Russian shortage creates opportunity for Ukraine, Western officials say

WASHINGTON — In the early days of the Ukrainian war, soldier shortages and equipment problems forced Russia to downsize its mission, abandoning its offensive in Kyiv and focusing it on the east.

Now, as the fighting enters its sixth month, critical manpower and equipment issues could once again slow Russia’s operations and give Ukraine’s counteroffensive a better chance of success, U.S. and European officials said.

Signs of Russia’s challenges abound: shells hitting targets, intercepting Russian soldiers complaining that they were getting old tanks, and a sharp rise in casualties among its troops.

But unlike earlier in the war, Russia’s realignment and recovery may become more difficult, at least in the short term.

U.S. and European officials say few major powers are able to subjugate a country and destroy an enemy army, dominated by volunteers, as Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is trying to do. But Mr Putin has not shown that he wants any kind of full-scale conscription, meaning his country accepts that the fight in Ukraine will be a long one, not a short one.

Russia has announced, and the West has predicted various pauses in the war. For example, after the fall of the city of Lysychansk last month, Russian commanders said their forces would be suspended and reset, but the shelling continued.

This time, NATO and other officials have said that realities on the ground should force the Russian military to slow down its operations to strengthen depleted units, better protect its supply lines and move in new equipment. The officials acknowledged that Putin was at risk of ignoring the advice of officials and ordering the push to continue through the summer in the east. For all Russia’s equipment and manpower issues, high energy prices mean Moscow is making enough money to fund its military.

The expected Russian suspension comes after the bloodiest phase of the war between the two sides. Ukraine and Russia lost thousands of soldiers, including some of the best and most experienced front-line troops, in the final weeks of intense artillery battles that devastated towns in Moscow’s army’s path.

Senior U.S. military officials and U.S. lawmakers who visited Ukraine recently said the Russian shortage created an opportunity for Ukrainian troops to decide to launch a counteroffensive. More Ukrainian crime is likely to occur in the coming weeks, most likely in the south, the officials said.

“The Russians are exhausted, and you don’t want to give them time to regroup and rest,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., on the House Armed Services Committee, who joined a small group of lawmakers last month Visited Ukraine. “I understand their desire to strike when they are tired.”

A senior defense official said recently that Russia has devoted nearly 85 percent of its troops to the fight in Ukraine, using troops from the country’s Far East and deployments around the world. European officials say the Russian military has struggled to bring reservists and recruits into battle.

Estimates of how many Russian soldiers were killed ranged from 15,000 to more than 20,000, with thousands more wounded or missing. Even at conservative numbers, Russia has lost more soldiers this year than the Soviet Union lost in nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, according to U.S. and allied intelligence officials.

Western intelligence officials say Russia has had to lower its bar when it comes to finding new recruits. Mr Putin has signed a law removing the age limit for Russians to sign their first military service contract. Western officials also said they assessed the Russian military was lowering health and fitness standards and allowing people with criminal records to join.

Russia is trying to fill some of the manpower shortage with mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private army linked to Putin. U.S. intelligence reports say that while mercenaries can be useful in specific battles, there are not enough mercenaries to have a strategic impact in larger wars, according to officials familiar with the assessment briefing.

U.S. officials say Russia’s biggest problem is Putin’s reluctance to announce a broader draft. So far, the Russian military has been unable to recruit enough soldiers fast enough to make up for soldiers killed and wounded in action.

Even if Russia decides to let more reservists and conscripts serve, Western intelligence officials say Putin will face serious bottlenecks. The Russian military has deployed numerous officers and instructors who will train conscripts or reservists to the front lines, a Western intelligence officer’s decision compared to eating corn seeds. Western officials say Russia has delayed the spring draft by two months, a sign that it cannot train those willing to serve.

While not as severe as the manpower shortage, Russia’s equipment problems are serious. For example, the Russian army had to replace newer, more modern tanks with older versions. According to some intelligence estimates, Russia has lost a third of its tanks. Russia has been relying on artillery systems as its stockpiles of precision-guided missiles run out. But Ukraine’s use of sophisticated weapons has compelled Russia to push them back from the front lines, reducing their effectiveness.

U.S. officials say Russia has large quantities of artillery shells, its main munition in this phase of the war. But even with those problems, there are problems, according to Western intelligence officials. Many have aged and been stored in harsh conditions, reducing their effectiveness by making their fuses unreliable.

U.S. and European export controls have effectively put pressure on Russian arms makers, at least temporarily, to slow or halt production of high-end guided munitions and other advanced munitions. The shortages have forced the Russians to target carefully — one reason the military has limited attempts to hit mobile convoys and instead focus on stationary targets such as Ukrainian warehouses.

Russia has been using the S-300 air defense system to hit nearby ground targets in recent weeks. Ukrainian officials said it was a sign that Russia lacked missiles better suited for such an attack.

Russia’s shortages in manpower, weapons and ammunition are already showing on the battlefield, senior U.S. military officials say. New Ukrainian tactics enabled by Western equipment also effectively limited the number of shells readily available to Russian frontline forces.

Ukrainian soldiers used weapons such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) supplied by the United States to destroy dozens of Russian command posts, air defense bases and ammunition depots, disrupting the flow of ammunition to Russian frontline troops.

Brig. Christopher King, a military group in Stuttgart, Germany, that coordinates the flow of donated Western weapons and ammunition into Ukraine, said HIMARS and other rockets allowed Ukrainians to slow down the Russians’ “resupply capabilities.” themselves, which is exactly what we offer them. “

Of course, Ukrainian artillery and tanks were also destroyed. Like the Russian military, Ukraine lost some of its best officers and soldiers in the first months of the conflict, a senior Ukrainian military officer said. However, the official added that Kyiv had more officers with years of front-line combat experience, which proved decisive in the first phase of the war.

U.S. and Western intelligence assessments corroborate the view that the coming weeks and months will be crucial for Ukraine. A strong counteroffensive could boost the confidence of Ukrainian allies even if Russian forces cannot be repulsed significantly.

Ukrainian officials said they knew they had limited time to exploit Russia’s apparent weaknesses, U.S. and British officials said.

Rep. Michael Walz, a Florida Republican who was part of a congressional delegation to Kyiv, said the United States should provide Ukraine with more rocket launchers and other advanced weapons. President Volodymyr Zelensky told MPs Ukraine would struggle to remain a viable state if Mr Putin locked onto the current front lines.

“Zelensky believes that the Russians are in a period of weakness and they regroup before winter and move on,” Mr Walz said.

Michael Schwitz Reporting from Odessa, Ukraine. Anton Trojanovsky also contributed reporting.

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