Ukraine’s human potential, unit cohesion and combat effectiveness
In the comments section of my Substack and those of partners, readers frequently ask about Ukraine’s human potential. So, I’ve decided to write a short article to shed some light on this matter and to answer some other questions that come up repeatedly.
For a better understanding of this article, I suggest you read the following articles first:
Ukraine’s human potential
I propose to do some calculations based on assumed circumstances and figures.
Ukraine had a population of about 40 million before 2014. From then until today, an estimated 15 million people have left/fled Ukraine in both directions, to Russia and Europe, which leaves us with 25 million. These are only estimates, though; no one knows the actual numbers.
Let’s divide 25 million by two, to get the number of males. Now we have 12 million males. I checked some official sources that suggest we divide the population in half to get the number of people aged 16 to 65. Now we have six million men who are of military age.
Next, I deduct another two million men who work in essential industries, government, administration, police and rear logistics. Now we have four million left.
Ukraine is anything but a united nation. There is a huge difference between the people in the west and those in the east in terms of their stance on Russia and the war. I assume that many people in the east don’t want to fight the Russians or go to war at all. I estimate that at least another million aren’t available for the war because they’ve fled to the countryside or somehow dodged conscription so far. We also have to deduct the 1.5 million able-bodied Donbass citizens, which leaves us with 1.5 million men who are theoretically available for military service and mobilization.
I assume that the country can be divided roughly into three “motivation spheres”: 33.33% of the people are pro-Russian, 33.33% are neutral and 33.33% hate Russia, categories that these 1.5 million men fall into. This is a very rough estimate and only an assumption on my part, but I conclude that 500,000 soldiers are fanatically against Russia. Let’s call them highly motivated and ideologically confused. Another 500,000 soldiers are neutral and doing what they need to do to eventually get home alive. The last 500,000 are pro-Russian; they’re being forcefully mobilized and have no desire to fight.
You can play around with my estimates. The formula itself should be fairly accurate; but, with no real numbers available, I’ve had to make assumptions. I’ve deliberately used round numbers for the sake of clarity. There is no way to get the real numbers, but I think mine are good enough to make a valid argument.
Moreover, I want to highlight that the real range of the human potential is somewhere between one and three million. The actual figure doesn’t matter for reasons that I will explain.
NATO’s escalation potential
Of course, NATO, especially Poland, can commit its own troops under the Ukrainian flag. But there are also several thousand foreign mercenaries. These troops mainly support the Ukrainian army and sometimes lead smaller Ukrainian formations, such as companies. Their most important and dangerous task is, of course, to operate western-supplied weapons, such as the M777 howitzer, the Crab and the HIMARS.
Scott Ritter has correctly pointed out that Polish troops are getting bloodied in the Donbass. They’re learning how to fight a real war. When these troops return to Poland, they’ll use their experience to train the next generation of Polish troops. But they aren’t there to fight on the frontlines. More than 70% of them will survive and be able to fulfill their task back in Poland.
I don’t see NATO making any big troop commitments to Ukraine, although that can change anytime. So, for now we’ll base our calculations on the numbers in the section above.
Note that if NATO escalates and commits a significant number of troops, all my predictions will be void. But, for now, I’m ruling out a NATO escalation because I don’t see a high probability of it. If my assessment changes, I’ll inform you immediately.
I consider the four most important functions of an army to be the following:
I’m going to focus solely on unit cohesion because I have already discussed the other three functions at length, as have others.
You can create military formations overnight on paper. You take a million men and give each of them the formation and unit assignments you think make sense.
Each solider is a member of company X, battalion Y, regiment Z, brigade A, division B, army C and so on.
Now that you’ve completed your assignments, you start to assemble your troops and you commit them to the assigned frontline sections or rear functions. But every last man will die a quick death. Why? Because they have no unit cohesion. The troops and the commanders don’t know one another. They don’t know how to talk to one another or how to command effectively. They have no common culture or traditions. The officers will adopt strategies and issue orders, but the troops won’t know how to implement them. They won’t trust one another. This is a fatal flaw. In the field, you must be able to trust the men next to you, because you can’t oversee the entire frontline.
How do you create unit cohesion? It’s a process based on months, if not years, of joint training, manoeuvres, common ideologies, objectives, culture and trust.
There is no way you can create unit cohesion if your formations are continuously being destroyed and rebuilt. We’re not talking about some destroyed companies. We’re talking about destroyed brigades, with all their assigned subunits.
Let’s come back to my initial four points:
Without these four functions, a crowd of people, mobilized and thrown into battle, isn’t an army. It’s what the Ukrainians themselves call it – meat for the grinder.
Overall combat effectiveness
Once again, I’m going to make some assumptions but only for the sake of argument, with the caveat that what I outline here isn’t based on military theory. Let’s assume that the Ukrainian army had a combat effectiveness of 100% at the beginning of the war:
The officers and the troops had been trained for eight years by NATO
There were many experienced, if not battle-hardened, fighters in their ranks
Ukrainian artillery had gained plenty of experience in eight years on the Donbass front without running any great risk, with a goodly share of their experience having been gained by shelling civilian areas and civilians
Their level of motivation was high
Troop cohesion was high after eight years of joint fighting in predefined units
The logistics routes were well established
They had more weapons and ammunition than they needed
Their Soviet-era weapons could be maintained and repaired on the frontline or in nearby machine plants
They had built excellent fortifications in the Donbass
Et cetera. (If you give it some thought, you’ll come up with more on your own.)
Slightly more than a year later, the situation has changed drastically.
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More people for the same results
Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that all the troops trained by NATO before 2022 have died. Those troops have been replaced by an equal number of mobilized Ukrainians, but without training. We can assume that the Ukrainians’ combat effectiveness has dropped by 30%. Note that I’ve simply made up these numbers and assumptions to explain the concept of combat effectiveness.
Now let’s try to estimate the productivity figure in civil industry. A simplified definition is the amount of work that can be done with a given number of workers. Now I’m going to simplify it further. Let’s assume that combat effectiveness is the military equivalent of the productivity figure of industry. (Sorry about the oversimplification, but not all my readers can follow a scientific explanation, and rightly so.)
What does that mean? It means the following: If an army can achieve result X on the battlefield with a million men having full combat effectiveness, how many men would be needed if the combat effectiveness dropped to 70%? The answer is 1.4 million. Again, these are made-up numbers, only for the sake of argument.
Now you can do the following exercise, if you’re so inclined. Go through my enumeration in the section above and assign a degree of combat effectiveness to the Ukrainian army. Before 2022, the Ukrainian army had 300,000 men. Take this figure and divide it by your own estimate of the army’s current combat effectiveness. My own estimate (of course, I don’t have the actual figures) is 30%; thus, 300,000 men divided by a combat effectiveness of 30% equates to one million men. To sustain the same resistance as at the start of the war, Ukraine today needs a million-strong army.
With less training, experience, unit cohesion, equipment and logistics, the Ukrainian casualty rate will only increase. Hence, the number of men you need to replace your losses exceeds the number you actually lost.
Combat effectiveness isn’t a one-way street. If the Russians don’t keep up the pressure on many frontlines simultaneously, NATO will have time to adjust some of the above factors so as to increase the combat effectiveness percentage, such as by training more highly motivated and ideologically confused people.
Conversely, if Russia increases the pressure on ever more frontlines, the Ukrainian army’s combat effectiveness will decrease further, until its inevitable collapse. If only cannon fodder stands between victory and a Russian tank, then the armoured land war between Russia and Ukraine is over, even though Ukraine might be able to mobilize hundreds of thousands more men for the meat grinder.
That is why I refer to what could happen in two to three months. It wouldn’t be the end of the war. But the nature of the war would change dramatically if Ukraine didn’t surrender at that point. If things go very badly, Ukraine (namely NATO) may decide to withdraw the remaining troops into the big cities. Which would be catastrophic for all parties involved. And would lead to many more months, or even years, of fighting or siege.
Classification of combat effectiveness
I will now offer a classification of combat effectiveness, again for the sake of giving you a clear idea:
We’re talking about an army at full strength, with the training, equipment and logistics to fight a full-spectrum war.
We’re talking about an army that can sustain the same battle intensity as before but with a higher troop loss. Mobilization is going full steam ahead to replace the losses.
The country’s ability to produce and maintain its own ammunition and equipment is seriously degraded. To make up for equipment losses, the logistics chain needs to be improved, covered and concealed. Thus, far more people than before are required for logistics in the rear. Equipment has to be shipped across the country in both directions. Troops can no longer be trained within the country and must go abroad. The battle can be sustained fully at this point but only with a far higher loss of troops. Full mobilization is taking place.
20%-40% (Where I assume the Ukrainian army is now)
The consumption rate of trained troops is far higher than the replenishment rate of trained, cohesive troops. Combat effectiveness is falling steadily. The results on the frontline are getting worse and worse. It is difficult to keep up the armoured land war.
0%-20% (This category brings about collapse, but not defeat, and should not be too far off)
Despite all the equipment and logistics in place, the troops are inadequately trained to use the equipment, they are not prepared for large-scale formation warfare and they have very little unit cohesion. At this stage, you can have a million-man army and an endless supply of matériel. But if your million men face an army at full strength and combat effectiveness, then in an open field you’ll have a hot knife cutting through butter. The only way to survive is to retreat to big cities. In fact, one can compare this situation to ISIS at its end in Syria in 2016.
Equipment without training makes no sense
The West is providing ever more tanks, ammunition, planes, etc.
Can this go on forever? Or even for several years? No.
The West is faced with the following problems:
You have an army that must hold the frontlines in Donbass while losing trained and untrained troops at the rate of 500 to 1,000 a day.
You must, therefore, mobilize more than 500 to 1,000 fresh men each day and decide which ones will be sent to the frontlines without training and which will be trained on Western equipment.
You must find a way to create unit cohesion.
You must find officers to lead the troops.
You must ensure they learn to fight within an organization with formation structures.
Most of the Ukrainian volunteers have already been depleted and most of the freshly recruited troops have less motivation.
How do you avoid sending abroad people who don’t want to fight? You can only send people who are highly motivated. You can’t punish them on German soil. What if they try to desert in Germany? Or ask for asylum? How should the German officers react?
If, last summer, Ukraine was able to mobilize tens of thousands of people willing to be trained or sent directly to the frontlines, the situation has changed dramatically.
As noted above, the “mobilizers” need to decide what to do. Should they send soldiers abroad, which is feasible only with highly motivated people? Or should they commit them directly to the fight? Sometimes soldiers even have to be handcuffed; otherwise they would turn against their officers. The number of highly motivated people is plummeting, as the information spreads through Ukraine about casualties and the prospect for winning. Which is zero.
Here is an illuminating story from the Second World War. A German soldier wrote home regularly. After several years of fighting, he told his family something along the lines of: “I realized we were losing only after the locations of our reported victories got closer and closer to Germany.” It seems to me that all fascist regimes face the same challenge: deluding their population and troops with the perception of victory to keep morale high, even though astronomical numbers of soldiers have died, and defeat can be postponed only with cannon fodder.
For the Russian army, defeating the Ukrainians is no easy task. Strength is not the issue. The Russian army is equipped and trained to fight the entire NATO army. But the Ukrainians are Russian brothers, and a fair share of them are actually ethnic Russians. The Ukrainian land and cities are mostly Russian cities. They were built by Ukrainians and Russians together, and Ukrainians and Russians used to coexist a single country: The Soviet Union.
Re-establishing such circumstances would be ideal. But, with the West’s scorched-earth policy, it’s getting harder and harder. I could explain how Russia can destroy the Ukrainian state in a mere month, without using any weapons of mass destruction. But I won’t, because it is an appalling prospect. But it is exactly what Europe can expect, if it keeps crossing red lines. And you can be darn sure that Europe would have no energy, communications or internet after the first month of hostilities, apart from some emergency generation capability for governments and the military.
Thus far, many Russians have died and many more will die trying to defeat the Ukrainian army, while also trying to save the pro-Russian civilians in the Donbass and to preserve the Ukrainian administrative structures and energy infrastructure. It is idiocy to carry out a mopping-up operation that involves going from house to house where Ukrainians have taken Russian civilians as hostages. It’s as if a million terrorists invaded New York City, took over every apartment building and held the civilians inside as hostages. You would need tens of thousands of SWAT teams specialized in hostage situations to go through every building to try to save all the civilians. That’s literally what is going on in Donbass. It might be different in other parts of Ukraine, but in Novorossiya it’s the equivalent of New York City taken over by a million terrorists.
There is an easy solution that would minimize Russian casualties. And it has nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction. But it would mean the end of the civilian population that has not fled the Donbass. Hence, thousands or even tens of thousands of Russian soldiers may die as they mop up the Donbass carefully to preserve their civilian brothers. If you are a European reading this piece, be well aware that such mercy would not apply to you, especially if you’re a Pole cheering for war with Russia.
Even so, I’m receiving ever more information that the mood on the frontline is changing. This careful approach may not last. If the Russians didn’t want to kill their Ukrainian brothers at the beginning and didn’t want to target bigger accumulations of troops, their attitude has changed. The local commanders on the ground seem to have received clearance to target large Ukrainian troop concentrations on the frontline and in the rear. Bombers are providing such a deep-strike capability. Taking Artemovsk as an example, the Russians have started to target reserve concentrations in the rear. Chasov Yar is one example. Which only increases the Ukrainian casualty rate.
It is the right thing to do in order to win the war and make it unsustainable for the West and Ukraine. Unfortunately, it’s in line with the West’s scorched-earth approach. There will be ever more civilian casualties among pro-Russian civilians. Which will lead to further tensions.
President Putin finds himself in a very uncomfortable position. He may have to sacrifice tens of thousands of his best troops to clear most of the occupied buildings and to rescue the hostages. Such storming operations involve high casualty rates. In the short term, they would create incredible shitstorms against the Russian leaders, who would be accused of incompetence, etc. In the long term, they would make it easier to reconcile the people.
As for NATO, it appears to be committed to propping up the Ukrainian army and sacrificing all the men who can’t hide or flee abroad. I assume that Russia didn’t expect this degree of commitment, especially because it is a huge burden for the alliance, both politically and militarily.
It is possible that the Kremlin’s calculation COULD or HAS ALREADY changed. Preserving the “Ukrainians” perhaps isn’t worth sacrificing the best Russian troops in house-to-house combat. I don’t know. I’m still receiving many reports from the frontline that COULD indicate such an outcome. If that happens, then the Ukrainian casualty figures will explode. We would not be talking about 500 to 1,000 dead Ukrainians a day but probably as many as 3,000. Russia knows where they are. I personally don’t think we have reached that point yet.
But who knows?
The British have just announced that they will give Ukraine depleted-uranium ammunition for tanks. This baffles me. It should not have happened. If Russians are exposed to radioactivity (I will come to that discussion shortly), then this is a serious escalation for several reasons:
The Russian soldiers will demand to be protected from such shells. No one wants to survive a war only to get cancer afterward. The motivation of the troops could decrease.
Donbass has much fertile land. If such shells are used, the people could consider the land contaminated and no longer usable for agriculture.
Both circumstances will diminish their trust in the Russian government to protect them.
Demands to use similar ammunition or tactical nukes could increase.
Such a course of action would be idiotic. If you use such ammunition, you only contribute to the contamination of your own land (Novorossiya), and the same goes for tactical nukes.
There is no way to prevent this and there is no way to retaliate.
The United States always uses Great Britain for such actions as well as other special operations against Crimea and within Russia. Why? Escalation management. Russian retaliation should hit only the United Kingdom and not the United States, so as to avoid a Third World War.
This “insurance policy” could soon expire. The crossing of such a serious red line could lead to overt or covert retaliation against the British, which they will surely understand. Don’t ask about NATO in such a case. No one will commit suicide over such a provocation.
Now we come to the matter of whether the shells are radioactive. I have a degree in engineering and economics. So, I understand something about materials and physics but I certainly don’t know much about nuclear physics. So, I will offer an opinion based on my limited knowledge:
In a solid state, such shells should be safe. They should not be radioactive, at least not to such a degree as to be dangerous for people. They have to be produced and handled by the West’s own people. Hence, I assume that safety is assured.
I know that extreme characteristics can be created if a material is highly accelerated under high pressure and develops high temperatures, especially material that is or WAS radioactive.
I’m not an expert but I assume there is a POSSIBILITY that, at the time of impact, such shells could be subject to the extreme circumstances described above and that some kind of residual radiation could be possible.
The question is, whom does it affect? There is a very high probability that the target will be dead. Is it enough to contaminate the ground? I have a hard time believing that it would. But I don’t know.
I assume the only people potentially exposed to radiation are those in proximity to the impact, and most of them will have died BECAUSE of the impact.
Again, I’m not a physicist. My opinion could be totally wrong.
In brief, the red line drawn by the Russians could be based on their knowledge that these shells are indeed toxic. Or perhaps the red line has been drawn only because of the effect on the Russian public and military morale, as discussed above, namely the fear that the Russian state can’t protect them. I don’t know.
But it is a serious escalation. I don’t like what is happening. The escalation doesn’t warrant an overt response but is certainly enough to cause serious political damage within Russia and the army. Well played, Brits.
The Ukrainians’ combat effectiveness is steadily decreasing. I assume it has fallen to 30%. And at the same time the ability to mobilize effective, motivated troops is also decreasing. Which leads me to conclude that if there is no escalation by NATO in terms of committing its own troops, the professional Ukraine army will cease to be able to fight a large-scale ground war in a few months. Afterward, the nature of the war will change dramatically, IF Kiev does not surrender. As we know, keeping up the fight is already a war crime by the West. If the West continues the fight after such a point, it would be a crime against humanity.
I certainly do not rule out such a possibility. In fact, I assume that, after the professional Ukrainian army loses the ability for large-scale armoured resistance, we will see many more months, or even years, of struggle and combat.
Undoubtedly, you want to know how the nature of the fight could change after the defeat of the current iteration of the army (the fourth according to the BMA classification). I don’t know. The situation most likely will become highly dynamic, and there will be all kind of escalations on both sides. To try to predict it would be reckless. The only thing I can do, and what I have done, is to predict the outcome. You need only read my two articles referred to in the “Basics” section.
The closer we get to the defeat of the fourth iteration of the Ukrainian army, the more escalation we can expect from the West. The delivery of depleted-uranium ammunition is an example. Many more such steps will soon follow. That’s why I maintain that no one can predict what the fight will look like between the collapse of the fourth iteration of the Ukrainian army (presumably the last iteration able to fight a large-scale land war) and the defeat of the Ukrainian state. It’s impossible to know. Or to estimate how long it will take.
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