Putin Has a Problem: Russia Is Sending Untrained Reserve to Fight in Ukraine?

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Russian troops guard Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station in south Ukraine.
Russian troops guard an entrance of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station, a run-of-river power plant on the Dnieper River in Kherson region, south Ukraine, Friday, May 20, 2022. (AP Photo, File)

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What Kind of Reserves Does Russia have at its Disposal to Fight in Ukraine?

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine begins to approach its fifth month, it has shown no signs of winding down or becoming any less resource-consuming for either Russia or Ukraine. Recent British intelligence reports that Russia is assembling large quantities of reserve forces near Ukraine to support its future operations has raised questions outside of Russia as to what reserve forces Russia can draw upon at this stage of its invasion, and what the quality of such forces might actually be.

What has Russia Already Committed to the Fight?

Russia's initial full-scale invasion of Ukraine was initially built around some of the most elite or specialized units in Russia's armed forces and security forces. These included Russian spetsnaz special forces units who were supposed to facilitate Russia's invasion and help decapitate Ukraine's leadership. There was also VDV units who were ordered to seize key targets such as Hostomel airport near Kyiv, and Rosgvardia detachments which accompanied the invasion to help enforce a new public order if Russia's "special military operation" had met its initial strategic goals. Many of these units took extremely heavy casualties in the first days and weeks of the war.

Formations from each of Russia's five military districts have also been involved in the invasion from the start, including units from as far afield as the Russian Arctic and Far East. The initial Russian incursion into Ukraine was made up of four fronts, each spearheaded by units of a different military district. By May, the U.S. Department of Defense estimated that 110 operational battalion tactical groups (BTGs) were committed in Ukraine. A battalion tactical group is designed to be the basic combat maneuver element of the Russian Armed Forces, and are usually made up of 400 to 600 personnel, several hundred men below the size intended by Russia's military planners.

In its current phase, the war in Ukraine is a grinding war of attrition for both sides, which makes the search for new recruits all the more pressing for Russia to be able to sustain its plodding and sporadic advances in Donbas.

Reservists are on their Way to Ukraine from All Over Russia

Russia's ongoing campaign has taken much of the wind out of the Russian Armed Force's sails, forcing it to take an "operational pause" to regroup and recoup its losses while it still remains heavily committed to fighting in Donbas. Russia's military likely needs to reconstitute many elements of its invasion force, which is where the reported injection of reservist manpower would come in handy. Russian state media has either remained mute on the subject of reservists in Ukraine or has attempted to portray the assembling reserves of Russian troops as "volunteers" instead. Rather than commenting on outside reports of its reservist buildup, Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman General Igor Konashenkov instead claimed that Ukraine was sending "increasing" numbers of "untrained reservists" into battle to replace mounting losses.

In the past few weeks, Russian local and social media sources from all over Russia have given glimpses of what Russia's buildup of reserves near Ukraine looks like. In Russia's Far Eastern Primorsky Krai, local media reported the formation of a battalion of volunteers and veterans for battle in Ukraine. In Bashkortostan (a Russian federal subject in the southern Urals, home to the Bashkir ethnic group), the creation of a second volunteer battalion was promoted by Russian media. The Arctic news site "The Barents Observer" has also reported that the Arctic-based 200th Motorized Rifle Brigade was assembling a new battalion of volunteers made up of reservists, sailors, military policemen, and soldiers from coastal defense units for service in Ukraine. According to a report by the Russian business and investigative publication RBK, local administrations in the federal subjects of Chechnya, Karachay-Cherkessia, and Perm have also stepped up their promotion of volunteer contracts in Ukraine, as has the Rosgvardia and the infamous state-linked private military company Wagner. These media reports from all over Russia on recruiting drives potentially indicate that much of the manpower Russia has in reserve (or will have in the coming months) are relatively green and inexperienced.

Moscow's Reserves are a True Hodgepodge

Since Moscow and the Russian Ministry of Defense continue to remain mute on the topic of which reserve units it has at its disposal, or whether it needs to rely on reserves at all, it is difficult to assess the true makeup and combat effectiveness of the forces it does have in reserve. Since many Russian units operating on Donbas today have withstood significant casualties in battle, Russia's operational reserve many also include partially reconstituted regular units recuperating behind Russian lines during its operational pause.

If the aforementioned British intelligence reports are any guide, Russia's reserves available to fight in Ukraine might increasingly be equipped with older legacy Soviet equipment. According to this intelligence presented by London, Russian infantry units being assembled around Ukraine to take part in upcoming Russian offensives are likely equipped with MT-LB armored personnel carriers, which were first introduced in the middle of the Cold War.

So long as the Kremlin continues to pursue a half-mobilization of the Russian population and economy rather than a full and open one, it will be forced to rely on the amorphous recruitment of volunteers for service in Ukraine observed in recent weeks. As a result, Russia's reserves will likely struggle to plug all the gaps they are intended to fill in Russian manpower requirements in Ukraine needed to sustain any future offensives. Significant questions remain, too, on the quality of Russia's assembling group of reserves, many of whom will be relatively inexperienced compared to personnel who spearheaded Russia's initial invasion.

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

This article originally appeared on 19fortyfive.com.

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