December 1, 2023

WASHINGTON — In the early phase of the war in Ukraine, troop shortages and equipment problems forced Russia to scale back its mission, abandon its offensive in Kyiv and focus its offensive in the east.

Now, as the fighting enters its sixth month, critical manpower and equipment problems could again slow Russian operations and give Ukraine’s counteroffensive a better chance of success, US and European officials said.

Signs of Russia’s provocations abound: artillery shells missing their targets, interceptions of Russian soldiers who complain they have been given old tanks, and a sharp rise in the number of dead and wounded in its military ranks.

But unlike earlier in the war, it could become more difficult for Russia to reset its strategy and recover, at least in the short term.

U.S. and European officials say few powers have conquered a country and destroyed a rival army with a mostly volunteer force, as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is trying to do. But Mr. Putin has shown no signs that he wants any kind of full-scale plan, which would amount to an admission in his country that the fight in Ukraine will be a long war, not a short operation.

Russia has announced, and the West has predicted, various pauses in the war. After the city of Lysychansk fell last month, for example, Russian commanders said their forces would stand down and regroup, but artillery attacks continued.

This time, NATO and other officials say the reality on the ground should force the Russian military to slow its operations to reinforce depleted units, better protect its supply lines and move in with new equipment. These officials concede that it is possible that Mr. Putin will override the advice of his officers and order the eastward march to continue through the summer. For all of Russia’s equipment and manpower issues, high energy prices mean Moscow makes enough money to fund its military.

The expected Russian pause 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 recent weeks in an artillery battle that has destroyed cities and towns in the path of Moscow’s army.

Russian shortfalls have created an opportunity for the Ukrainian military, driving its decision to launch a counterattack, said senior US military officials and US lawmakers who visited Ukraine recently. More Ukrainian violations, 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 urge to strike when they’re tired.”

Russia has committed nearly 85 percent of its military to the fight in Ukraine, drawing troops from the country’s Far East and deploying around the world, a senior defense ministry official said recently. The Russian military, European officials said, has been hard-pressed to bring reservists and recruits into the fight.

Estimates of how many Russian soldiers have been killed range from 15,000 to more than 20,000, with thousands more wounded or missing. Even taking the conservative figure into account, 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 new recruits, Russia has had to lower its standards, Western intelligence officials said. Mr Putin has signed a law lifting the age limit for Russians to sign their first contract to join the army. Western officials have also said they have assessed that the Russian military is lowering health and fitness standards and giving exemptions to people with criminal records to join.

Russia has tried to cover some of the manpower shortages by using mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military force with ties to Mr Putin. US intelligence reports said that while the mercenaries could make a difference in specific battles, there are not enough of them to make a strategic difference in the larger war, according to officials briefed on the assessments.

US officials have said Russia’s biggest problem is Mr Putin’s reluctance to announce a broader plan. So far, the Russian military has been unable to recruit enough men fast enough to replace soldiers killed and wounded in combat.

Even if Russia decided to press more reservists and conscripts into the service, Western intelligence officials say Mr. Putin would face a serious obstacle. The Russian military has already deployed many officers and trainers to train conscripts or reservists on the front lines, a decision that one Western intelligence official compared to eating corn. Russia delayed its spring conscription by two months, a sign it could not train those willing to serve, Western officials said.

Although not as acute as the manpower shortage, Russian equipment problems are significant. Russian forces, for example, 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 consumes stockpiles of precision-guided missiles, Russia has relied on artillery systems. But Ukraine’s use of sophisticated weapons has forced Russia to push them back from the front lines, reducing their effectiveness.

Russia has a huge supply of artillery shells, the main ammunition it is using at this stage of the war, US officials said. But even with that there are problems, according to Western intelligence officials. Many are aging and were stored in poor conditions, reducing their effectiveness and making their safeties unreliable.

US and European export controls effectively put pressure on Russian arms manufacturers, at least temporarily, forcing them to slow or stop production of guided and other advanced high-tech munitions. The shortage has forced the Russians to be judicious in their targeting — one reason the military has scaled back its efforts to hit moving convoys and instead focused on fixed targets such as Ukrainian warehouses.

In recent weeks, Russia has been using an anti-aircraft system, the S-300, to strike ground targets near city ​​of Mykolaiv, an indication, Ukrainian officials said, that Russia lacks missiles better suited for such attacks.

Senior US military officers said Russian shortages in manpower, weapons and ammunition are already playing out on the battlefield. New Ukrainian tactics — enabled by Western equipment — have also effectively limited the number of shells available at any one time to Russian front-line troops.

Ukrainian soldiers have used US-supplied weapons, such as the High Mobility Artillery Missile Systems, or HIMARS, to destroy dozens of Russian command posts, air defense sites and ammunition depots, cutting off the flow of ammunition to Russian front-line forces.

Prison. Christopher King, the top British officer at a military base in Stuttgart, Germany, which coordinates the flow of Western arms and ammunition donations to Ukraine, said the HIMARS and other rocket artillery allowed the Ukrainians to slow down “the ability of the Russians to supply themselves them, that’s exactly why we provided it to them.”

Ukrainian artillery and tanks, of course, have also been destroyed. And a senior Ukrainian military official said, like Russian soldiers, Ukraine lost some of its best officers and soldiers in the first months of the conflict. But, the official added, Kyiv had far more officers with years of front-line combat experience, which proved decisive in the first phase of the war.

US and Western intelligence assessments lend credence to the idea that the next few weeks or months will be critical for Ukraine. Even if Russian forces cannot be pushed back significantly, a strong counterattack could boost confidence among Ukraine’s allies.

US and British officials said Ukrainian officials said they understood they had limited time to take advantage of Russia’s apparent weakness.

Representative Michael Waltz, R-Florida, who was part of the congressional delegation to Kyiv, said the United States should send more artillery and other advanced weapons to Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky told members of Congress that if Mr Putin locks onto the current front line, Ukraine will struggle to remain a viable state.

“Zelensky believes the Russians are in a moment of weakness while they regroup to continue advancing before winter,” Mr Waltz said.

Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting from Odessa, Ukraine. Anton Trojanowski also contributed to the report.

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