Russia’s unbearable frontline burden
- August 25, 2023
- Jeffrey H. Michaels
Military institutions do not cope well with long-term, large-scale deployments, especially when they are contested by a determined and capable adversary inflicting heavy casualties. Russia is no different.
In war, patience is not a virtue. Whatever its strategic merits in theory, impatience is the guiding imperative in practice. There is little interest in going to war if it is expected to be a long one, and once war commences, prolonging the misery, even when it makes strategic sense to do so, is rarely looked upon favourably at the time. Defeat may be the worst outcome in war, but stalemate is a close second. No matter how unrealistic the expectations may be, the pressure for progress is a constant factor that cannot be wished away. In this sense, progress and stalemate are seemingly incompatible. Yet among the many paradoxes of war, forward movement can occur whilst standing still. Like a staring contest, one side will simply outlast the other.
Ukraine’s ongoing offensive is not going well. It may still achieve more visible progress, but the war will continue regardless. Even if Russian forces are pushed out of Ukraine completely, the state of war will likely remain. Ukraine will fight to regain control over its internationally recognised territory and Russia will continue to claim ownership of Ukrainian territory it doesn’t physically possess. It is conceivable that active hostilities will cease and the conflict will go into a semi- or deep freeze. There will be no illusions on either side that the conflict may be resumed at a later date and both sides will prepare for the next round. It is against this backdrop that expectations of an end to the Russian threat to Ukraine should be understood. For the Russian military, Ukraine will remain the top priority for many years to come, and their dispositions will reflect this.
All that is in the future. For now, Ukraine’s priority is simply to drive the Russians out. Acting on the presumption that this is possible, the key questions for the Ukrainian leadership are how this can be achieved, how quickly this can be achieved, and at what cost? The problem of cost is not simply a matter of how many Ukrainian lives will be lost. It is also about the costs imposed on Russia: how much pain can Russia tolerate before its forces leave or are physically ejected. To date, Russian losses have been horrific, at least by contemporary standards (more than 200,000 casualties according to some estimates). Nevertheless, the losses have not been sufficiently horrific for the Russian army to collapse, large segments of Russian society to come out in open protest, or for the Russian leadership to abandon its claims to Ukrainian territory.
Despite their much poorer quality, Russia has more soldiers serving in Ukraine now than it did at the start of its large-scale invasion. Unlike the Russian military of February 2022, the Russian military of 2023 is holding its own on the defence but is incapable of significant offensive operations, and so long as its forces remain pinned down along an enormous frontline, they will remain on the defence. Russia’s best units have been reduced to serving as local fire brigades, launching counterattacks to prevent any Ukrainian break-in turning into a breakthrough, and slowly getting chewed up in the process. This transformation from offensive military to a defensive one has occurred in a relatively short span of time. It was not planned, much less desired; it was a reaction to military failure, enormous battlefield losses, and an increasingly capable opponent. The Russian military system is still in the early stages of grappling with the longer-term implications of this transformation, albeit as with any conservative institution, a fair amount of denial and unwillingness to adapt to a new mindset is to be expected.
That said, much of the independent analysis of the war avoids serious reflection on the Russian military’s manpower and equipment requirements to sustain a defensive posture over the next few years, as well as how these needs will affect Russia’s ability to prosecute its war more generally. Instead, there is a tendency to focus on immediate topics, such as how Ukraine might break through Russia’s frontlines in the weeks and months ahead, or to marvel at some tactical innovation on one side or the other. An important consequence of this type of analysis is that it ignores the structural problem of how maintaining Russia’s frontline constitutes an enormous burden, and probably an unbearable one. It is this burden that may ultimately prove to be the more decisive factor provoking a Russian withdrawal rather than any territorial gains from a Ukrainian military offensive.
Four possibilities for the future direction of the war can be envisaged, each of which will affect, and be affected by, Russia’s frontline burden. First, Russian forces may advance further into Ukraine, but given their qualitative weakness, they are unlikely to push far beyond the current frontline. If they do, this will simply lead to new fortifications being constructed at a greater distance from Russia and across a wider frontage. Second, Ukraine may be unable to push the Russian forces back beyond their present positions. In this case, the present lines will remain fixed where they are today. Third, Ukraine may achieve a breakthrough in the current offensive or some future one, and Russian forces will be pushed further back, with a new defence line formed closer to Russia. Alternatively, Russia may, of its own accord, choose to pull back its forces to shorten their frontline. Fourth, Russian forces might return to Russia, probably due to an internal political or military collapse, or as part of some political settlement. They might also get kicked out. In this admittedly unlikely event, Russia would continue to station large units on its border with Ukraine, with the conflict continuing at a much-reduced level of intensity.
Prior to February 2022, it was widely assumed that Russia would defeat Ukraine’s military only to then get bogged down in a war of resistance. In other words, strategic defeat for Russia was probably inevitable. It would derive not from conventional opposition but rather from the need to sustain a large occupation force. Ukrainian rebels, supported by the West, would make life in Ukraine increasingly precarious for the Russian occupiers. This predicament, it was believed, might be sufficient to deter a Russian invasion, or at least to limit its scope. When the invasion occurred, and developed along very different lines, the basic problem of Russia sustaining a large force in Ukraine never went away. In fact, the problem was considerably worse given the greater resources being consumed in a high intensity war against a conventional adversary supplied by the West.
Military institutions do not cope well with long-term, large-scale deployments, particularly if they are contested by a determined and capable adversary inflicting heavy casualties. The problems of supplying a large force, rotating units, and finding replacements for the dead and wounded can be so overwhelming that the entire military system becomes a hostage to them, with strategic preferences increasingly subordinated to administrative realities, so that sustaining the war takes on a dynamic of its own. As much as Russia’s leaders may wish to reconstitute a large offensive force to reclaim the territory it previously held, much less try to capture Kyiv, the resources needed to sustain its present frontline forces leave little left over for anything else. And even if such future Russian gains were conceivable, there is no political settlement that would allow Russia to confidently reduce its military footprint in Ukraine thereafter.
To the extent Russia has conducted offensive operations during the last year, these have been relatively limited in scale and, unsurprisingly, have achieved little success. Russia’s current defensive requirements include generating sufficient frontline troops to man its roughly 1,000 km fortified lines in Ukraine, as well as to have additional forces available to counter a Ukrainian advance into Russian territory, as has already occurred on a small scale near Belgorod. The more Russia’s lines can be stretched, the greater the resources will be needed to sustain these lines. This presents a basic dilemma for Russia’s military leadership. Giving up territory to reduce the burden may be militarily prudent but politically unacceptable. On the other hand, taking additional territory may be politically desirable but militarily imprudent. Staying put is probably the preferred short-term option because it delays the inevitable.
Unfortunately, stalemate is also problematic, hence the desire to find ways to break it. A military stalemate can be tolerated if there is some expectation it will be broken at some point and with a subsequent victory to look forward to. It may also be tolerated so long as the consequences of defeat appear more ominous. Stalemate becomes intolerable when its costs outweigh any conceivable benefits. Perhaps for the next few years Russia can somehow get away with mobilising large numbers of its citizens to wage a war with high casualties and no prospect of a meaningful victory. Yet finding willing (and not so willing) bodies is only part of the problem. If the training, equipment, leadership and logistics deemed essential to constitute a viable military force are absent, then large-scale mobilisation has limited utility.
Some observers, perhaps recalling the country’s reputation in previous twentieth-century wars, believe Russia has an inexhaustible supply of manpower, or at least a sufficient reserve to indefinitely keep up and potentially expand the size of its current Ukraine deployments. There are good reasons to be sceptical of this. If it were so simple then why it is that when it comes to demanding sacrifices from its population, Russia’s leadership has been fairly cautious. After hesitating for months, it achieved one round of ‘partial mobilisation’ of several hundred thousand reservists. By most accounts, it achieved this with minimal political consequences. But what about the next round, and the one after that, and the one after that? For every year of conflict, more rounds of mobilisation will be necessary simply to maintain Russia’s present posture. At some point, this system is bound to break down, and even more speedily as casualties mount and supplies run out. Already in Russia, optimism has given way to pessimism, with one high-profile instance of open revolt, and possibly more to come.
What will happen if Ukraine’s ongoing offensive fails to make much progress? A brief spike in Russian morale is not inconceivable, but this will quickly recede as the day-to-day agony of a protracted war returns. The earliest ‘salvation’ Russia can look forward to is the US presidential election in November 2024. Should that go Russia’s way, Western backing for Ukraine may change, but the war itself will almost certainly continue at a lesser intensity. Should the US election not go Russia’s way, the dynamics of the war will probably remain more or less the same as today, with the Kremlin under greater domestic pressure to pull back. Meanwhile, Russia’s military system will be forced to adhere to the Soviet propaganda motto from the Great Patriotic War: ‘Everything for the front’, but with a slight twist. Unlike the Red Army, able as they were to divert sufficient resources to simultaneously sustain their frontline defensive forces as well as build up large offensive forces in the rear, the Russian military today and for the foreseeable future will enjoy no such luxury as the frontline will consume everything.