08.12.23 Review

Human Exhaustion: The depletion of the ‘rally around the flag’ effect is forcing Ukrainian commanders to seek a commercially viable contract model to replenish its troops

While Russia has successfully managed its human resource crisis on the frontline through 'partial' mobilisation and the widespread introduction of competitive military contracts, the Ukrainian army appears to be experiencing a shortage of manpower. The 'rally around the flag' effect of the initial period of the war has largely been exhausted, the Ukrainian army has suffered huge losses, the outflow of people, including those of conscription age, continues, and the mobilisation system has been shaken by corruption scandals and reorganisations. A protracted war requires a different approach to military organisation. In all likelihood, Kyiv will have to follow the same path that Russia is currently on, combining ideological and commercial incentives to form what is effectively a professional army. So far, Ukraine has sought palliative solutions, using commercial recruitment firms to hire qualified military positions and attracting volunteers with promises of specialised service. At the same time, individual military formations have launched their own recruitment and advertising campaigns to replenish their personnel. However, for Ukraine to sustain a war of attrition, it will need a more stable and comprehensive recruitment system, which will require the resources to create it.

A protracted war, or the war of attrition, places the question of replenishing material and human resources at the fore. Last year, Russia's unpreparedness for a protracted war manifested itself in acute shortages of manpower, ammunition and certain weapons. At the same time, Ukraine conducted a successful mobilisation, and with the help of the West was able to gain advantages on the battlefield. This resulted in successes for the Ukrainian army in the second half of 2022. 

However, by the second half of 2023, the situation had changed dramatically. Russia mobilised its economic capabilities for military-industrial production (including unprecedented revenues from oil exports) and adopted a new model of military contract, enabling the assembly of human resources for the front. Ukraine and its Western allies, on the one hand, bet on a breakthrough counteroffensive by the Ukrainian armed forces, and on the other hand, discovered the limitations of their capabilities both in terms of arms supplies and in terms of exhausting the potential for mobilising military personnel in Ukraine.

Information about the dire situation with manpower in the Ukrainian army is sporadically leaking into the media, but it seems that, in reality, this problem is becoming extremely acute.

In some branches of the Ukrainian army, the shortage of personnel is now more acute than the shortage of weapons and ammunition. As one of Zelensky's associates told a Time magazine correspondent, even if the US and its allies provide Ukraine with all the weapons promised, 'we don't have enough people to use them'. 

In the initial months after the start of Russia's full-scale invasion mobilisation in Ukraine took place amid a patriotic upsurge, fuelled by a wave of global solidarity with Ukraine and the unexpected success of the Ukrainian army against the relatively disorganised and disoriented Russian forces at that time. The Russian troops were unprepared for real war, facing problems both in motivation and command. In the first ten days of the war alone, 100,000 new recruits joined the Ukrainian defence forces. However, since February of last year, Ukraine has suffered colossal losses in wounded and killed.

From the very beginning of the invasion, Kyiv, like Moscow, has refused to publish data on the dead and wounded, but according to current unofficial estimates, the total number of losses should be about 200,000. In August, the New York Times reported that about 70,000 had been killed and 100,000-120,000 wounded. Other sources have reported 100,000 deceased Ukrainian military personnel as early as in March 2023. The project 'Memorial book for those who have died for Ukraine', dedicated to establishing named lists of the deceased, counted 24,500 individuals by mid-November. According to the authors of the project, these figures represent about 70% of the real losses. It is worth noting that a similar Russian project by Mediazona and the BBC has counted 38,261 names as of 1 December, which, according to the authors of the project, amounts to 50-60% of the total number of Russian servicemen killed in Ukraine.

One way or another, there is tension in the replenishment of army units on the Ukrainian side. Time magazine has learnt that, as it stands, the average age of a soldier in Ukraine is about 43 years old. However, this may be a reflection of the mobilisation strategy pursued by the Ukrainian command, deliberately 'saving' younger ages. Similar figures for Russian troops are unknown, but judging by the 'sample' of those killed that has appeared on the Mediazone and BBC list, the median age of a Russian soldier is now around 35 or slightly higher.

The tense situation with the mobilisation campaign in Ukraine is evidenced by the occasional stories appearing on social media about how employees of military enlistment offices pull men from trains and buses and send them to the front. At the same time, according to estimates by the Austrian newspaper Exxpress, about 650,000 Ukrainian men of conscription age have left Ukraine and legalised their status in the EU. In fact, this figure may be even higher, since not all refugees who have settled in the countries of the EU have registered there legally, and it is likely that some of these have moved to the USA, Canada and other countries that have not been included in the calculations. 

The social tension around this issue is being exacerbated by information about widespread corruption: according to media reports, exemption from service on medical grounds can be obtained in Ukraine today for the price of a bribe ranging from 3,000 to 15,000 dollars. The scale of the problem was also indicated by Volodymyr Zelensky's August order to dismiss all regional military commissars. By that time, 112 criminal cases had already been initiated in Ukraine against military enlistment office personnel, and 33 individuals had obtained suspect status. Zelensky's decision was meant to demonstrate his commitment to fighting bribery and promoting people with combat experience: according to his plan, the dismissed military commissars were to be replaced by war veterans. However, the military commissariats, which were temporarily left without leadership, virtually stopped recruiting new soldiers, and it proved challenging to replace the dismissed officials because the reputation of the draft offices and their heads had already been tarnished by that time. One officer interviewed by Time commented on this by saying: 'Who needs this job? It's like putting a sign on your back that says 'corrupt'.'

However, the problem is not only corruption. A protracted war requires a change in approach to army recruitment. In fact, the Ukrainian commanders have no choice but to create a real contract system similar to the one in Russia. Recognising this problem, the Ukrainian authorities are planning to change conscription practices, the Guardian reports. Commercial recruitment companies will be used to carry out more targeted conscription and to convince recruits that their skills will be put to good use. The plan is that they will be able to bring in qualified Ukrainians who want to help their country but are not keen to go to the front line. In the new system, potential conscripts will be able to apply for positions that correspond to their professional competences. Another resource at the disposal of the Ukrainian recruitment system is decentralisation. While the Ukrainian government is still working on a new military recruitment strategy, many of Ukraine's most combat-ready units are already actively recruiting independently through job search services, their own official websites and social networks, or HR platforms, such as the military recruitment service Lobby X, through which more than 2200 people have already found specialised jobs in the army, POLITICO reports. However, it should be noted that these remedial incentives are unlikely to replace direct monetary incentives effectively. In this sense they are just a waste of time. And the transition to a system that would provide real monetary incentives requires adequate resources, which need to be included within Ukraine's aid programmes.