Photos that appeared online over the weekend, depicting Russian army armored vehicles on trains rolling out of the army training base Mulino, 200 miles east of Moscow, are a potentially ominous sign.
The Russian army’s newest grouping, the 3rd Army Corps, is on the move–toward eastern Ukraine. The 3rd Army Corps is the first big new formation to take shape as a result of the Kremlin’s urgent initiative, beginning this summer, to recruit new soldiers and stand up new units in order to replace the tens of thousands of troops it has lost in the six months since it widened its war in Ukraine.
The 3rd AC will, to some extent, boost the fighting strength of the battered Russian army in Ukraine. But it’s unclear just how effective the corps might be in combat with battle-hardened Ukrainian battalions. While the 3rd AC has drawn relatively modern equipment, its recruits–middle-aged men, mostly–are indicative of the Russian army’s broader manpower challenge.
Aging Russia doesn’t have a lot of highly motivated, fit young men to spare. And that means the 3rd AC could roll into battle at a disadvantage.
The Russian army that attacked northern, eastern and southern Ukraine on Feb. 23 included around 125 battalion tactical groups in 10 army groups, altogether overseeing around 125,000 front-line troops. That was 80 percent of the Kremlin’s ground combat power.
That army has suffered heavy casualties totaling as many as 80,000 killed and wounded, according to a recent U.S. Defense Department assessment. That’s twice as many casualties as the Ukrainian army probably has suffered.
The steep losses help to explain why the Russian operation has been down-scaled. In February, Moscow’s goal was to destroy the Ukrainian armed forces, capture all major Ukrainian cities east of the Dnipro River, occupy Kyiv, topple the Ukrainian government and also capture the entirety of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast including the strategic port of Odesa.
The Kyiv offensive collapsed in late March. The southern offensive stalled short of Odesa. The Ukrainian military, despite its losses, still is in fighting shape. The government in Kyiv is intact. In keeping with its army’s shrinking combat power, the Kremlin also has shrunk its ambitions. Concentrating its surviving forces in the east, the Russian army in late July managed finally to seize the last free city on the east bank of the Severodonetsk River in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
After that, the front froze. In the east, Russian forces advanced a mile here, a mile there, while Ukrainian troops fought their way across the Inhulets River in the south, positioning them for a possible, eventual push toward Russian-occupied Kherson on the Black Sea coast east of Odesa.
Neither army is likely to gain much ground unless and until it restores the combat power it has lost since February. The Kremlin back in May began scraping together fresh battalions by raiding the training and garrison establishment of existing brigades. At the same time, the army announced an initiative to form scores of new regional volunteer battalions—and even offered elevated salaries of up to $5,000 a month.
The recruitment drive immediately collided with Russia’s unhappy demographics and conscription practices. Roughly half of the 900,000 people in the Russian army forces are professionals on long-term contracts. The other half is conscripts between the ages of 18 and 27.
The conscripts serve just one year and, by law, aren’t supposed to see combat. Of the million or so young men who are in the age range for conscription, around a third are exempt for medical or educational reasons. Twice a year, the Kremlin taps roughly 200,000 of the 700,000 who are eligible for the yearlong military service.
There’s not a lot of excess manpower in the conscription pool. For the most part, these are not the men who will fill out the volunteer battalions. Instead, the Kremlin is targeting older men, 2 million of whom have previous military experience and technically belong to the military’s reserve.
It’s not for no reason that Russian President Vladimir Putin in May signed a law removing the 40-year age limit on new recruits. And it’s not for no reason the 3rd AC’s ranks feature a lot of gray hair, weathered faces and paunchy midsections. “Images of the 3rd Army Corps elements have shown the volunteers to be physically unfit and old,” the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. noted.
Potentially worse for their prospects in combat, the 3rd AC and other new units are minimally trained and lack experienced non-commissioned officers. As a consolation, the 3rd AC at least is riding into Ukraine in fairly modern vehicles, including T-90 and T-80BV tanks. Other Russian reinforcements arriving in Ukraine have been saddled with very old equipment such as the T-62 tanks the army pulled out of long-term storage.
It’s unclear how big the 3rd AC is–a Russian corps usually has up to 20,000 people. It’s equally unclear how commanders will deploy the corps. It could fight as one formation, most likely in Donbas. Or commanders could break it up into brigades and battalions in order to plug holes in the army groups that already are in Ukraine and have buried thousands of their best troops.
In any event, not everyone is convinced a newly arriving corps will make much difference in a war that’s killing Russians at a rate of 200 or more a day. The 3rd AC’s “effect is unlikely to be decisive to the campaign,” the U.K. Defense Ministry stated.