Main Image Credit Replacements needed: Russian President Vladimir Putin tours the Uralvagonzavod tank manufacturing facility. Image: kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
Russia’s ability to sustain a longer conflict in Ukraine will depend on whether it is given the breathing space to conserve existing resources, given its limited ability to replace human and material assets at scale.
As the war in Ukraine enters its sixth month and with no immediate end in sight, its duration has signposted the critical importance of endurance in the context of high-intensity warfighting. Authors such as Alex Vershinin have done the analytical community a service by underscoring the ways in which Western industrial capacity will need to adapt if Western countries are to expend resources on the scale that Russia and Ukraine are doing. However, Russia itself built many of its strategic and operational concepts around short war assumptions. Though it has demonstrated the ability to expend resources at scale so far, the question of whether Russia has all the underpinnings of a state capable of continuing to fight a long war deserves further examination. This article will examine whether the foundations of Russian military power – both political and material – can sustain a protracted conflict.
The Political Conditions
A key consideration that many analysts have debated is for how much longer the Russian state can absorb the political costs of war, particularly under sanctions. Is the regime durable, or will a long war weaken its hold on power? This question is difficult to answer in a conclusive manner, but the record of similar regimes in long wars might provide some insight. Most data suggests that authoritarian regimes do not face unmanageable instability in the context of either victorious wars or protracted stalemates. Indeed, they are somewhat more likely to endure long wars without suing for peace than democracies are. It is only after decisive and delegitimising defeats like that suffered by General Galtieri’s regime in the Falklands War that opposition is galvanised. Dictators have more domestic incentives to extend a conflict even in the face of limited strategic gains than they do to terminate it on unfavourable terms. This is borne out by 20th-century conflicts such as the Iran–Iraq War, which continued in an indecisive manner for a decade without either side losing domestic legitimacy (particularly notable in the case of Iran, which at the time had a new regime). Popular revolt is unlikely, and autocrats can head off the risk of elite dissent by enriching elites likely to support conflict at the expense of those who do not. To be sure, this is a probabilistic claim, and Russia’s own history provides counterexamples – the Tsarist regime collapsed in the face of mounting war costs despite its army not having been decisively defeated on the Eastern Front of the First World War. Though outperformed by Germany, Russia was still a credible military force capable of launching counteroffensives when popular will to fight the war collapsed. Nonetheless, on the balance of probabilities, we might assume that the collapse of a regime in response to the costs of a long war is unlikely.
It is also of note that societal mobilisation for war tends not to have a statistically significant negative impact on regime stability, though this would make intuitive sense. Russia’s leadership has shied away from mobilisation, which could reflect the possibility that it is more vulnerable than the average autocracy. However, this could also reflect the fact that Russia’s leaders have options to entice citizens to service with offers of high wages, and that Russia’s military position is not so negative as to necessitate mobilisation.
To the question of whether Russia has the political capacity to sustain a prolonged conflict, then, the answer must be a qualified yes.
What of the material capacity of Russia to generate military power? Here, the answer is more ambiguous.
A key consideration will be how Russia’s major manufacturers function in the absence of Western components – which, notably, they have failed to substitute in the last decade
Focusing first on the production of military equipment, it should be noted that in certain areas, such as artillery shells, Russia probably benefits from having stockpiles capable of sustaining combat operations for several years, as well as the capacity to manufacture more at scale. Other capabilities such as tanks and armoured fighting vehicles will, however, need to be regenerated, given the levels of attrition Russia is taking. A key consideration here will be how Russia’s major manufacturers function in the absence of Western components – which, notably, they have failed to substitute in the last decade. After the post-2014 sanctions on defence exports, Russia was able to achieve effective substitution of Western goods in seven out of 127 categories of equipment identified as priorities for import substitution.
Russia will have to rely on three strategies: rationalisation, sanctions evasion, and accelerated import substitution where possible. These approaches are intertwined. For example, successful reallocation where it occurs would also narrow the parameters for sanctions evasion efforts to those products which are genuinely nonfungible – a simpler task for Russia’s foreign intelligence service than attempting to illegally import the full set of Western products that Russia needs. Russia’s ability to rationalise the use of products depends on their fungibility – one of the criteria that scholars like Mancur Olson have signposted as key to explaining why some countries can offset the effects of economic warfare. The richer an economy, the more nonessential uses of any given product there are. To use an example from Olson’s own time, Allied bombing of German ball bearing factories bore little fruit because there were enough inessential uses of ball bearings within the German economy from which they could be repurposed. Though not rich by Western standards, Russia is an upper-middle-income economy – meaning that it probably does have a number of inessential uses for many dual-use products. The Radeon 9000 graphics cards used on cruise missiles are one example. That said, the state makes up 40% of Russia’s formal economic activity and 50% of its formal employment. The private market (from which goods are typically reallocated in wartime) is thus not particularly large to begin with. On the other hand, the size of the state-owned sector presumably means that goods can be moved between different parts of the economy relatively easily, because the government has both control over and information about the assets held by state-owned enterprises. As such, evidence on Russia’s capacity for rationalisation is mixed.
Not all technology is fungible, and much of what goes into a military platform is bespoke. Some reports suggest that production at Uralvagonzavod – Russia’s largest tank manufacturer – has stalled for want of spare parts. Russia has proven partially successful in substituting some nonfungible capabilities in the past – albeit at great cost and lower efficiency. For example, after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, Russia lost access to Ukrainian gas turbine engines, but was able to produce a domestically made variant, the M-90FR. Though Russia has thus far failed to replicate its partial success in other areas, it might be a mistake to conflate the effectiveness of peacetime efforts with that of wartime ones. In a conflict, military priorities receive disproportionate attention, and concerns that might have prompted the continued purchase of Western parts in peacetime (such as quality or cost) may be somewhat less relevant if Russia is desperate to replace unavailable products in any way it can. As such, the question is how well the Russian economy would fare at import substitution if it was put on a war footing. A rough proxy for Russia’s capacity for import substitution is industrial capacity, which can be measured in several ways. Steel production tends to be the metric used by measures such as the Composite Index of National Capability. This is not because steel itself is tantamount to industrial power, but rather because its use typically correlates with a country’s possession of heavy industry. Per this measure, Russia’s latent industrial capacity is comparable to that of the US – though this probably substantially overestimates Russia’s capacity, given the use of steel in sectors like construction. A better measure might be manufacturing capacity utilisation, which captures the sophistication of a country’s industry. Russia operates at roughly 60% of its theoretical industrial potential, with the largest shortfalls seen in areas like heavy machinery – where old capacities account for 30% and the average age of a facility is 15 years old. The proportion of capacity deemed non-competitive in this sector is roughly 22%. The relative sophistication of a country’s national industry is a good indirect measure for that of its defence industrial base, even in militarised economies where defence receives special priority. Moreover, in the critical area of machine tool production, Russia has seen a rapid decline in capacity since the end of the USSR and is almost entirely reliant on imports, which account for 90% of its machine tools in areas like metal forming. The growth of China as Russia’s largest supplier of machine tools may provide a margin of safety for the Russians, but Western suppliers still account for a large percentage of machine tool imports. The more important point, however, is what an inability to produce machine tools domestically tells us about the state of Russian industry and its potential to achieve import substitution. As such, Russia is likely to struggle with many areas of import substitution even if it accepts lower quality products and higher costs. There are certain things it simply cannot make.
If Russia has to keep a steady stream of resources flowing to the front lines because it is not allowed the luxury of a pause or because a second offensive also fizzles out, its material capacity to conduct a long war will be limited
This is not to say that Russia cannot replace certain capabilities such as artillery pieces or shells at scale, something that an ageing industrial base can support. Moreover, large stockpiles of many categories of weaponry from shells to armoured vehicles and older Soviet-era cruise missiles could enable the Russians to rely on expedients such as cannibalising capabilities or using older systems in lieu of more modern ones. However, more modern capabilities will be hard to replace, and this will entail the progressive regression of the Russian military to a 20th-century force.
If Russian leaders calculate that they merely need to hold out for a limited period of time until Western support declines and then launch a second offensive to try to end the war, this might not matter, as the key consideration would be conserving the first-rate equipment Russia still possesses and replacing just enough lost capacity to enable a second assault. To meet this end, Russia may not necessarily need to be able to replace all its pre-war assets at scale, but it will need a pause in activity in the coming months to judiciously conserve many capabilities. If, on the other hand, Russia has to keep a steady stream of resources flowing to the front lines because it is not allowed the luxury of a pause or because a second offensive also fizzles out, its material capacity to conduct a long war will be far more limited.
This then leads to the question of replacing personnel. Russia has struggled to operationalise its Special Army Combat Reserve (BARS) system in the past. Relatively few former soldiers sign up to be reservists, and only 10% of conscripted soldiers conduct any refresher training in the five years after they leave service. One article by Charles Bartles quoted Valeriy Poludnitsin, of the local military commissariat in Krasonodar, stating that ‘Unfortunately and despite all our efforts, the numbers wishing to sign up are small’ – a pattern repeated elsewhere. As such, Russia has little by way of an active reserve. Russia does, however, have a large number of individuals with some military experience – some 1.6 million in total – whom the government has identified as candidates for service. Anticipated mass unemployment will probably add to the ranks of people who see military service as desirable. As such, Russia will probably not struggle to find recruits; the question is how easily it can make them combat-effective.
The Russian system of conscription benefits from the existence of volunteer organisations such as the Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation and Navy (DOSAAF), which endow volunteers with some military skills prior to conscription. This enables conscripts to be attached to specialist units for their one year of service, which would not otherwise be feasible. Some 15% of the 2016 intake of conscripts, for example, were rated as having proficiency in a military specialism when they were drafted, meaning that they ended their tours of conscription with more experience than a formal one-year term of service would suggest. However, roughly 40% of the intake of contract soldiers are typically DOSAAF alumni – suggesting that these individuals are already disproportionally represented in the regular army. Even so, at least some former conscripts have more usable military skills than their one-year term of service would suggest at first blush. To this we might add categories such as discharged contract soldiers with combat experience. The question is whether these individuals, many of whom have not served for some time and may not be familiar with newer technology and tactics, can have their skills updated. History suggests that armies can achieve this while fighting manpower-intensive wars: in the First World War the German army trained its pool of stormtroopers – some 50 divisions worth – for the Ludendorff offensive between December 1917 and March 1918. That said, the German army benefited from a (relative) lull in activity on the Western front after the Flanders offensive. Unless it gets a similar pause, Russia could find itself in the position of having to rush new recruits to already worn-out frontline units in a trickle, rather than constituting them into fully formed units.
Russia will also face challenges in creating an infrastructure to deliver refresher training, given the nature of its training system. Conscripts in the Russian military do not receive basic training per se – they are trained within the units to which they are posted. Given that much of the Russian military is deployed, this option is unlikely to be viable as a mechanism for refresher training. Refreshers could be conducted at one of the 29 military training units and four higher educational institutes set up for the basic training of contract soldiers. Assuming the pre-existing Russian standard of reserve units needing 66 days of refresher training (though this was originally meant to be spread out over a year), each school could theoretically manage five batches of students per year. However, given the limited number of schools available, this is still a narrow pipeline for a hypothetical intake of 1.6 million individuals.
Russia's ability to launch a second round of offensive activity or sustain a longer war spanning years depends on its ability to conserve those regular units it still has in Ukraine
Generating new skills among raw recruits – particularly in technical specialisms – will be even more difficult. Many contract soldiers go through a second phase of training – attendance at a military operational school for specialist programmes – which typically lasts 10 months, although some can last as long as four years. This stage of training – critical for non-commissioned officer (NCO) specialists in key areas – will be effectively impossible to replicate in the short term. In areas such as electronic warfare, air defence and armoured warfare, the NCOs who provide key technical specialisms – though not the leadership functions of Western NCOs – will be very difficult to replace quickly, except to the extent that Russia can draw on discharged specialists.
Russia can generate a large number of new troops, but only if it avoids intensive refresher training and trickles new recruits into existing units, which risks mixed units on the front underperforming. If it seeks to generate fully formed units during an operational pause for a second phase of offensive activity, its training pipeline may substantially limit its capacity. In effect, then, being able to launch a second round of offensive activity or sustain a longer war spanning years depends on its ability to conserve those regular units it still has in Ukraine.
Conclusion: The Cost of a Long War is Progressive Devolution
Though the war in Ukraine has in many ways underscored the fragility of Western concepts of operations in a long war, it should be noted that the capacity of adversaries such as Russia to sustain this type of conflict is mixed and verging on low. Though it is probably resilient against the political costs of war and can secure some inputs of military power at scale through rationalisation, Russia will struggle to generate many of the foundations of military power. A weak industrial base will struggle to support an import substitution agenda – even if put on a war footing – meaning that Russia will not replace nonfungible military capabilities without external help from China. Moreover, the Russian military training system will struggle to generate combat-effective units in numbers – even if it can push new recruits into existing understrength units.
To be sure, Russia can cut corners – by excluding the need for refresher courses for militarily experienced individuals, for example. Moreover, its enormous stockpiles in areas like artillery shells mean its military machine will not grind to a halt any time soon. Its military will, however, undergo a progressive devolution in qualitative terms should this option be chosen. Alternatively, Russia could opt to replace lost capabilities with qualitatively comparable materiel and personnel for a second offensive – and will probably succeed in some categories. It will not, however, be able to replace the capacity it is shedding at scale. Given a pause, it can potentially generate enough combat capability to, in conjunction with its remaining pre-war capabilities, enable a subsequent offensive. Its ability to do this depends on whether the Russian system is given the breathing space to conserve existing resources, given its limited ability to replace human and material assets at scale.
This article is part of the Russia Military Report series.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Russia Military Report
The Russia Military Report is a series of Commentaries examining the Russian military and its capabilities. The series will include inputs from RUSI analysts as well as guest authors to provide an appraisal of Russia’s military through the lens of its organisation and institutional attitudes, its technical capabilities and its military thought.
Dr Sidharth Kaushal
Research Fellow, Sea Power