WASHINGTON — In the early stages of the war in Ukraine, a shortage of soldiers and equipment problems forced Russia to downsize its mission, abandon its attack on Kiev and focus its offensive on the east.
As the fighting enters its sixth month, critical problems with manpower and equipment could once again slow Russian operations and give Ukraine’s counteroffensive a greater chance of success, US and European officials said.
The signs of Russia’s challenges abound: artillery shells missing their targets, interceptions from Russian soldiers complaining that they’ve been given old tanks, and a soaring number of deaths and injuries in its military ranks.
But unlike earlier in the war, it may become more difficult for Russia to adjust and recover its strategy, at least in the short term.
US and European officials say few powers have conquered a country and destroyed a hostile army with a largely volunteer force, as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is trying to do. But Mr Putin has shown no indication that he wants a large-scale draft, which would amount to a confession to his country that the battle in Ukraine will be a long war, not a short operation.
Russia has announced, and the West has predicted, several pauses in the war. After the fall of the city of Lysychansk last month, for example, Russian commanders said their troops would pause and reset, but artillery strikes continued.
This time, NATO and other officials say the reality on the ground should force the Russian military to slow down its operations to bolster depleted units, better protect its supply lines and deploy new equipment. These officials admit it’s possible Mr Putin could put aside his officers’ advice and continue the drive east all summer long. For all Russian equipment and manpower, high energy prices mean Moscow earns enough money to fund its army.
The expected Russian break comes after the bloodiest phase of the war for both sides. Ukraine and Russia have lost thousands of soldiers, including some of their best and most experienced frontline troops, in the final weeks of a fierce artillery battle that devastated towns and villages in the path of the Moscow army.
Russia’s shortcomings have created an opportunity for the Ukrainian military and led to their decision to launch a counter-offensive, said senior US military officials and US lawmakers who recently visited Ukraine. More Ukrainian violations, most likely in the south, are likely in the coming weeks, these officials said.
“The Russians are exhausted and you don’t want to give them time to regroup and rest,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, who visited Ukraine last month with a small group of lawmakers. “I understand the desire to strike when they are tired.”
Russia has deployed nearly 85 percent of its field army to combat in Ukraine, drawing on troops from the country’s far east and deploying around the world, a senior defense ministry official said recently. The Russian army, European officials said, has had a hard time getting reservists and new recruits into the battle.
Estimates of the number of Russian soldiers killed range from 15,000 to more than 20,000, with thousands injured or missing. Even if we take the conservative number, according to US and allied intelligence officials, Russia has lost more soldiers this year than the Soviet Union lost in nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan.
In its search for recruits, Russia has had to lower its standards, Western intelligence officials said. mr. Putin signed a law that abolished the age limit for Russians to sign their first contract to join the military. Western officials also said they reviewed the Russian military’s lowering health and fitness standards and issuing waivers for those with criminal records to join.
Russia has tried to make up for some of its staff shortages with the help of mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private force linked to Mr Putin. US intelligence reports have said that while mercenaries can make a difference in specific battles, there aren’t enough of them to make a strategic difference in the larger war, according to officials briefed on the assessments.
US officials said Russia’s biggest problem is Mr Putin’s reluctance to announce a wider draft. So far, the Russian army has not been able to recruit quickly enough men to compensate for the fallen and wounded soldiers.
Even if Russia decides to hire more reservists and conscripts, Western intelligence officials say Mr Putin will face a serious bottleneck. The Russian military has already deployed many officers and instructors to train conscripts or reservists to the front lines, a decision one Western intelligence official likened to eating the seed corn. Russia delayed its spring draft by two months, a sign that it could not train those willing to serve, Western officials said.
While not as acute as the staff shortage, the problems with the Russian equipment are significant. For example, Russian troops have had to replace newer, more modern tanks with older versions. According to some intelligence estimates, Russia has lost a third of its tanks. As it uses up stocks of precision guided missiles, Russia relies on artillery systems. But Ukraine’s use of advanced weapons has forced Russia to push them back from the front lines, diminishing their effectiveness.
Russia has a huge stockpile of artillery shells, the main ammunition it uses at this stage of the war, US officials said. But even with that there are problems, according to Western intelligence services. Many age and were stored in poor conditions, reducing their effectiveness by making their fuses unreliable.
US and European export controls have effectively put pressure on Russian arms manufacturers, at least temporarily, forcing them to slow or halt production of high-quality guided and other advanced munitions. The shortage has forced the Russians to be judicious in their targets – one of the reasons the military has curtailed its attempts to attack moving convoys and has instead concentrated on stationary targets such as Ukrainian warehouses.
In recent weeks, Russia has used an anti-aircraft defense system, the S-300, to target ground targets near the United States city of Mykolaiv, a sign, Ukrainian officials said, that Russia has no missiles better suited for such attacks.
Senior US military officers said Russia’s shortages of manpower, weapons and ammunition are already playing out on the battlefield. New Ukrainian tactics — enabled by Western gear — have also effectively reduced the number of grenades available to Russian front-line troops at any given time.
Ukrainian soldiers have used American-supplied weapons such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems or HIMARS to destroy dozens of Russian command posts, air defense sites and ammunition depots, disrupting the flow of ammunition to Russian troops on the front lines.
Brig. Christopher King, the senior British officer at a military cell in Stuttgart, Germany, that coordinates the flow of donated Western weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, said the HIMARS and other missile artillery have enabled Ukrainians to enhance the “ability of the Russians to resupply”. themselves, which is exactly why we provided that to them.”
Ukrainian artillery and tanks were, of course, also destroyed. And a senior Ukrainian military official, like the Russian military, said Ukraine had lost some of its best officers and soldiers in the early months of the conflict. But, the official added, Kiev had many more officers with years of frontline experience, which proved decisive in the first phase of the war.
US and Western intelligence agencies give credence to the idea that the coming weeks or months will be crucial for Ukraine. Even if Russian forces cannot be reduced significantly, a vigorous counter-offensive could boost confidence among Ukraine’s allies.
US and British officials said Ukrainian officials have said they understand they have a limited amount of time to take advantage of Russia’s apparent weakness.
Florida Republican Representative Michael Waltz, who was part of the congressional delegation to Kiev, said the United States should send more missile artillery and other advanced weapons to Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky told members of Congress that if Mr Putin closes in on the current front lines, Ukraine will struggle to remain a viable state.
“Zelensky believes the Russians are in a moment of weakness as they regroup to move on for the winter,” Mr Waltz said.
Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting from Odessa, Ukraine. Anton Trojanovskic also contributed reporting.