Ukraine Quagmire May Push Putin to Adopt Policy He Fears: Conscription

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense estimates that it has killed or wounded nearly 30,000 enemy troops since the start of Russia's full scale invasion on February 24 (Russia says it has lost only 1,500 soldiers). While casualty estimates vary depending on the source and are difficult to verify, Ukraine's estimate is consistent with numerous reports that the Russian army is suffering from a manpower shortage, particularly at the level of infantry foot soldiers.

Yet despite this deficit of available frontline fighters, the Kremlin leadership has chosen to change its military tactics rather than to take the politically risky step of announcing a general mobilization.

Independent opinion polling released by Levada Center on May 18 showed that 74% of Russians "personally support the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine." However, tacit approval of the Kremlin's international aggression does not necessarily translate into a willingness among ordinary Russians to don a uniform and commit aggressive acts themselves.

Dr. Greg Yudin, a professor of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, said the Kremlin is acutely aware of this shallowness in public support.

"A serious mobilization would of course require involving groups within society that do not have a clear motivation to go and fight in Ukraine," Yudin told Newsweek. "That's why the Kremlin prefers to keep things in a kind of gray zone in which there is fighting, but no official declaration of war or mass call-up of reserves."

In recent weeks, Saint Petersburg blogger Alexander Krechetov has set about exploring the lack of depth in support for the Ukraine war through a novel approach to "man on the street" interviews.

He approaches men on the street and asks, "Are you a patriot?" Those who answer "yes" are then asked about their willingness to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the country. Respondents who demonstrate a verbal willingness to fight and die are offered the opportunity to add their name and contact information to a "patriotic list of those who will be called up first in the event of a general mobilization."

While several of Krechetov's respondents signed the paper, a notable subset refused to take even this insignificant step. In these interactions, men who moments before were expressing a willingness "to die as our grandfathers did" began making excuses such as, "I don't want to," and "no, that's silly."

While Krechetov's interactions were almost exclusively with members of the urban middle class and his methods are notably unscientific, he argues that his work raises questions about "what the patriotic reaction of society would be in the event of a full mobilization."

Destroyed Russian Military Hardware in Kyiv
People look at the remains of Russian equipment displayed at Saint Michael’s Square on May 23, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. In addition to its personnel losses, Russia has also lost substantial amounts of military equipment since the start of its invasion on February 24. VALENTYNA POLISHCHUK/TRK LUX/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Rather than demanding that the whole of Russian society share equally in the burdens of the Kremlin's self-styled "special military operation," the Russian leadership has attempted to alleviate its military manpower shortage without taking steps that might destabilize the domestic political balance.

Even in the early stages of the invasion, Russian forces depended on Donbas militias, Chechen battalions, Rosgvardia national guard troops, and even riot policemen to fulfill the on-the-ground roles usually reserved for regular infantry soldiers. Yet even as these substitute forces have been depleted, Russia's domestic mobilization efforts have focused exclusively on those elements in Russian society least likely to resist being sent to fight in Ukraine.

"In Moscow and other large cities, people have other plans for life," Yudin explained. "It's different in areas where the only things to do are to go fight or to work in the prison."

"Putin doesn't connect up with people who have resources," he said. "He takes people who have motivation to go or who lack the resources to resist being sent: poor people, people without rights, helpless people, those who do not know how to defend themselves or to say 'no.'"

"These are not the most capable people," Yudin added, "but there are a lot of them in Russia, and they will still present a challenge for the Ukrainian army."

The Russian way of war is very simple: first our reconnaissance finds the enemy, then we subject them to a nightmare of artillery, then reconnaissance checks to see if anything is still moving, then we send in airpower, and if there's anything left after that, the ground forces move in and clean it out.
Russian military expert Vladislav Shurygin

From a military standpoint, this less-than-total mobilization of the country's resources may limit the scope of offensive operations available to the Russian army, but analysts in Moscow remain confident that a war of attrition fought mainly with contract soldiers still favors the Russian side.

"The question of mobilization only needs to be raised when the situation has gotten out of control, and at the moment, Russia is still in total control of this conflict," Russian military expert Vladislav Shurygin told Newsweek.

"The operation might not be moving forward as quickly as was hoped for at the beginning," Shurygin said, "but we are no longer taking the kinds of personnel losses that would require us to bring in masses of new people."

After suffering heavy casualties in the opening weeks of its invasion, Russia has begun conserving the lives of its soldiers by adopting tactics that depend more upon artillery assault than on fighting block-by-block urban warfare.

"In March, we tried to execute the type of operation that the Americans carried out in Iraq in 2003," Shurygin explained.

But the Russians have changed their tactics.

"We have adapted," he said. "The Russian way of war is very simple: first our reconnaissance finds the enemy, then we subject them to a nightmare of artillery, then reconnaissance checks to see if anything is still moving, then we send in airpower, and if there's anything left after that, the ground forces move in and clean it out. That's the method we're using now. No one is going to be sent forward to be ambushed. We are conserving our own manpower while the Ukrainian army exhausts itself."

Western observers are less confident about the prospects of Russian success than observers in Moscow profess to be. Still, it remains at least possible that Russia's reliance on contract soldiers and heavy artillery will ultimately be enough to force a Ukrainian surrender, even without the declaration of a society-wide mobilization.

"I think both sides are starting to have significant issues in certain areas with manpower, equipment, and supplies," independent open source analyst Henry Schlottman told Newsweek. "Russia, broadly speaking, appears to be having issues deploying enough trained infantry, particularly in motorized rifle units. Fire support can overcome some of this, but resulting advances have been very slow and Russia wants to keep losses down."

On the Ukrainian side, lack of equipment continues to be the biggest challenge.

"They probably have more manpower theoretically available, but the question is, 'How well trained this manpower is, and do they have enough military equipment available to outfit these newly forming units?'" he said.

Despite Ukraine's valiant defensive efforts thus far, the ultimate outcome of the war remains in question.

"At some point, one side or the other will be unable to sustain a high-intensity conflict because of these factors," Schlottman said. "At that point there will either be a military collapse, a negotiated settlement, or a de-escalation into something like a frozen conflict, as happened previously between Russia and Ukraine."

If the decisions of the Kremlin leadership up to this point in the conflict are any indication, Vladimir Putin is more confident in his manpower-scarce army's ability to grind out a victory in a war of attrition than he is in Russian society's willingness to play a direct role in that fight.