New Limits to Russian Conventional Power

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 32

(Source: Emerging Europe)

The Ukrainian General Staff claims more than 12,000 Russian personnel have already perished in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s re-invasion of Ukraine (, March 9). Prior to the attack, the United States government stated that Russia had massed between 169,000 and 190,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders (, February 18). In some cases, Russian forces moved more than 6,000 kilometers from the Eastern Military District to Belarus for the Soyuznaya Reshimost (Allied Resolve) 2022 exercise (Altyn, January 30). Ukrainian news outlets have documented Russian units from all five military districts and every service but the Strategic Rocket Forces active on or over their territory in the campaign so far. As of March 7, a US defense official asserted that Russia had now committed to the invasion “nearly 100 percent” of the “combat power” that had been amassed along the border with Ukraine and in Belarus (Kyiv Independent, March 7), raising the question of how much Russian conventional power Russia retains elsewhere for other contingencies or for further escalation in Ukraine.

In purely numerical terms, the recently released (2022) issue of The Military Balance, from the International Institute of Strategic Studies, numbers the Russian Armed Forces personnel at 900,000, 80,000 of which are “Strategic Deterrent Forces.” This suggests that if the US figures from before the invasion are accurate, roughly 20–23 percent of all Russian conventional force personnel were deployed to Putin’s war. If the Ukrainian casualty figures are accurate, approximately 6–7 percent of that force (1.5 percent of all Russian conventional forces) are already casualties of this fight. In 2021, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that the Russian Armed Forces could field 168 battalion tactical Groups (BTG) (TASS, August 10, 2021). Though Russian forces in Ukraine have largely not been fighting as BTGs so far, more than 80 were claimed as having been massed around Ukraine in the weeks prior to the invasion (The Economist, February 16). These rather crude numbers suggest Russia has, to date, committed in the range of one-fifth of its manpower but one-half of its conventional combat capability to the invasion.

The fog of war makes it difficult to determine how accurate Ukraine’s claimed figures are or to gauge the degree of exhaustion of the Russian units committed to the invasion. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to conclude that Russia’s ability to use at least a ground-based conventional force elsewhere beyond Ukraine is remarkably weak at the moment. And it may remain so for some time, particularly if even more units are needed to accomplish the Kremlin’s war aims or—as seems quite likely—Ukraine proves a restive country to control either directly or by proxy.

Despite all these seeming difficulties, Russia retains at a minimum some one-third of its conventional combat capability and likely substantially more. In 2019, the Russian Armed Forces war-gamed the management of two simultaneous crisis situations, seemingly in anticipation of the simultaneous Tsentr (Center) and Shchit Soyuza (Union Shield) exercises that year (, March 28, 2019). This contingency may have been considered in January 2022, amidst the short deployment of Russian troops to Kazakhstan (RIA Novosti, January 19) but suggests a broader two-war contingency planning in Moscow. The curious relative absence of the Russian Aerospace Forces in the early days of the Russian re-invasion of Ukraine (, February 28) further suggests the withholding of Russian capabilities in anticipation that the conflict might escalate into an existential war with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), requiring a higher degree of preparation than presumably needed against Ukraine.

So what might remain of the Russian Armed Forces for other contingencies? A glance through Russian Ministry of Defense propaganda (, accessed March 9) shows Moscow reporting more exercises near home garrisons in 2022 (350) versus a comparable period in February–March 2021 (270). Indeed, only in the Western Military District is there a drop in claimed exercises (86 in 2021 versus 49 in 2022). The Southern Military District reporting increased from 46 to 72, the Eastern military District from 72 to 99, and the Central Military District more than doubled from 66 to 130 over the period February 16–March 9 in both years. These simple quantities may simply be inflated by reporting more tactical evolutions as propaganda incidents to create the façade of normality in the bureaucratic life of the Russian Armed Forces. However, the drop in exercises in the Western Military District can probably be reliably read as a relative depletion of capabilities in this strategic direction.

Extrapolating from the non-systematically reported trends observable in Ukrainian social media and Russian propaganda is, at best, a highly flawed methodology. Still, these two trends suggest a couple patterns about the deployments Russia made in the first wave of the invasion. First, more elite components of the Eastern Military District were apparently moved. Second, the movements from the Central Military District seem to be primarily from the Ground Forces. Third, the Southern Military District’s 49th Army evidently contributed nothing to the build-up; but the 8th Guards Army was position on the Donbas border, and the 58th Army from the North Caucasus was deployed to Crimea. Fourth, the Western Military District reshuffled its forces, moving the relatively light 6th Army, opposite the Baltic States, south to the Ukrainian border.

Collectively, this suggests Russia feels relatively secure in the Far East and North Caucasus as well as in the Baltic, at least in the land domain. But additional support from the Eastern Military District for the invasion of Ukraine seems unlikely. By contrast, ongoing concerns from the instability in Afghanistan and across Central Asia after the riots in Kazakhstan have obliged Moscow to retain Airborne Troops capabilities in the Central Military District. Fears of horizontal escalation to the Russian Black Sea coast in Krasnodar Krai appear also to have fixed the 49th Army in place. These broad trends aside, it is difficult to judge how much of the remaining forces in units already partially deployed into Ukraine remain. Use of conscripts and the seeming scarcity of modern Russian equipment in social media coverage of Russian losses only suggest (rather than prove) that the engaged formations still possess higher readiness, higher capability units held back in reserve that can be switched from anticipating a NATO escalation to joining the fight in Ukraine.

The war Putin launched on February 24, 2022, is still in its early days. The Ukrainian Armed Forces outperformed initial Russian expectations, and so a considerable reconfiguration of the Russian operational plan looks imminently necessary. Nonetheless, it is far too early to write off the Russian Armed Forces’ ability to achieve their military objectives. Whether Putin’s regime can achieve its political objectives before the substantial Russian conventional capabilities are exhausted is a fundamentally different question.