Russian Military Objectives and Capacity in Ukraine Through 2024

Russian forces are likely to peak in late 2024, with increasing material challenges over the course of 2025.

Defeating Russia’s attempt to subjugate Ukraine must be based upon an understanding of what Russia is trying to achieve, how it is intending to achieve its objectives, and its capacity to implement this plan. The Russian theory of victory has been through various iterations over the course of the war, but Moscow now has a clear plan for how it intends to proceed. This article seeks to outline Russia’s intent in order to provide a basis for planning how its plan can be disrupted. Outlining Russian intent and capacity does not represent an assessment as to the likelihood of it succeeding.

Russian Strategic Objectives

Russia still maintains the strategic objective of bringing about the subjugation of Ukraine. It now believes that it is winning. Surrender terms currently being proposed by Russian intermediaries include Ukraine ceding the territory already under Russian control along with Kharkiv, and in some versions Odessa; agreeing not to join NATO; and maintaining a head of state approved by Russia. The only significant concession Russia proposes is that what is left of Ukraine can join the EU.

The process by which Russia aims to bring about this outcome is in three stages. The first requires the continuation of pressure along the length of the Ukrainian front to drain the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s (AFU) munitions and reserves of personnel. Parallel to this effort, the Russian Special Services are tasked with breaking the resolve of Ukraine’s international partners to continue to provide military aid. Once military aid has been significantly limited such that Ukrainian munition stocks become depleted, Russia intends to initiate further offensive operations to make significant – if slow – gains on the battlefield. These gains are then intended to be used as leverage against Kyiv to force capitulation on Russian terms. The planning horizon for the implementation of these objectives, which is providing the baseline for Russian force generation and industrial outputs, is that victory should be achieved by 2026.

It is vital to appreciate that Russian goals may expand with success, and given that the Kremlin has violated almost all significant agreements both with Ukraine and NATO, there is no assurance that even if Russia got what it wanted out of negotiations it would not subsequently endeavour to physically occupy the rest of Ukraine or be emboldened to use force elsewhere.

Russian Military Capacity

The Russian military began 2023 with a highly disorganised force in Ukraine comprising approximately 360,000 troops. By the beginning of the Ukrainian offensive in June 2023, this had risen to 410,000 troops and was becoming more organised. Over the summer of 2023, Russia established training regiments along the border and in the occupied territories and, following the mutiny of Wagner forces, endeavoured to standardise its units, breaking down the previous trend towards private armies. By the beginning of 2024, the Russian Operational Group of Forces in the occupied territories comprised 470,000 troops.

While Russian force quality is unlikely to increase so long as the Ukrainians can maintain a significant level of attrition across the force, the Russians will be able to maintain a steady tempo of attacks throughout 2024

Russian forces have reverted above battalion level to the traditional Soviet order of battle of regiments, divisions and combined arms armies, but have been significantly altered below the level of the regiment. Battalions are organised as line and storm battalions, and tend to operate in company groups which fight in small, dispersed detachments. This reflects not only adaptation to battlefield conditions, but also the shortage of trained officers able to coordinate larger formations, with a significant proportion of Russian junior officers currently being promoted from the ranks and receiving condensed officer training, sometimes as short as two months long.

The Russian Group of Forces continues to take significant casualties, but is nevertheless growing in size. Operating at greater scale allows the Russian military to take measures that guarantee the integrity of the front line. Units can generally be rotated out of the line once they have taken up to 30% casualties – the point at which they are judged to be ineffective – and are then regenerated. While no large-scale offensive is currently taking place, Russian units are tasked with conducting smaller tactical attacks that at minimum inflict steady losses on Ukraine and allow Russian forces to seize and hold positions. In this way, the Russians are maintaining a consistent pressure on a number of points. Although the Russian military’s aspiration to increase in size to 1.5 million personnel has not been realised, recruiters are currently achieving almost 85% of their assigned targets for contracting troops to fight in Ukraine. The Kremlin therefore believes that it can sustain the current rate of attrition through 2025.

In terms of combat equipment, the Russian Group of Forces holds approximately 4,780 barrel artillery pieces, of which 20% are self-propelled; 1,130 MLRS; 2,060 tanks; and 7,080 other armoured fighting vehicles, primarily consisting of MT-LBs, BMPs and BTRs. These continue to be supported by 290 helicopters, of which 110 are attack helicopters, and 310 fast jets. These equipment sets are limited in how they can be employed by ammunition shortages, especially for key natures like 220 mm multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and fluctuating availability of 152mm ammunition. Some sets, like fast air, are constrained by the availability of pilots with sufficient experience to carry out key missions. Russian air crew losses – including operators in the Il-20 Coot and A-50U Mainstay, shot down – amount to 159 personnel, which given the unevenness of flight hours in Russian squadrons amounts to a serious loss of capability. Nevertheless, the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) can continue to mount a significant sortie rate and deliver stand-off munitions. The overall assessment is that while Russian force quality is unlikely to increase so long as the AFU can maintain a significant level of attrition across the force, the Russians will be able to maintain a steady tempo of attacks throughout 2024.

Russian Industrial Capacity

In terms of Russian industry’s capacity to support ongoing operations, Russia has significantly mobilised its defence industry, increasing shifts and expanding production lines at existing facilities as well as bringing previously mothballed plants back online. This has led to significant increases in production output. For example, Russia is delivering approximately 1,500 tanks to its forces per year along with approximately 3,000 armoured fighting vehicles of various types. Russian missile production has similarly increased. At the beginning of 2023, for instance, Russian production of Iskandr 9M723 ballistic missiles was six per month, with available missile stocks of 50 munitions. By the beginning of 2024, not only had Russia used a significant number of these missiles each month since the summer of 2023, but it had increased its stockpile to nearly 200 Iskandr 9M723 ballistic and 9M727 cruise missiles. A similar picture can be observed across other core missile types like the Kh-101.

Despite these achievements, Russia faces significant limitations in the longevity and reliability of its industrial output. Of the tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles, for example, approximately 80% are not new production but are instead refurbished and modernised from Russian war stocks. The number of systems held in storage means that while Russia can maintain a consistent output through 2024, it will begin to find that vehicles require deeper refurbishment through 2025, and by 2026 it will have exhausted most of the available stocks. As the number of refurbished vehicles goes down, industrial capacity can go into making new platforms, but this will necessarily mean a significant decrease in vehicles delivered to the military.

Russia has significantly mobilised its defence industry, increasing shifts and expanding production lines at existing facilities as well as bringing previously mothballed plants back online

Another vulnerability for Russia’s complex weapons like missiles is the extensive dependence on Western-sourced components. Although Russia has maintained a steady supply of the necessary components owing to the incoherent and lackadaisical approach to sanctions adopted by Western states, a more coherent approach to countering the Russian defence industry could disrupt supply lines. Even with the existing flawed approach, the cost of components has risen by 30% for the Russian defence sector, and it has only managed to stabilise supplies rather than expand them, despite extra investment in this line of effort.

Perhaps the most serious limitation for Russia, however, is ammunition manufacture. In order to achieve its aspiration to make significant territorial gains in 2025, the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) has assessed an industrial requirement to manufacture or source approximately 4 million 152mm and 1.6 million 122mm artillery shells in 2024. Russian industry has reported to the MoD that it expects to increase 152mm production from around 1 million rounds in 2023 to 1.3 million rounds over the course of 2024, and to only produce 800,000 122mm rounds over the same period. Moreover, the Russian MoD does not believe it can significantly raise production in subsequent years, unless new factories are set up and raw material extraction is invested in with a lead time beyond five years.

This means that to properly resource the armed forces, Russia must – in the short term – further draw down its remaining 3 million rounds of stored ammunition, though much of this is in poor condition. To further compensate for shortages, Russia has signed supply and production contracts with Belarus, Iran, North Korea and Syria, with the latter only able to provide forged shell casings rather than complete shells. Although the injection of around 2 million 122mm rounds from North Korea will help Russia in 2024, it will not compensate for a significant shortfall in available 152mm munitions in 2025. Russian overall artillery production is likely to plateau at 3 million rounds per year of all natures – including MLRS, which is not considered above.

Conclusions

The Russian theory of victory is plausible if Ukraine’s international partners fail to properly resource the AFU. However, if Ukraine’s partners continue to provide sufficient ammunition and training support to the AFU to enable the blunting of Russian attacks in 2024, then Russia is unlikely to achieve significant gains in 2025. If Russia lacks the prospect of gains in 2025, given its inability to improve force quality for offensive operations, then it follows that it will struggle to force Kyiv to capitulate by 2026. Beyond 2026, attrition of systems will begin to materially degrade Russian combat power, while Russian industry could be disrupted sufficiently by that point, making Russia’s prospects decline over time. The latter would require Ukraine’s partners to demonstrate a semblance of competence in their measures aimed at countering Russian defence mobilisation, which remains eminently possible in spite of their performance to date.

Adopting an approach that aims to ensure Ukraine’s resistance through 2025 not only undermines the Kremlin’s theory of victory but also provides sufficient time to establish a rational mobilisation and training process for the AFU such that it can begin to qualitatively outmatch Russian forces, even if the latter continue to increase in overall size. This is critical to building opportunities to continue to threaten Russia’s position and thereby force Russia not just to seek negotiations, but to actually negotiate an end to the war on terms favourable to Ukraine. Now is not the time to comply with the Kremlin’s understanding of the war’s trajectory.

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