Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 40

Remnants of a destroyed Russian tank on the outskirts of Kharkiv at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Sergey Bobok/AFP)

Four weeks into the largest war Russia has fought since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979), President Vladimir Putin faces an impending dilemma in military manpower and the attrition of hardware and equipment in Ukraine. According to a well-known Russian military proverb zhelezo ne voiuet (iron cannot fight): the successes achieved in combat by Ukraine’s Armed Forces in the face of Russia’s invasion illustrates its meaning. The nature of Putin’s impending dilemma stems from losses of military personnel and hardware, the war entering a protracted phase of attrition and ultimately, the question as to how long Russia’s conventional military can sustain such a conflict. He will either need to find a path to peace—even temporarily—or choose to escalate the war (see EDM, March 9).

Russia’s Armed Forces have badly executed planning for the invasion rooted in false political-military assumptions, which ran aground in the early days of the war. Pre-war preparations were hampered by underestimating Ukrainian military capabilities and level of willingness to resist the invading forces, as well as the secrecy surrounding the planned attack that left key personnel in the dark. Russia’s military debacle resulted from early mistakes, lack of applying high-technology capabilities in the initial period of war, absence of sustained efforts to degrade air defenses or disrupt command and control (C2), and miscalculations over logistical requirements. Consequently, Moscow has resorted to relentless bombardments of civilian infrastructure, most notably against Mariupol. If such “tactics” seem reminiscent of Russia’s conflicts in Chechnya or Syria, it is no coincidence: most senior officer commanders, including those at the level of Joint Strategic Command (Obyedinennyye Strategicheskoye Komandovanie—OSK) have combat experience from these wars (see EDM, March 9).

Are there credible follow-on forces at Russia’s disposal? This involves first understanding the scale of its current commitment. Second, sustaining the requisite manpower to rotate units in the field and replenish losses may be complicated by the impending spring draft of Russian conscripts. Finally, Russian hardware losses and the likely levels of loss in the coming weeks during a period of positional conflict raises questions on how long Moscow sees the window of opportunity to end the war by force (probably demanding massive escalation) or conclude a peace deal.

Ukrainian and Western reporting on Russian echelons has fixed on battalion tactical groups (BTGs). This is incorrect, as the concept of the BTGs formed in recent years (reaching a total of 168 in August 2021) is that they are fully manned by kontraktniki (contract personnel). This is the factual distinction between BTGs and battalions with attachments within the Russian Ground Forces, Airborne Forces (VDV) and Naval Infantry. Russian conscripts serving within some of these battalions fighting in Ukraine prove that not all of these formations are BTGs. Russian ground operations are being fought at brigade/regimental levels. It is unclear what level of follow-on forces Russia could yet deploy. Some of these battalion-sized units are not BTGs, suggesting that additional BTGs are being held back for possible later deployment.

One illustration of the echelons that the Russian military is using in Ukraine is confirmed by reference to a captured Russian officer’s map showing the Kherson-Mykolaiv direction on March 10 (Defense Express, March 21). The map is edited to conceal Ukrainian dispositions. It offers the following detail on Russian echelons:

  • 22 Army Corps: 126thCoastal Defense Brigade, 1096th Air Defense Regiment, 20th Motorized Rifle Division, 33rd Motorized Rifle Regiment, 255th Motorized Rifle Regiment, 944th Engineer Regiment, 358th Air Defense Regiment, 11th Air Assault Brigade (VDV), 439th MLRS Brigade, 291st Artillery Brigade, 20th Air Defense Regiment (Naval Infantry), 127th Reconnaissance Brigade, 25th Spetsnaz Brigade, 11th Engineer Brigade, 4th NBC Defense Regiment;
  • 49thCombined Arms Army: 1st BTG of the 205th Motorized Rifle Brigade, 2nd BTG of the 205th Motorized Rifle Brigade, 1st BTG of the 34th Motorized Rifle Brigade (Mountain), 2nd BTG of the 34th Motorized Rifle Brigade (Mountain), 1st BTG of the 108th Air Assault Brigade (VDV), 2nd BTG of the 108th Air Assault Brigade (VDV), 1st Rocket Brigade, (Iskander SS-26/SSC-7), 90th Air Defense Brigade, 227th Artillery Brigade, 66th Headquarters Brigade, 32nd Engineer Regiment, 17th NBC Defense Regiment, 512th Electronic Warfare Battalion, 10th Spetsnaz Brigade;
  • VDV Group: 7thAir Assault Division (VDV/Mountain), 1st BTG of the 56th Air Assault Regiment (VDV), 2nd BTG of the 56th Air Assault Regiment (VDV), 1st BTG of the 247th Air Assault Regiment (VDV), 2nd BTG of the 247th Air Assault Regiment (VDV), 1141st Artillery Regiment (VDV).

These indications of Russian military echelons, while most may not be fully manned, are important as they demonstrate that Moscow is not necessarily holding back superior follow-on forces.

However, coupled with the high level of combat losses for Russian military personnel and the presence of conscripts in their force mix, a significant issue for sustaining the war is the looming spring draft on April 1. It will take around four weeks before this begins to impact on war manpower challenges with fresh recruits arriving in garrisoned units. The conscripts serving in Ukraine will be compelled to sign contracts to keep them in their deployed units. The conscripts/kontrakniki ratios, the need for rotations and the requirement to replenish losses is likely to culminate in Moscow making hard choices in this area around early May. Finally, the reported level of losses for Russian military hardware also presents immense challenges. The latest Ukrainian published figures for Russian losses show the scale of the challenge: aircraft destroyed (97), tanks destroyed or captured (498), helicopters destroyed (121) (UNIAN, March 22). Moreover, the reduction in firing high-precision cruise missiles may suggest concerns about stocks. In short, the current level of loss experienced by the Russian military in terms of hardware and manpower raises questions about how long the Kremlin envisages sustaining the war.

If the Russian military has restricted options to deploy well-trained and professional follow-on forces or to resolve logistical and related sustainment issues, it is likely that Putin will have to choose to escalate in a non-conventional manner—chemical or biological weapons—or find a longer-term workaround to facilitate a much lengthier period to bombard civilian infrastructure and apply Chechnya/Syria style tactics. Both sides may well fight until mutual exhaustion. The international sanctions and the chelovecheskaya zatratnost (human cost) for Russian forces are not compelling Putin to end the war, but he faces increasingly difficult choices in the weeks ahead as he adjusts to the reality that “iron cannot fight.”