Not Built for Purpose: The Russian Military’s Ill-Fated Force Design
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a deeply flawed military operation, from Moscow’s assumptions about an easy victory, to a lack of preparation, poor planning, and force employment. Less attention has been paid, however, to Russian force structure and manpower issues as a critical element now shaping outcomes in this war. Plans rarely survive first contact with an opponent and militaries invariably must adapt, but strategic force structure choices can prove decisive. Force structure reveals a great deal about a military and its assumptions of what wars it plans to fight and how it plans to fight them.
Some of the most significant problems being experienced by the Russian armed forces are the result of conscious choices and tradeoffs. These decisions help explain many of the observed struggles the Russian armed forces have had in combined arms operations, fighting in urban environments, and attempts to hold terrain. The full extent of Russia’s personnel weaknesses has become clear during this war. As it stands, the Russian military has a shortage of manpower — especially infantry. The Russian military also compromised by establishing a partial mobilization force. Consequently, the Russian army was optimized for a short and sharp war while lacking the capacity to sustain a major conventional conflict at “peace time” manning levels. The Russian armed forces are now pressed to sustain operations in Ukraine and attempting what amounts to a partial mobilization to stem the prospect of significant reversals on the battlefield.
The Best or Worst of Both Worlds?
To understand why this happened to one of the largest militaries in the world, we must start with examining the major tradeoffs made in Russian force design. Successive Russian military reforms since the fall of the Soviet Union sought to abandon the old conscript-heavy mobilization army by consolidating formations and equipment, converting an unwieldy Soviet inheritance into a smaller standing force. The Russian military was primarily composed of conscripts, which it drafted twice a year, and contract servicemen — considered “enlisted professionals” who volunteered for several years of service. Russia focused on making contract servicemen the majority of its armed forces. Along with the United States, Russia came to believe that a smaller but better equipped and trained military could handle a range of conflicts. This process took place largely between 2008 and 2012.
The Russian military then rolled back some of these reforms starting in 2013, not only because several proved deeply unpopular, but also because the force was considered too small for a regional or large-scale war against a superior opponent. Hence, the ground forces adopted a mixed-force structure, with divisions and brigades, increasing overall force structure.
The staffing approach to brigades and divisions was the same. Russia regressed to a partial-mobilization force, hoping to have the best of both worlds: more forces and equipment, reduced staffing and cost, plus the ability to generate substantial combat power on short notice. The military sought to have a high-readiness force within the former Soviet approach of large formations requiring a degree of mobilization. It also struggled to reconcile keeping about 250,000 conscripts in the military, with their generally poor suitability for military operations, and political restrictions on employing them in conflicts.
The Russian military eventually came to adopt a force structure that could deploy as battalion tactical groups, or as the entire formation, such as a regiment or brigade. Battalion tactical groups were task organized combined arms formations with habitual training relationships, centered around a maneuver battalion within a regiment or brigade. They were expected to have higher readiness in terms of equipment and manpower and be able to deploy on short notice. These formations were composed of infantry, armor, artillery, and supporting assets. The battalion tactical group was not a recent development, but it became a yardstick within the Russian military to measure readiness and the force’s capacity to generate units on short notice. In theory, this offered flexibility, although how it would work in practice on a large scale remained guesswork. As this war aptly demonstrates, what a military can do with 10 battalions in a limited war can’t necessarily be replicated with more than a hundred in a complex, large-scale military operation.
What did this yield in practice? As a tiered-readiness force, Russian ground formations (including the airborne and naval infantry) were staffed somewhere between 70 to 90 percent. Consequently, a 3,500 sized brigade might only have 2,500 men at peacetime. When accounting for 30 percent conscripts likely to be in the unit, this meant that no more than 1,700 would be considered deployable. If actual readiness levels were being padded, or there were insufficient numbers of contract servicemen to fill out two battalion tactical groups, then the real number of forces available was even further reduced.
Russia’s operational level command on the battlefield is usually the Combined Arms Army. Armies are comprised of brigades, divisions, and supporting units that are assigned by the Military District. Armies ranged in size, but the resulting effect is that a number of these formations had a standing strength closer to 1.5-2 brigades. Airborne divisions also had reduced manning in practice relative to their end-strength authorized levels. Over time, the force was spread more and more thinly. The hardware was there, but the people were not. The gaps encouraged Russian military officials to engage in habitual forms of cooking the books.
The Russian military is well-suited to short, high-intensity campaigns defined by a heavy use of artillery. By contrast, it is poorly designed for a sustained occupation, or a grinding war of attrition, that would require a large share of Russia’s ground forces, which is exactly the conflict it has found itself in. The Russian military doesn’t have the numbers available to easily adjust or to rotate forces if a substantial amount of combat power gets tied down in a war. Their big assumption was that in the event of a crisis with NATO, political leadership would authorize mobilization to raise manning levels and deploy staffed-up formations.
Enter Putin’s “special operation,” which meant launching a major war in Europe, against the continent’s second largest country, with a force operating at peacetime manning levels. Putin assumed that Ukraine would quickly surrender, and a regime change operation could be conducted without the need to plan and organize for a major war. The resulting debacle, which will be studied for decades to come, proceeds from the intersection of terrible Russian political assumptions with those of the armed forces regarding the forces that would be made available for a war of this scale (as conceived in the design).
Revisiting the Battalion Tactical Group
After Russia’s initial invasion with offensives against Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, the Russian military prioritized having more permanent readiness battalion tactical groups exclusively manned by contract soldiers and officers. Since 2016, each regiment or brigade was supposed to be able to form two battalion tactical groups with only officers and contract soldiers, while conscripts would comprise the third battalion. In practice, the situation varied across units, depending on their overall level of readiness. According to Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, Russia had 66 battalion tactical groups in 2016 with plans to rapidly increase the figure to 96 by the end of the year, 115 in 2017, and 126 in 2018. Shoigu said Russia had 136 battalion tactical groups in 2019 and 168 in August 2021. These are supposed to have between 700 to 900 servicemembers, but as the official number of battalion tactical groups was rapidly increasing, the number of soldiers serving under contract plateaued, and the annual draft figure has remained largely unchanged over the past four years. Consequently, contemporary depictions of the Russian battalion tactical group’s typical size and composition were inaccurate.
The Russian military set a target to reach 425,000 contract soldiers by 2017 and later to reach 499,200 by 2019. Instead, according to Russian officials, it reached 384,000 in 2016, 394,000 in 2019, and 405,000 in 2020, which was the last time a figure was publicly released. As the Ministry of Defense kept releasing the same contract servicemen numbers several years in a row, it became evident that they were probably declining. The delta between official figures and actual contract manning levels was the subject of debate in analytical circles.
It appears the Russian armed forces achieved this target by reducing the number of personnel in each battalion, including the number in each company, which has had a significant effect on operations in Ukraine. There were two important outcomes of this decision. First, Russia’s offensive maneuver formations, assuming around 125 to 130 battalion tactical groups as disclosed by official U.S. sources, were in practice much smaller when we consider their actual strength. This force was approximately 80,000 in overall size, not including auxiliaries, and other supporting elements (total force size likely exceeded 100,000). Second, these formations were heavily weighted towards artillery, armor, support, and enablers rather than motorized rifle infantry and the availability of dismounted units. The effect on Russia’s ability to operate in urban terrain, support armor with dismounted infantry, and control terrain was profound. There were also shortages of key personnel, from enablers to logistics, and the force was far more brittle than many (including us) had assumed.
Based on captured documents published by Ukraine, and credible personnel rosters that appear to have been disclosed via hacks, it appears Russia decided to change its table of organization for motorized rifle units by reducing the number of personnel. Instead of 539 or 461 personnel for motorized rifle battalions, the new table of organization for motorized rifle battalions appears to be approximately 345. However, even with this reduced T/O, many Russian battalions appear to only be at 2/3 or 3/4 strength, often having only 230 to 280 soldiers. The new authorized strength for a motorized rifle company seems to be approximately 75 to 76, instead of 101 or 113 as before, and just 22 for platoons. Previous motorized rifle platoons had 30 or 32 personnel with three eight or nine-man squads and a platoon headquarters.
Data Source: Henry Schlottman (based on leaked documents)
The new motorized rifle platoon has three squads of seven soldiers without a platoon headquarters. Only the platoon commander isn’t part of one of the squads, and the first squad is led by the deputy platoon commander. A seven-man squad would mean that each BMP or BTR vehicle would have four available dismounts not including the crew of three. But many of these squads only have five or six soldiers. In practice, this means that many Russian motorized rifle squads only have enough soldiers to operate their vehicles, but not to dismount and fight on foot. Indeed, there have been cases where Russian BTR and BMPs only had a crew of three, without any dismounts. As a result of these reductions and manning issues, many Russian platoons deployed to Ukraine are closer to the size of a U.S. Marine Corps squad, which is currently 13 with plans to increase the size to 15, and many Russian battalions are the size of a Marine reinforced company with 182 marines and sailors plus enablers, etc.
With attachments, the size of many of these battalion tactical groups based around a motorized rifle battalion is between 400 to 600 personnel, well below the 700 to 900 figure that was reported by Russian officials. For example, the two battalions deployed to Ukraine from the 138th Motorized Rifle Brigade reportedly had 310 and 226 personnel, and the battalion tactical groups formed from these battalions had 666 and 499 personnel, respectively. Captured documents indicate this is an issue for units in different military districts — the Southern Military District appears to be the best manned but its units still suffer from this problem — and with coastal defense and even airborne units as well.
There is also substantial variation in the size of the battalion tactical groups deployed to Ukraine. Some are 900 strong, but many are half that size, which means the regularly released or updated figure by various defense officials is of relatively limited to no relevance when assessing Russia’s ground combat power in Ukraine. In practice, battalion tactical groups may have ranged as much as 350 to 900 in personnel, and some units did not deploy as battalion tactical groups, but as entire regiments with their headquarters units. In these cases, artillery and other regimental or division assets were not always attached to battalion tactical groups but instead held at a higher level, further reducing the size of these units. Indeed, the high number of regimental and brigade commanders who have been killed in Ukraine is one indication that Russian units are fighting as regiments or brigades and not necessarily with independent battalion tactical groups. Another reason for the variation is that brigades and regiments could come up with one battalion tactical group, but the second was often short, revealing a dearth of manpower on hand.
Where Is the Infantry?
Another problem is that the battalion tactical groups with the greater number of soldiers have a greater share of support attachments, such as artillery, air defense, engineers, or electronic warfare, to maneuver companies (e.g., motorized rifle or tank). Depending on the task, those other attachments are important, but the smaller share of maneuver companies to support assets means these formations are less capable at maneuver or seizing terrain. Battalion tactical groups formed from tank battalions typically have fewer personnel because tank battalions only have a table of organization of 151, so they are even smaller because of the reduced motor rifle component. Indeed, it appears Russia also changed the table of organization and equipment of tank regiments by in some cases reducing their motorized rifle battalion to a single company. That meant that a tank regiment could not form two full-strength battalion tactical groups since each tank battalion tactical group is supposed to have at least one motorized rifle company. As an example, Russia’s 2nd Motorized Rifle Division’s 1st Tank Regiment only had a single motorized rifle company with 70 personnel, which is clearly insufficient.
The end result is that the Russian military deployed maneuver formations with few available dismounted infantry, but still brought many of their armored vehicles with them. This situation begins to resemble the problems Russian forces faced in Grozny-1995: tons of metal, little manpower. Russian tank units require infantry support for various situations, and dismounted infantry are critical when fighting in urban settings or seizing or holding terrain. Tanks and armored vehicles are vulnerable without infantry to protect them from anti-tank teams, among other threats. By bringing minimal infantry, motorized rifle battalions are suffering from the same vulnerabilities as tank units. The high ratio of armored vehicles to soldiers in many Russian units also likely accounts for many of the vehicles that were left abandoned by Russian forces during the beginning of the war. The lack of organic motorized rifle troops also helps explain the poor performance by many Russian tank units, who were vulnerable to ambushes by light Ukrainian anti-tank teams armed with Javelin, NLAW, and Stugna-P anti-tank weapons. The problem was exacerbated by losses among infantry components in the first several weeks of the war.
The Russian military especially lacks sufficient light infantry forces for many of the situations it has faced in Ukraine. Even with motorized rifle, airborne, or naval infantry units, armored vehicles are organic at all levels. Thus, entire platoons or companies, including NCOs and officers, cannot dismount as cohesive units because they have to man the vehicles in situations where light infantry units with a mobile unit in support might be preferable. Airborne battalions face the same problem. Indeed, the heavy losses sustained by airborne units near Kyiv in the Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel areas may partially be a result of this lack of infantry. Russia is compensating for this infantry shortage in motorized rifle units by leaning heavily on its naval infantry, as well as separatist militia forces, which did most of the fighting in Mariupol. Arguably Russian naval infantry, a small component of its armed forces, has been the best performing element within the ground force, but they have also sustained heavy losses. Mobilized militia fighters from Donetsk and Luhansk were also deployed to regions beyond the Donbas, and Wagner private military contractors have reportedly played a critical role in the fighting. Indeed, it is fair to ask whether some Wagner detachments and separatist permanent readiness units are in fact more elite and capable than regular Russian motorized rifle units, at least when operating as a dismounted force.
Russia also compensated by deploying units from Russia’s National Guard (Rosgvardia) to serve in a light infantry role. These included spetsnaz units similar to police SWAT teams, and OMON riot police. Although Rosgvardia is a paramilitary organization, its units aren’t trained or equipped for a conventional war, and many Rosgvardia troops invaded Ukraine in riot police trucks with little to no armor. At this stage, the Russian military is scrambling for manpower anywhere it can get it, particularly to fill in for the endemic shortage of infantry relative to equipment. Russia invaded Ukraine with understrength battalion tactical groups, which then suffered the brunt of the casualties.
The Russian military likely would have been better off with fewer, but fully manned battalion tactical groups. It appears Russian forces once again pulled contract soldiers or officers from different battalions to form them right before the invasion, but units perform best when they’ve had an opportunity to train together, develop standard operating procedures, and build cohesion. It also seems clear that many Russian regiments and brigades could only field one full strength battalion tactical groups instead of two as Russian officials have claimed. Interestingly, one of the previously identified weaknesses of these formations was that they lacked a sufficient staff to properly execute command and control over the numerous attachments. Instead, it appears the Russian ground forces in Ukraine were top-heavy, with too many officers commanding smaller units without enough infantry privates.
The fact that the Russian force was spreading itself thinly, reducing readiness to get new divisions and regiments, was known in the analytical community. However, the extent of the problems was not apparent until the war. The evidence points to two initial conclusions. Some of these changes and reductions were relatively recent, likely over the past three years, and parts of the Russian military were systemically overstating readiness. Consequently, senior military leadership may not have known how bad the problem was, and the secrecy surrounding Russian invasion plans within the system compounded the sudden discovery of rot, giving commanders little time to address those problems.
A Lack of Non-Commissioned Officers?
Many commentators have focused on the lack of NCOs as the key personnel weakness of the Russian military. This is unsurprising since they feature prominently in Western militaries. The Russian armed forces have contract NCOs, but these soldiers do not have leadership roles with responsibilities and a division of duties vis-à-vis the commanding officer. These differences are important, but overemphasized. For example, Ukraine had not built an effective NCO corps by the time of this war — it was at best nascent and aspirational. Some of the supposed differences between Russia and Ukraine, brought up in popular discourse, are simply not explanative of the divergent performance between these militaries. It will take time to have a more informed conversation on what mattered, and what did not, in this war.
Instead, the greater personnel problem is the lack of contract privates. Indeed, the reduced-size companies mean that NCOs are less critical because officers are leading fewer soldiers. In many cases, Russian lieutenants led platoons that were approximately the same size as a 13-man U.S. Marine rifle squad, which is led by a NCO. The smaller battalion tactical groups indicate that Russia is failing to recruit enough contract servicemen to properly man maneuver battalions. The priority assignments for contract servicemen are NCO positions, elite units, and highly technical specialties. Conscripts don’t serve long enough to be properly trained on these technical skills, so they are almost exclusively manned by contract soldiers.
Because the Russian Aerospace Forces, Navy, and Strategic Missile Forces have a higher percentage of technical assignments, they receive a higher share of contract soldiers than the army. Within the Ground Forces, the priority is ensuring all NCOs are filled by contract soldiers as well as assignments like air defense, electronic warfare, and other equipment operators. Elite units like the airborne, naval infantry, spetsnaz, and reconnaissance units are also a higher priority for receiving contract soldiers. As a result, motorized rifle battalions don’t have enough contract privates, and it appears Russia decided to compensate by reducing the number of personnel in these battalions, instead of reducing the number of permanent readiness battalion tactical groups. It wasn’t just infantry soldiers. Russian maneuver units didn’t have enough contract privates to serve as drivers for logistics convoys and relied too heavily on conscripts. This meant they had a deficit of drivers once they invaded, which exacerbated their logistical problems.
Why Did This Happen?
Russian thinking on strategy and operational concepts played a significant role in these design choices. Organizational culture and bureaucratic preferences should not be ignored, but the reason the Russian military was set up in this manner ultimately ties back to core tenets of Russian military thought. Militaries have ideas about what kind of wars they’re likely to fight, how they plan to fight them, and the best way to balance capability, capacity, and readiness. While we cannot go in-depth into Russian military thinking here, the core choices were not just driven by an attempt to balance resources and attain force flexibility, but also by a coherent set of beliefs about how the Russian armed forces should organize to fight NATO. These drove the development of a force with less infantry, and less logistical capacity for sustaining ground offensives or holding territory, but more fires and support for enablers.
This does not explain the problems Russian armed forces demonstrate in a host of areas, from lack of secure communications to the poorly demonstrated integration of air support, fires, and reconnaissance on the battlefield. There are clear problems with competence, scaled-up employment, and integration. But conventional wars often come down to attrition, where manpower and materiel matters more over time than many other elements. A force with enough hedge in its structure can try to compensate for a terrible plan, recover from initial failure, and try to adjust. The Russian military has no such option and is further constrained by the political framing of this war.
Indeed, it is an open question as to whether Putin may have had an inflated sense of Russian military capability. Alternatively, he may simply let political assumptions that Ukraine would quickly surrender drive his thinking. Sometimes the military is dishonest about what it can actually do, but often political leaders simply do not want to listen to military advice because it’s not what they wish to hear. Most likely, the Russian failure is some combination of both.
Russia’s manning issues suggest that future mobilization will face serious problems. In the Russian military, conscripts are sent to units where they receive most of their training, instead of centralized schools. However, the training officers and non-commissioned officers from units either either were deployed in some cases or are likely to be used to form additional battalions. This means the remain-behind element for Russian regiments and brigades might not have the personnel to properly train the conscripts currently arriving. The longer this war continues, the greater the disruptive effects will be on training and recruitment. At this stage, it appears Russia is attempting piecemeal solutions by creating reserve battalions on the basis of officers and NCOs allocated to the tentative “third” battalion remaining in current formations. This is a form of partial mobilization, but it cannibalizes an important training component of these units.
Having mobilized substantial manpower, and with access to Western military support, Ukraine now appears positioned to sustain this fight. The Russian campaign floundered not just because it pursued unrealistic political goals, but also because the plan for the invasion did not account for the choices made on force structure, and the limitations they imposed. Russian force employment exacerbated the disadvantages inherent in the force they built. Currently, Russia lacks the manpower to rotate current forces on the battlefield or to conduct further offensives beyond the current campaign in the Donbas. However, Russian forces do appear to enjoy a local-force advantage in the Donbas, and overall long-term challenges raised here may not impede Russian progress in the short term. Much is contingent, and this assessment is not meant to be deterministic.
The arguments we make here are preliminary, and not meant to be predictive of the outcome of battles in the Donbas, or the course of this war. However, contemporary debates on force structure and military strategy would benefit greatly by looking at the choices the Russian military made and how they ended up in this position. There’s much to be said about the primacy of political assumptions, which is one of the most decisive factors in how the Russian armed forces were initially thrown into this war, but equally, it is structural choices that have limited its military’s ability to adjust and sustain combat operations.
Michael Kofman is director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA and a fellow at the Center for New American Security.
Rob Lee is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program. He is a Ph.D. student researching Russian defense policy at King’s College London’s War Studies Department and a former Marine infantry officer.