Russian servicemen near Kherson, Ukraine, May 20, 2022. Image: Screengrab / BBC

SEOUL – Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in a special televised address to his nation today (September 21), said that military reserves are to be called up to join the war in Ukraine. The call-up takes effect today.

In the wake of major Ukrainian battlefield successes in the northeast of the country, Putin – who told his citizens that the West is seeking to destroy Russia – has clearly chosen to double down rather than scale back.

Even so, his frank, somber and alarmist announcement is both a political about-face and an acknowledgment of the gravity of the situation facing Russian arms in this still-undeclared war.

The war – or “special military operation” in Kremlin parlance – is not just grave. It has proven very, very bloody. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu today admitted that Russian dead in the war so far come to just under 6,000. However, he did not give a figure for total casualties.

Calculations by Asia Times of typical dead-to-wounded ratios indicate that the total losses Russia has suffered – i.e. both killed and injuries – range anywhere from 66,000 to a staggering 107,000, in just seven months of fighting.

The typical ratio of those wounded to those killed in conflict has historically hovered around the 3:1 mark. With recent medical advances, however, advanced militaries’ wounded-to-killed ratio today ranges anywhere from 10:1 to 17:1.

This hefty blood price may explain why Putin is doubling down on his risk. And the upcoming combat escalation that the reserve stand-up represents is a dire pointer to the future.

The deployment of as many as 300,000 reservists – the figure given by Shoigu – is a far, far larger force than the Russian Army has so far fielded in Ukraine, likely less than 200,000. And this fresh Russian force will counter as many as half a million troops Kiev is mustering to throw into the fight.

Maneuver operations will soon by halted by the autumn rains, giving both sides breathing space to train and stand up large numbers of troops. That points to a massive showdown when ground frosts usher in the winter campaign season.

This combination of factors means that absent any urgent peace initiative that can be delivered through the narrow window of the imminent rasputitsa (“the time without roads”), both the scope and intensity of the war – already Europe’s biggest, bloodiest and riskiest conflict since 1945 – is set to scale up.

A Russian soldier takes aim along the Ukrainian border. Photo: Facebook

A return to the colors

Thus far, Russia has deployed only professional soldiers – kontraktniki – in Ukraine, rather than its full, 850,000-strong armed forces, which is manned by both professionals and conscripts.

Numerical estimates of the Russian expeditionary force in Ukraine range between 100,000 to 190,000 strong, though it has been bolstered by units from the breakaway Donbas republics, and more recently, volunteer units.

The deployment of conscripts is widely seen as a major political risk for the Kremlin, which has thus far managed to keep the horrors of the war far distant from the doorstep of the average Russian family.

Indeed, Putin himself ordered a special investigation in March when it was discovered that a handful of conscripts had been sent into battle, apparently mistakenly.

It is important to note that the mobilization announced today will not see Russian youths being press-ganged on the streets and forced into uniform.

“We are talking about partial mobilization,” Putin told the nation in his televised address, according to the Kremlin website. “In other words, only military reservists, primarily those who served in the armed forces and have specific military occupational specialties and corresponding experience, will be called up.”

The reserves called up are former professional servicemen who left the military after their active-service contracts expired. Needless to say, many will likely be unhappy to leave jobs and families to return to the colors and fight in a full-scale conventional war.

But there are a lot of them. According to Shoigu, the activation of reserves could add as many as 300,000 bayonets to Russia’s order of battle in Ukraine. These men will need to be called up, formed into units, armed and retrained before heading into battle.

“Before being sent to their units, those called up for active duty will undergo mandatory additional military training based on the experience of the special military operation,” Putin said.

It is unclear how ready the overstretched Russian officer and NCO corps are to carry out these tasks, given that depot cadres have reportedly been formed into alarm units and sent into Ukraine. And even in the best possible case, the activation process is also more likely to take months rather than weeks.  

Stridently, the announcement is a long-delayed acknowledgment that Russia’s so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine was undermanned.

2018 Moscow Victory Day parade. Russia’s army has been badly bloodied in Ukraine, Photo: Wikipedia

Failure of ‘invasion lite’

Observers without a military background may be surprised – or shocked – to learn that the force Russia has fielded thus far is likely around a quarter of the active military manpower Moscow has at its disposal.

The Kremlin clearly planned the Ukraine operation with a professional expeditionary force: Fast moving and heavy on firepower but light in bayonet strength.

That Donald Rumsfeld-style strategy looks very different to Russia’s traditional style of war-making – i.e. massive weight of force – and likely reflects the increased professionalization of the Russian Army under Putin.

But after a Day 1 coup de main operation – the attempted seizure by crack VDV airborne troops of Hostomel Airport on the Kiev ring road, supported by a headlong charge by light mobile units into the capital itself – the invasion force, advancing on multiple axes, drove into a wall.

A serving NATO general told Asia Times at the time that he expected the war to be concluded within five days, but Ukrainian resistance proved ferocious.

It was animated by a surge of patriotism and underwritten by the large number of troops Kiev put into the field. Contrary to Putin’s reliance on professional troops, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – widely dismissed by Russians as an amateur before the war – astutely ordered a general mobilization immediately after the invasion.

Moreover, his force was bolstered by a supply of increasingly heavy and sophisticated weaponry pipelined to Kiev from the West. Early arms deliveries including anti-tank weapons were largely defensive in nature.

But with Putin’s bluff called despite dire warnings to other nations not to intervene, Russia proved incapable of plugging the arms pipeline. Weapons supplies have since been massively upscaled to armor and artillery.

Conversely, Russia’s expeditionary army has been hamstrung by the attrition of both its small number of men and of its lavish scale of equipment, ranging from armored fighting vehicles, or AFVs, to warships.

Asia Times reported in March that the professional Russian Army was proving to be structurally weak in the key combat arm in land warfare: infantry.

This became particularly clear during the intense urban combat in Mariupol when it was special units of Chechens, and veteran units from the breakaway republics in the Donbas, which took on the key combat tasks. Subsequently, veterans from the PMC Wagner Group upped the limited numbers of these key assault troops.

Russian infantry troubles were compounded by a massive loss of AFVs in the early stage of fighting as, amid a spring thaw that turned soil to mud, they were unable to maneuver off-road. Armored losses were partly driven by Western-supplied infantry-manned anti-tank missiles such as the British NLAW and the US Javelin, and the Turkish Bayraktar Predator drone.

Ukrainian soldiers use a launcher with US-made Javelin missiles during military exercises in Donetsk region, Ukraine, on December 23, 2021. Photo: Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service

As a result, Russian forces in the north, fighting around the capital Kiev and the second city Kharkiv were defeated and retreated.

Likewise, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, having lost its flagship the Moskva to a missile strike, abandoned the strategic Snake Island. The fleet’s inability to reinforce its units through the closed Bosporus, and its distant patrol distance from the Ukrainian littoral, makes it of questionable use in the war going forward.

Subsequently, in the ground campaign, Russia refocused on its formidable artillery arm. Tactical tube and rocket artillery were used to deadly attritional effect during the fighting in the east, pounding Ukrainian defenses and grinding the front forward in the Donbas.

But the pendulum of war shifted again as Russia’s tactical artillery was countered by Ukraine’s strategic artillery.

By networking its long-range rocket artillery, such as the US HIMARS system, with NATO and US commercial satellites – a far more extensive network than Russia could call on – Kiev was able to take out Russian artillery ammunition dumps far behind the front line.  

Moreover, those dumps proved particularly combustible given the lack of pallet capability on Russia’s trucks. Without pallets, the subsequent closeness of stacked munitions generated massive sympathetic detonations.

Having lost the operational initiative, Russian commanders, increasingly outnumbered and outranged, could take some comfort in their command of the air. That might reasonably be expected to obviate large-scale Ukrainian ground operations.

However, any such contention proved false in the recent offensive in the northeast when Kiev spoofed Moscow’s air force – which, like its navy, has underperformed in the campaign. The Ukrainians used US-supplied HARM missiles to take down Russian radar nets, thereby robbing aircraft of their early-warning “eyes.”

The butcher’s bill has been woeful.

Shoigu’s admission that Russia has lost 5,937 dead thus far understates the harm endured. The traditional casualty ratio assumption is that for every soldier killed, three are wounded. That would mean 17,811 wounded, for a total number of Russian casualties (i.e. including the dead) of 23,748.

But advances in military medicine have given the wounded far greater chances of living, according to a 2014 analysis by Harvard’s Belfer Center, raising the ratio from 1:3 dead/wounded to 1:10 or even 1:17.

These latter ratios suggest that Russian casualties could range between 65,844 and 106,866, though it should be noted that lightly wounded personnel may return to the fight. While those might not appear to be huge numbers in a nation of 144 million, these casualties are the cream of the Russian military.

Moreover, the number of dead compares badly to the number killed in Russia’s war in Afghanistan. That ended with 15,000 Russian troops killed, a number accumulated over a decade. The Ukraine war, by contrast, is just seven months old.

All this has been a bitter pill for the Kremlin to swallow.

The powerful, modern war machine that Putin had so carefully and proudly built up, which had won wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and conducted highly successful operations in both Crimea and Syria, has been badly bloodied – both physically and reputationally. But it is far from “game over” yet.

A destroyed Russian tank in Ukraine. Image: Twitter

Don’t write Russia off

While some Western pundits and media outlets have interpreted Ukraine’s recent battlefield successes as a decisive turn in the war, there is no indication that Russia is teetering on the verge of defeat.

Firstly, Putin’s announcement today that major reinforcements are being summoned to be channeled into the fight ups the war’s stakes. The move will be welcomed by Russia’s vocal and critical community of hardliners and military pundits who have been urging the Kremlin to deploy a much larger force package.

The reserve call-up should provide more reliable troops than the volunteer battalions that have been raised in various regions of Russia and who have performed poorly in recent fighting. Barrels have been scraped at the bottom in recruiting those volunteers.

Footage has surfaced online purporting to show alleged Wagner Group head Yevgeniy Prigozhin speaking in a jail courtyard, urging convicts to join the war as assault troops in exchange for having their sentences lifted. That would be a throwback to the penal battalions Stalin used as cannon fodder during World War II.

And Russian weapons stocks are far from exhausted. Unconfirmed reports have Russia acquiring Iranian drones and North Korean artillery ammunition. And even despite the devastating losses it has suffered in AFVs, it can draw on what was in early 2022 the world’s largest supply of tanks.

Military website Global Firepower shows that Russia wields the world’s largest operational tank fleet, with 12,240 vehicles, which is almost double the number held by the number two, the United States, with 6,612.

Soberingly for Ukrainian anti-tank gunners, independent website Oryx, which tracks identifiable losses of Russia tanks, finds that thus far Russia has lost less than one-tenth of that number – 1,152.

Secondly, Russian forces dug in will not be easy for Ukraine to dislodge. While Kiev’s recent offensive in Kharkiv oblast brilliantly leveraged operational surprise to scatter Russian defenders, the Ukrainian assault in the south toward Kherson has made minimal terrain and reportedly has seen the attackers badly ground up.

Importantly, that Ukrainian failure came despite the vulnerability of the Russian position in Kherson: It is a shallow bridgehead with the broad Dniepr River at its back. And many of the bridges and supply lines over the river have been cut by Ukrainian artillery.

It is clear why Russian troops are fighting so hard for Kherson. Their assault in the south in the earliest days of the war – largely unreported, despite its success – took Kherson with little difficulty. That has granted Russian forces plentiful time to dig in deep.

A man walks past a residential building damaged by shelling in Severodonetsk, northwest of Luhansk, Ukraine. Image: Screengrab / Al Jazeera / Agencies

Kherson controls a strategically vital water resource for Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, and forms a defensive carapace for the peninsula. Crimea, the customary home port of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, is widely believed by Russians to be historical Russian territory.

Russian and local troops are likely to fight just as fiercely for the Donbas republics, Donetsk and Luhansk.

Putin and other Russian officials have made clear that the “liberation” of those parts of the region still in Ukrainian hands, and their ongoing defense, are a core war aim. And it is not just the Kremlin leadership: Considerable public emotion and sympathy have been invested in the two areas since combat first flared up in 2014.

At a time when Ukraine is furiously training up new units, both in the west of the country and overseas, Russian reinforcements are likely to up both the scale and intensity of combat in what looks set to be a dark and bloody winter.

Follow this writer on Twitter @ASalmonSeoul