Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 26 July 2023. © Richard Kemp
We learned this week that Russia has increased its upper age limits for reservist mobilisation from 45 to 55, and in some cases even as high as 70. Having sustained huge numbers of casualties in the last 17 months, shortage of fighting troops is also being tackled with plans to increase the age of compulsory conscription from 27 to 30, and laws to reduce the country’s perennial problem of draft dodging have been tightened.
All this shows that, despite the abject failure of its initial plans for the subjugation of Ukraine, the Kremlin is keen to give the appearance that it is not backing down. But it also reveals Moscow’s Achilles’ heel.
When the war began to go badly wrong for Russia, Putin unexpectedly needed many more men to feed his war machine, but was desperate to avoid general mobilisation for fear of backlash among the population. Even the partial mobilisation of 300,000 in September triggered sporadic protests in several cities and led to an exodus of nearly 400,000 young men frightened of being called up to fight. That number may now be considerably higher.
Historically, high casualty rates have created instability in Russia and the Soviet Union. Death tolls in the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War and the war in Afghanistan contributed respectively to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the fall of the USSR. Some of the other ingredients of such rebellions are also present today, including increasing economic hardship and an incompetent military leadership that has seen several Russian generals dismissed and even arrested.
Casualties foment discontent at home and among the already demoralised troops on the front line – as well as eroding Russian physical fighting power. High enemy attrition rates might therefore be more effective for Ukraine in turning this conflict round than re-taking territory, important though that also is.
Although a wide range of numbers have been bandied around, casualty figures on both sides in this war have been impossible for outside observers to assess in any reliable way. But, despite Kyiv’s claims, the likelihood is that attrition rates have not so far been in its favour.
That means they have to find more efficient ways of killing Russian soldiers, or delivering strategic victories which render numbers irrelevant (such as via large-scale encirclements) while preserving their own. Frontal attacks, fighting outnumbered and outgunned against heavily defended obstacle belts, are likely to have the opposite effect, which is why Kyiv has so far been holding back its most powerful armoured brigades.
The most prolific killer in this war is artillery. Here, Russia has superiority, perhaps 10-1, in guns, shells and missiles. The West, and in particular the US, has supplied Ukraine with enormous quantities, especially of 155mm shells, but with thousands fired every day, arsenals are running dry. The US has even shipped operational stocks held in Israel to Ukraine, and the recent decision to supply controversial cluster munitions is further indication of grave shortages. Western defence industry has been unable to keep up with demand, and it is essential that even greater investment is now made to dramatically increase production.
Air power too is essential. It is not going to be possible for Nato to train pilots and supply F-16s in time to influence the current counter-offensive, but we are facing a long-term war of attrition and President Biden needs to stop prevaricating and make sure the planes that Ukraine so badly needs are got to them as quickly as possible.
The same goes for ATACMS long-range missiles. Biden’s fear has always been, despite Ukrainian guarantees, that these weapons might be used to fire at sovereign Russian territory. But that among other targets – is what they should be used for. Western fears of escalation were once perhaps understandable, but many of Moscow’s supposed red lines have been crossed long since without consequences and this war is now at the stage where the gloves need to come off.
In the circumstances, it is militarily incomprehensible that Russia should be able to move and concentrate its forces to attack Ukraine with complete impunity. Domestically-manufactured Ukrainian drones targeting Moscow, as we saw again last night, and small-scale sorties across the border with irregular forces, are not sufficient. Wherever Russian troops are, Kyiv should be able to kill them, including with Western-supplied munitions.
Despite the West providing Ukraine with enough weapons to keep fighting so far, that will not be sufficient for the future. There has been too much drip-feeding and too little bold decision-making. Unless Ukraine receives far greater quantities of shells, as well as advanced weaponry, to maximise kill-rate against Russian forces, this could become a frozen conflict, which only plays into Putin’s hands.