After a year of full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine, there is no evidence that the Kremlin has given up its original political aims, or even revised them. It still plans to destroy Ukraine’s statehood and eliminate its culture, and change the international rules that have governed the globe for almost 80 years to make the global order more convenient for Russia and its elite.
But even if its aims remain the same, the situation now facing Russia is much worse than it was on February 24, 2022, and there is no realistic prospect of making it better in the prevailing circumstances. In terms of politics and strategy, Russia has already lost the war and all its subsequent efforts to change that outcome through combat are merely the death throes of its ill-judged policy.
At the same time, it is necessary to remember two historical examples which demonstrate the paradoxes of war: firstly, in November 1918, Germany surrendered when its troops still occupied the territory of France and Belgium; secondly, the international coalition fighting ISIS, for all its organizational and technical superiority, took four years from 2014–2017 to win in Iraq and Syria. Put simply, we don’t know when and how Russia will finally be defeated or will decide to surrender. There are too many elements of uncertainty. All we know is that Ukraine’s resistance, aided by the West, must continue.
What will that mean? Most importantly, it means the Russian army will keep fighting and will grow in size. This may sound troubling, but the Russian armed forces are grappling with serious problems.
Since January 1, the formal strength of the Russian armed forces has increased from 1.014 million to 1.150 million personnel. That decision followed decades of reductions and despite clear organizational, economic, and even demographic restraints. In December 2022, Russia announced a further increase, to 1.5 million soldiers and officers by the end of 2026.
The Russian leadership is also seeking to increase the number of contracted soldiers (this number includes sergeants and NCOs.) The previous plan sought to raise this number to 500,000 in 2027 from 405,000 in 2020. The current plan seeks 695,000 contracted soldiers by the end of 2026 and 521,000 by the end of 2023.
The conscription system will remain, but the age range will become 21 to 30-year-old males from the current age of 18 to 27-year-olds. Also, any draftee will be allowed to choose contracted military service from the first day of conscription, regardless of his level of education. These measures should decrease the number of draft deferments (for instance, most Russian students currently get such deferments) and reduce the motivation to avoid conscription, and it should increase the number of those choosing at least two years of contracted service instead of one-year compulsory military service.
However, there are several fundamental restraints. Firstly, the younger generations in Russia are much smaller than even 15–20 years ago. There were about 12 million Russian men of conscription age in 2002 and 10.6 million men in 2010. In 2023, there are less than 7.2 million men. By 2030, the number will barely exceed 7 million. Given that the majority of officers, like the lower ranks, are also under 30, this means that more than 20% of young men must be in military service from 2026 onwards.
This might be possible for a democratic republican country with a market economy, developed private sector, and high level of civic solidarity in the face of essential external threats; and with a different form of military service, like Israel or Switzerland. But it looks wholly impossible within authoritarian and non-market Russia.
Secondly, the number of sergeants and junior officers in the Russian armed forces was insufficient even to command the number of soldiers in the approach to February 24, 2022. The war with all its losses and decreasing attractiveness of military service created a significant deficit of qualified commanders, something initially admitted by the Kremlin.
Thirdly, who will feed and supply the Russian armed forces if their strength increases so greatly? The country’s workforce decreased from 71.5 million in 2010 to 69.5 million in 2020. Even the military’s formal 1 million headcount on the eve of the full-scale invasion represented a heavy burden on the Russian taxpayer; any attempts to increase this number would destroy the fragile socioeconomic balance.
It’s worth noting, however, that what’s bad for the economy is good for the generals. Increasing military numbers — whether real or not — require new divisions and military districts, which translates into some dozens of new general officer positions. The Kremlin knows this. In effect, it is seeking to buy the loyalty of high-ranking officers by offering current colonels and lieutenant colonels improved career prospects. In addition, the exceptional defense budget of 2022-2023 will become the norm for the ministry of defense.
And yet, whatever the benefits for the defense establishment, it will be unable to overcome the military’s profound problems — its inability to process hundreds of thousands of well-motivated and well-trained soldiers, and tens of thousands of new and qualified sergeants and officers, onto the battlefield in the foreseeable future.
There are other serious problems for Russia’s war machine. The defense industry suffered multi-billion net losses in 2022 despite hugely increased arms procurement. It was also incapable of meeting all its arms contracts during the year (these are now supposed to be delivered by the end of February 2023.) Even official manufacturing indexes did not demonstrate that the defense industry has increased manufacturing output yet.
For instance, the index of “other vehicles” which includes aircraft manufacturing and shipbuilding was 87.1% (in units) compared to 2021. The index of “computers, optics and electronics” (in units) was 91.8%. The index of “electric equipment” (in units) was 94.2%. The only index which showed significant growth (only in rubles, not in units though) was “radars and navigation equipment” at 141.1%. Sure, these indexes do not distinguish between civil and military manufacturing, but they give the whole picture in sectors where state-owned defense holdings dominate.
This year, the Kremlin plans to increase arms manufacturing by using stored components made in recent years and previously earmarked for use in 2024–2025. Falling arms exports offer other options for extending arms supplies to the military. For instance, Russia’s arms exports in January–November 2022 were only $8bn, nowhere close to the 2021 level of $14.6bn. On the other hand, that should mean that defense factories have some spare capacity. Another option is reducing the number of national holidays, cancellation of vacations, and increasing working hours. For sure, this will not cover the losses of 2022, but it should maintain Russia’s combat capacity during the year and prevent it from further degradation.
None of this solves the fundamental underlying weaknesses of Russia’s position, but it does mean that it can continue to fight and that this is not the time for the United States and Ukraine’s other allies to stint in their support for the war. Russia could be defeated this year, but it can also be expected to make an all-out effort to press for ceasefire agreements, intimating that these are a forerunner to peace. The Kremlin’s only hope now is forcing Ukraine and the West to give it a temporary respite in the war. This break will not give Russia an opportunity to restore its military power to the level of a year ago (it has lost more than 9,000 vehicles and perhaps 200,000 men killed and wounded), but it would greatly strengthen the Kremlin’s position.
As Putin and his lieutenants know, any ceasefire without the liberation of all Ukrainian-occupied territories will stimulate a domestic political backlash in Ukraine, and a so-called “party of the stolen victory” will inevitably appear.
As it scans the horizon for relief, the Kremlin may hope for international troubles in other regions from the Balkans to the Middle East and the Asia Pacific region to ease the pressure through distraction from its bloody campaign.
But its key need is for a ceasefire. The Russian leadership seeks an opportunity to reorganize and refresh its military machine before renewing its assault on Ukraine in the coming years, a victory which it hopes would also destroy Transatlantic unity and Western global leadership.
Pavel Luzin, Ph.D. in international relations (IMEMO, 2012), is a visiting fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation with a focus on research of Russia’s foreign policy and defense, space policy, and global security issues. In 2017–2018, he was a consultant on armed forces, law enforcement agencies, and defense industry issues for Alexei Navalny’s presidential campaign.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.