Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February with hopes for a lightning victory and an expectation that Ukrainian forces would quickly fold, with the world doing little to help. But nearly seven months later, the state of his own troops may be one of his biggest challenges.
On Wednesday, Putin announced he will pull 300,000 troops from Russia's reserve forces -- veterans who have past military training -- and put them into the war. The move, the first mobilization in Russia since World War II, is a sign of the personnel problems he faces on the battlefield.
Tens of thousands of Russians have been killed in fighting, though the exact figure is unknown. Many more are exhausted and demoralized, a reality made clear by Ukraine's recent stunning advances in the Kharkiv region reclaiming territory as Putin's forces fled, leaving equipment behind, according to defense officials and experts.
The partial mobilization of reserve forces, as well as Russian plans for votes in occupied areas of Ukraine, are "signs of weakness, of Russian failure," U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink wrote on social media Wednesday.
In short, Putin may be running low on troops to fight.
That means the Ukraine war may now be entering a new, more dangerous phase with Russia rolled back on its heels, at least momentarily, and Putin faced with a decision on how to shore up his forces. The decision Wednesday escalates the war by calling up reserves, but Putin also has the option of conscripting Russians into the military and continuing to enlist convicts as mercenaries, none of which provides easy answers.
"We're seeing the Kremlin increasingly straining to find new recruits to fill out their thin ranks," described a senior U.S. defense official who briefed the press Monday, ahead of Putin's announcement, on the condition of anonymity. "And the Russians are performing so poorly that the news from Kharkiv province has inspired many Russian volunteers to refuse combat."
Russian lawmakers appeared to recognize a growing problem with troop morale, desertions and surrender on Tuesday when they passed new harsher punishments for deployed Russian forces who desert their posts and flee from the Ukrainians, The Associated Press reported. The measures were expected to be signed into law by Putin.
"I think knowing that they're [Ukrainians] fighting for the liberation of their national territory, that's going to inherently be a much bigger motivator than the many, many Russian soldiers who don't really even understand why they're in Ukraine," said Nicholas Lokker, a research assistant for the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Over the past couple of weeks, two Ukrainian counteroffensives in the country's east near Kharkiv and in the south new the city of Kherson reclaimed more than 2,300 square miles of territory from Russian forces, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said earlier this month.
"If you look at the geography, this is more than Rhode Island and Delaware combined, in U.S. terms, but we all know that this fight is far from over," the senior defense official said.
The territorial losses are the biggest Russia has suffered since it withdrew from the outskirts of the capital Kyiv after being bogged down against Ukrainian resistance early in the war. At the time, Putin was struggling with morale as well as logistical problems and decided to shift his military efforts to eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting for years.
Now, in the town of Izium near Kharkiv, fleeing Russian troops left behind letters pleading to be relieved from duty due to health problems as well as physical and moral exhaustion, The Washington Post reported. Those troops also reportedly raided the homes of Ukrainians for civilian clothes to cover their military uniforms, hoping to blend in with the local population before falling back.
Russia has struggled with morale issues from the start of its invasion, but Putin is increasingly relying on "recruiting ill-prepared volunteers into ad-hoc irregular units rather than attempting to draw them into reserve or replacement pools for regular Russian combat units," the Institute for the Study of War said in an update on its website Sunday.
Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at Rand Corp., said that the recent Ukrainian victories have an important caveat, however. The Russian forces around the Kharkiv area were extremely exposed and at least partly composed of national guard troops and separatists who have been fighting in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Other Russian forces deployed to the south in Ukraine are likely in better shape and were considered some of its better fighting units before the war, Massicot said. Ukraine made a feint by announcing an operation in the south that appeared to successfully misdirect Putin's army as it focused its attack elsewhere.
"That being said, there is a persistent morale problem going on. These forces [Russian] have been by and large fighting pretty consistently for seven months. ... Sometimes they rotate them back for short periods of time, but it's not consistent rest," she said. "They're just going to fight them to exhaustion and all the morale problems that you would expect are happening with that so you have desertions in small numbers."
The low morale has also led to mutinies among the Russia-backed separatist fighters and official resignations, Massicot said.
The Pentagon estimated in August that Russia has suffered 70,000 to 80,000 casualties during the war, and said Putin wants to increase the size of the country's military by 137,000 troops over the coming year, for a total troop strength of 1.15 million. The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces claimed on social media Monday that 54,650 Russian troops had been killed, though that figure has not been independently verified.
Putin now appears faced with a dilemma on shoring up his faltering military forces in Ukraine as the invasion -- originally envisioned as a days-long victory -- has stretched into a bloody slog with no clear end in sight.
Throughout the war, Russia has called the invasion a "special military operation," but the partial mobilization announcement puts the country on more of a war footing. Declaring war could also allow Putin to begin conscripting Russians into the fight, a military draft that could increase his regular forces on the ground.
Lokker said war hawks inside Russia are increasingly calling on Putin to declare full-scale military mobilization following the recent Ukrainian victories. But that could be a tough lift for Putin politically because many Russians, who have so far been largely untouched by the war, would be unwilling to make such a sacrifice.
"The other reason why I think there is resistance to this idea is I don't think that he himself [Putin] fundamentally believes that Ukraine can win this war," Lokker said. "I think that if you look at how the conflict has evolved so far, he's really consistently underestimated the resolve of the Ukrainian side."
Putin is now drawing on a large reserve force of Russians who have served in its military, though the readiness of those veterans may be uncertain. Moscow is also leaning on mercenary fighters to fill the gaps in its war effort. The Wagner Group, a private military company that has supplied fighters to support Russian troops fighting in Ukraine, recently announced plans to recruit convicts, a move the U.S. claimed has sputtered.
"We believe this is part of Wagner's campaign to recruit over 1,500 convicted felons, but many are refusing," the senior U.S. defense official said Monday. "Our information indicates that Wagner has been suffering high losses in Ukraine, especially and unsurprisingly among young and inexperienced fighters."
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.