Russian Total War in Ukraine: Challenges and Opportunities

Throwing everything in: newly mobilised reservists training in Rostov region, Russia. Image: Reuters / Alamy

As Russia’s strategy changes to one predicated on manpower superiority, how can Ukraine fight back?

The Russian aggression in Ukraine, which at first was conceived as a blitzkrieg and then in May turned into a war of attrition, has now moved into a stage of total war. The scale and forms of mass mobilisation in Russia indicate that the actual number of those mobilised may be significantly higher than the 300,000 people announced by Putin. According to Ukrainian intelligence, Russia is possibly attempting to mobilise between one and three million people. This is also indirectly indicated by the removal from preservation and transfer to troops of obsolete weapons and military equipment. It is obvious that Russia does not have the ability to provide such a large number of troops with modern equipment in such a short period of time.

Since May 2022, the Russians have been betting on absolute fire superiority due to a greater number of artillery systems and a practically unlimited amount of ammunition. Despite certain successes that the Russian troops were able to achieve thanks to this in Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, they failed to turn the tide of the war. The successful offensive by Ukrainian troops in the Kharkiv region in September was a clear indicator that without a significant change in strategy, the Russians could suffer a crushing defeat as early as next year. When planning its new strategy, the Russian leadership obviously focused on achieving a quantitative advantage in manpower. This decision was probably due to the fact that Russia – with a population of 144 million – has a greater mobilisation resource (25–27 million people) than Ukraine, with a population of about 40 million. A significant increase in the number of troops, as planned by the Russians, should strengthen the defence of the already captured territories, as well as allow them to carry out offensive operations from the north, including from the territory of Belarus.

Undoubtedly, in such a situation, Ukraine will also need to increase the number of its own troops and create at least 25–30 new brigades. At the same time, in order to successfully confront Russian aggression in this new stage, Ukraine should not focus on achieving a numerical advantage, given the impossibility of achieving it. Taking into account the experience gained by NATO during the Cold War and reflected in the concepts of FAFO and AirLand Battle, Ukraine should aim to achieve technological superiority, with the ability to hit control points, air defence systems, electronic warfare systems, concentrations of troops and enemy military logistics at a depth of up to 200–300 km. For this, Ukraine will primarily need tactical missile systems, as well as a significant number of attack aircraft – both airplanes and helicopters. Ukraine has used its own Tochka-U tactical missiles quite successfully from the very beginning of the Russian invasion. However, its reserves are not infinite, and it is practically impossible to establish production in the face of constant missile strikes. In such a situation, the only way to fill this gap is through international technical assistance.

Ukraine should aim to achieve technological superiority, with the ability to hit control points, air defence systems, electronic warfare systems, concentrations of troops and enemy military logistics at depth

However, the significant increase in the number of Russian troops creates not only challenges for Ukraine, but also opportunities. The difficulties that have arisen in the process of mobilisation in Russia – in particular, the large number of people who have fled abroad to avoid receiving summonses – have forced the Russian government to use coercive measures and even conduct raids on conscripts. The lack of proper training and the sending of such persons to the front line immediately after mobilisation will lead to a significant increase in casualties among personnel, undermining the already low level of morale and poor psychological state and motivation of Russian servicemen. The proportion of Russians expressing a negative attitude towards mobilisation has already increased to more than 70%.

It is safe to say that in connection with the mobilisation of civilians, Putin's regime is facing the biggest internal crisis in all the years of its existence. This is also indicated by the sharp criticism of mobilisation not only by the opposition, but also by representatives of the Russian government and even propagandists. The inevitable growth of anti-war and anti-government sentiments in Russia creates unique conditions for preparing the Russian population to recognise the falsity of the regime's aggressive policy, which must be harnessed when planning and conducting operations in the human domain.

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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Oleksandr V Danylyuk

Associate Fellow - Expert in Russian multidimensional warfare

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