Two months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the conflict has entered a new phase. The initial blitzkrieg, an attempt to take Kyiv and areas of the north with a lightning assault along main highways, has failed. Russian forces have withdrawn from the north and now aim is to take territory in the east, in a slower and more deliberate advance. But how badly mauled is the attacking force and can it continue to operate like this?
According to estimates I previously detailed, the invasion force initially comprised approximately 120 Battalion Tactical Groups, or BTGs. A BTG is a Russian battlegroup able to operate independently, a self-contained combined arms force with roughly 85 armored vehicles. This gives a base number of 11,200 armored vehicles for the total invasion force. Add in additional units at higher levels not attached to battalions such as long-range artillery, air defence, reconnaissance and command units and the total might top 12,000 vehicles, assuming all the BTGs were at fully strength – although as previously mentioned, they may have started 10% of more below strength.
According to Ukraine’s typically optimistic figures, Russia has lost around 3,600 armored vehicles and over 22,000 personnel to date. U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace gave a more conservative estimate Monday of “more than 2,000 armored vehicles knocked out, including at least 530 tanks” and about 15,000 personnel.
The U.S. has not recently released casualty estimates, but on March 29, U.S. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland stated in an interview that Russia had lost over 10,000 personnel – and there has been another month of casualties since then.
The most reliable source in the conflict so far has been the outstanding open-source intelligence site Oryx run by analyst Stijn Mitzer, which has gained wide recognition for producing objective numbers based on uniquely identifying every single photograph of a destroyed, abandoned or captured vehicle. Oryx’s current count stands at 562 tanks and 1,200 other armored vehicles for a total of 1,762 Russian losses. This is only confirmed, photographed losses and so represents an absolute minimum baseline figure; losses behind the front line — or recovered and towed the giant “tank graveyard” near the Russian village of Golvochino — may not be included.
Total losses are therefore likely to be somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 vehicles, or 20% to 25% of the entire attacking force. Losses are always unevenly distributed, with some units taking heavy casualties while others may barely have seen action. According to the U.S. Army’s rule of thumb, 30% losses will put a BTG out of action. So you do not have to kill all 85 vehicles to knock out a BTG, and 25% losses will take out a much greater proportion of the combat power of the invasion force.
“Some units are much more devastated than others. We’ve seen indications of some units that are literally, for all intents and purposes, eradicated,” a senior U.S. defense official stated at a briefing on April 8. “ There’s just nothing left of the BTG except a handful of troops, and maybe a small number of vehicles, and they’re going to have to be reconstituted or reapplied to others.”
Properly reconstituting units, or assembling new BTGs from the remnants of the damaged ones, is likely to take months. New soldiers, new officers, new NCOs and new vehicles need to be incorporated, and the BTG has to learn to fight as a coherent whole. This is what a peacetime army concentrates on, and it is a full-time task.
The Ukrainians believe that they have done enough damage to render 60 BTGs ineffective, effectively taking out half the Russians’ fighting power. Much of this may be recovered in time, but it will take more than the few days that have been allowed so far. Another issue it that the casualties appear to have been heaviest in elite units such as the VDV Airborne troops who failed to take Hostomel, leaving less capable units in the front line. The loss of a large number of generals – ten at the current count — may also leave less-capable commanders in charge.
The most important Russian loss may be intangible: Putin’s forces may be losing their will to fight. In the first few days, it might have been easy to persuade Russian soldiers that the war would be a walkover and that they would be greeted as liberators. After the offensive towards Kyiv was beaten back it is clear that resistance is strong and Russia will continue to take heavy casualties.
A Russian Telegram channel has claimed that 60 paratroopers were dismissed for refusing to return to action. A Spetsnaz (special forces) unit likewise reportedly refused to continue fighting after taking heavy casualties in Mariupol. While such reports are unconfirmed, a growing number of stories suggest Russian soldiers’ willingness to fight is declining and some prefer to sabotage their own vehicles than go into action.
Many commentators assume that Putin’s aim is to achieve some sort of military success for Victory Day on May 9 and that Russian forces will ramp up their assaults to meet that deadline. But with less than two weeks to go and little progress in recent days, there is no sign of any breakthrough. Given the depleted state of the invasion force, it is hard to see them making major advances any time soon.
At the same time, Ukrainian forces are getting stronger. Thanks to captured Russian vehicles, they now have more tanks than before the invasion; according to the Pentagon, Ukraine now has more tanks on the ground than Russia. Allies are finally sending heavy weapons, including armored vehicles; the Ukrainian air force is being replenished; and air defenses are being bolstered with more S-300 missiles. And while Russian morale has slumped, Ukraine has grown increasingly confident. Two months ago, it seemed like a question of how long Russia would take to win. Now when President Zelensky speaks of victory for Ukraine, he seems entirely plausible.
Russia’s offensive looks set to continue in a slow grinding war of attrition. The invasion force is not yet mortally wounded or ready to collapse. But two months in the losses are already heavy enough to put their ability to make major advances into doubt. The tempo of the action may slow down. For Russia, it may have to, if their army is to survive another two months.