Russia’s Shortfalls Create an Opportunity for Ukraine, Western Officials Say
WASHINGTON — In the early phase of the war in Ukraine, shortages of soldiers and problems with equipment forced Russia to narrow its mission, abandon its assault on Kyiv and focus its offensive on the east.
Now, as the fighting enters its sixth month, critical manpower and equipment problems could again slow Russian operations and give Ukraine’s counteroffensive a better chance to succeed, U.S. and European officials said.
The signs of Russia’s challenges abound: artillery shells missing their targets, intercepts of Russian soldiers complaining they have been given old tanks and a sharply rising death and injury toll in its military ranks.
But unlike earlier in the war, it could become harder for Russia to reset its strategy and recover, at least in the short term.
U.S. and European officials say few powers have conquered a country and destroyed an opposing army with a mostly volunteer force, as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is attempting to do. But Mr. Putin has shown no indications that he wants any sort of full-scale draft, which would amount to an admission to his country that the fight in Ukraine will be a long war, not a short operation.
Russia has announced, and the West has predicted, various pauses in the war. After the fall of the city of Lysychansk last month, for example, Russian commanders said their forces would pause and reset, but artillery attacks continued.
This time, NATO and other officials say the reality on the ground should force the Russian military to slow its operations to reinforce depleted units, better protect its supply lines and move in new equipment. These officials concede it is possible that Mr. Putin could override the advice of his officers and order the drive in the east to continue through the summer. For all of Russia’s equipment and manpower issues, high energy prices mean Moscow is making enough money to fund its military.
The expected Russian pause comes after the bloodiest phase of the war for both sides. Ukraine and Russia have lost thousands of soldiers, including some of their best and most experienced frontline troops, during the last weeks of a grinding artillery battle that destroyed cities and towns in the path of Moscow’s army.
The Russian shortfalls have created an opportunity for the Ukrainian army, driving their decision to launch a counteroffensive, said senior U.S. military officials and American lawmakers who have visited Ukraine recently. More Ukrainian offenses, most likely in the south, are likely in the coming weeks, these officials said.
“The Russians are exhausted, and you don’t want to give them time to regroup and rest,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee who visited Ukraine last month with a small group of lawmakers. “I understand the desire to strike when they’re tired.”
Russia has committed nearly 85 percent of its fielded army to the fight in Ukraine, drawing on troops from the country’s far east and deployments around the world, a senior Defense Department official said recently. The Russian military, European officials said, has been hard-pressed to bring reservists and new recruits into the fight.
Estimates of how many Russian soldiers have been killed range from 15,000 to more than 20,000, with thousands more injured or missing. Even taking the conservative number, according to U.S. and allied intelligence officials, Russia has lost more soldiers this year than the Soviet Union lost in nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan.
In its search for recruits, Russia has had to lower its standards, Western intelligence officials said. Mr. Putin signed a law eliminating the age limit for Russians to sign their first contract to join the military. Western officials also said they have assessed that the Russian military is lowering health and fitness standards and giving waivers to people with criminal records to join.
Russia has tried to make up some of its manpower shortages using mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military force with ties to Mr. Putin. American intelligence reports have said that while mercenaries could make a difference in specific battles, there are not enough of them to make a strategic difference in the larger war, according to officials briefed on the assessments.
American officials said Russia’s biggest problem is Mr. Putin’s unwillingness to announce a wider draft. So far, the Russian military has been unable to recruit enough men fast enough to make up for the soldiers killed and wounded in action.
Even if Russia decided to press more reservists and conscripts into service, Western intelligence officials say Mr. Putin would face a severe bottleneck. The Russian military has already deployed many officers and instructors who would train conscripts or reservists to the front lines, a decision one Western intelligence official compared to eating the seed corn. Russia delayed its spring draft by two months, a sign it could not train those who were willing to serve, the Western officials said.
While not as acute as its manpower shortage, Russian equipment problems are significant. Russian forces, for example, have had to replace newer, more modern tanks with older versions. By some intelligence estimates, Russia has lost a third of its tanks. As it uses up stocks of precision-guided missiles, Russia has relied on artillery systems. But Ukraine’s use of sophisticated weaponry has forced Russia to push them back from the front lines, diminishing their effectiveness.
Russia has a huge supply of artillery shells, the prime munition it is using in this stage of the war, American officials said. But even with those there are problems, according to Western intelligence officials. Many are aging and were stored in poor conditions, reducing their effectiveness by making their fuses unreliable.
U.S. and European export controls have effectively put pressure on Russian arms manufacturers, at least temporarily, forcing them to slow or halt production of high-end guided and other advanced munitions. The shortage has forced Russians to be judicious in their targeting — one reason the military has limited its attempts to strike moving convoys and instead focused on stationary targets like Ukrainian warehouses.
In recent weeks, Russia has been using an antiaircraft system, the S-300, to strike ground targets near thecity of Mykolaiv, a sign, Ukrainian officials said, that Russia lacks missiles better suited for such attacks.
Senior U.S. military officers said the Russian shortages in manpower, weapons and munitions are already playing out on the battlefield. New Ukrainian tactics — enabled by Western equipment — have also effectively curbed the number of shells available at any time to Russian frontline troops.
Ukrainian soldiers have used American-supplied weapons like the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, to destroy dozens of Russian command posts, air defense sites and ammunition depots, disrupting the flow of munitions to frontline Russian forces.
Brig. Christopher King, the top British officer at a military cell in Stuttgart, Germany, that is coordinating the flow of donated Western arms and ammunition into Ukraine, said the HIMARS and other rocket artillery have allowed the Ukrainians to slow the Russians’ “ability to supply themselves, which is exactly why we provided that to them.”
Ukrainian artillery and tanks, of course, have also been destroyed. And a senior Ukrainian military official said like the Russian miliary, Ukraine had lost some of its best officers and soldiers in the first months of the conflict. But, the official added, Kyiv had far more officers with years of frontline fighting experience, which proved decisive in the first phase of the war.
American and Western intelligence assessments lend credence to the idea that the next weeks or months will be critical for Ukraine. Even if Russian forces cannot be pushed back significantly, a strong counteroffensive could increase confidence among Ukraine’s allies.
American and British officials said Ukrainian officials have said they understand they have a limited amount of time to take advantage of Russia’s apparent weakness.
Representative Michael Waltz, Republican of Florida, who was part of the congressional delegation to Kyiv, said the United States should send more rocket artillery and other advanced weaponry to Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky told the members of Congress that if Mr. Putin locks in the current front lines, Ukraine will struggle to remain a viable state.
“Zelensky believes the Russians are in a moment of weakness while they regroup to keep grinding forward before winter,” Mr. Waltz said.
Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting from Odesa, Ukraine. Anton Troianovski also contributed reporting.