Ukraine’s Manpower Crisis: No Amount of Money or Aid Can Solve It

March 5, 2024 (Brian Berletic - NEO) - Both Ukraine and its Western supporters are raising the alarm over Ukraine’s military manpower shortage and the difficult decisions facing the Ukrainian government in resolving it, if it can be resolved. Ukraine’s manpower crisis represents a growing problem that no amount of Western financial or military aid can remedy, and may represent a point of weakness nothing short of NATO resignation or intervention can address.

Ukrainian publications like the Kyiv Independent in its article“Ukraine struggles to ramp up mobilization as Russia’s war enters 3rd year,” and Western publications like the Washington Post in its article“Front-line Ukrainian infantry units report acute shortage of soldiers,” explain how a shortage of soldiers is accelerating the strain on Ukraine’s remaining forces, compounding their difficulties along the line of contact. The articles also note the difficulty of additional mobilizations, which would require calling up segments of the population previously exempted from military service, and the social and political divisions such a mobilization would create.

One of Many Growing Problems 

With the conflict in Ukraine entering its third year, Ukraine and its Western sponsors are increasingly admitting to shortcomings in terms of their support for Ukraine. This includes shipments of both arms and ammunition. While the collective West’s media insists these shortcomings are the result of political deadlock in the US Congress over funding, these shortcomings are the result of deeper problems much more difficult to address.

A US Department of Defense National Defense Industrial Strategy (NDIS) report not only admits that the US military industrial base is incapable of producing the amount of arms and ammunition Ukraine requires on the battlefield, but that systemic problems will prevent the US from doing so anytime in the foreseeable future.

The US Department of Defense also recently admitted that it failed to create a sustainment strategy for US weapon systems sent to Ukraine, including the Patriot air defense system, the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, the Stryker armored vehicle, and the M1 Abrams main battle tank. Without such a strategy, the press release admitted, “the Ukrainians would not be capable of maintaining these weapon systems.” 

Together, these factors constitute significant obstacles for Ukraine and its Western sponsors as the current conflict grinds on, the additional manpower crisis complicates matters even further.

The Challenge of Building Brigades 

Despite recent claims from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that Ukraine has only lost 31,000 soldiers since February 2022 (the New York Times reports US officials placing the number closer to 70,000 and Russia’s Ministry of Defense places the number at 444,000), urgent efforts to mobilize hundreds of thousands of additional soldiers, as reported by Reuters, betray the true scope of Ukrainian losses.

Ukraine’s losses are so extensive that its problems go far beyond just mobilizing enough soldiers to maintain troop levels along the line of contact. Ukraine must reconstitute entire military units up to the brigade level.

Building or rebuilding brigades of around 4,000 soldiers each began in 2022 and continued into 2023 ahead of Ukraine’s failed summer-fall offensive. According to Reuters, up to 9 brigades were trained and armed by NATO for the offensive, all of them subsequently suffering catastrophic losses.

The brigades performed poorly during the 2023 offensive due primarily to the short period of training both individual soldiers received and the short period of time the individual brigades had to train for combined arms operations.

To successfully build a brigade, Ukraine would need to properly train individual soldiers for entry-level positions such as infantry, artillery, armor, and other supporting roles. They would also need to properly train these soldiers as part of the individual units they would be assigned to in order to build unit cohesion. These units would then need to train to work together as a brigade in combined arms warfare in which infantry, armor, artillery, and other types of units coordinate together on the battlefield.

Basic training alone can take 2–3 months. Additional training for supporting roles can take anywhere from a few months to an entire year to complete. Even when this training is complete, newly trained soldiers usually benefit from a period of on-the-job training with experienced soldiers in existing units led by experienced non-commissioned officers (NCOs) or officers.

Another aspect often overlooked is the training and experience required from these NCOs and officers. Their training can take over a year or more to complete and the experience that makes fire team leaders as well as platoon, company, battalion, and brigade commanders effective on the battlefield takes even longer to acquire.

It should be remembered that the US along with the rest of NATO spent from 2014 to 2022 training tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops at all levels of Ukraine’s armed forces, including officer training and brigade-level combined arms training, according to the US Department of Defense. Despite this, Ukraine’s military was unprepared to fight Russian forces when Russia’s Special Military Operation (SMO) began in February 2022.

While these NATO-trained Ukrainian forces managed to draw out the conflict and raise the costs for Russia of addressing its national security concerns along its border with Ukraine, by doing so, Ukraine itself is paying a much higher cost in terms of economic damage, loss of life, the loss of territory, and the decimation of its armed forces in the process.

If the US and the rest of NATO were unable to build forces sufficient to fight and defeat Russian forces under ideal conditions over the course of 8 years, it is unlikely the collective West can do so in the middle of an intense, large-scale conflict that is demonstrably eliminating what trained military manpower and equipment Ukraine has left.

Efforts to reconstitute trained military manpower since the beginning of the SMO have focused on providing thousands of Ukrainian conscripts and volunteers to abbreviated training courses across Europe before sending them back to Ukraine to face combat. These abbreviated training courses are incapable of producing properly trained soldiers to fight effectively on the battlefield, leading to greater losses and thus a greater need for additional soldiers. The more soldiers Ukraine needs, the more abbreviated training becomes, the less effective that training is, and the more subsequent losses Ukraine suffers on the battlefield. This constitutes a vicious cycle Ukraine and its Western sponsors are incapable of escaping, except through either ending or expanding the conflict.

This may be why some Western leaders have resorted to escalatory statements regarding NATO intervention more directly into the conflict, perhaps believing NATO manpower and equipment can overcome Russian forces in a manner Ukrainian forces currently cannot.

It may be that some Western leaders believe NATO forces creating a buffer zone in western Ukraine might provide the Ukrainian population added impetus to further mobilize and fight in the east. While this might free up additional troops and make available additional manpower, it still will not solve the problem of properly training these forces, nor the problem of properly arming and equipping them.

Whether or not NATO intervention could achieve either of these goals, such courses of action would raise the threat of escalation and even the prospect of nuclear war.

The fact that NATO is considering such escalatory measures reflects the mindset beginning to take shape within Washington, London, and Brussels at this stage of the conflict. NATO leaders must ask themselves whether they are genuinely confident escalation at this juncture can resolve the problems created by their own poor planning and preparation until now, or whether subsequent escalation will compound these problems further.

Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.