Where is Russia’s next wave of men coming from?

Common wisdom says that Russia can conscript many more men than Ukraine, allowing it to outlast the West. It's probably wrong.
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SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - JULY 30: (RUSSIA OUT) Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to the Russian Navy's Commander-in-Chief Nikolai Yevmenov (R) during the annual Navy Day Parade on July 30, 2023, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. (Photo by Contributor/Getty Images)

There seems to be a recurring point made in the current discussion around the Russo-Ukrainian War. Ukraine will always struggle with manpower as a smaller, democratic country. And Russia will always thrive in the manpower fight because it is larger and run by an autocrat.

So Ukraine and Russia are two battling animals, and Russia can bleed for longer than Ukraine can fight.

But…what? Did we all forget that Russia announced a conscription of 300,000 last year and saw hundreds of thousands of Russians flee the country? Indeed, over 1 million Russians entered Georgia in the nine months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. So, let’s interrogate the idea that Russia has an endless pool of manpower.

But first, we should acknowledge that Ukraine also faces real manpower shortages.

Ukraine’s manpower struggles

KYIV, UKRAINE – NOVEMBER 27: People stand around a memorial to fallen Ukrainian soldiers after a snowfall on November 27, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Danylo Antoniuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

We should get this out of the way because, while the author unabashedly supports Ukraine, it would be quite dishonest to discuss Russia’s manpower woes without admitting that Ukraine faces a lot of the same problems.

Ukraine has the much smaller population of the two countries. Ukraine has just shy of 14 million men aged 15-64 years. Russia has over 45 million. Ukraine’s pool is literally less than a third of the size.

And Ukraine has faced problems with draft dodging. An estimated 20,000 fighting-age men fled by November of 2023. That’s five brigades worth, an entire division, if Ukraine was into divisions.

Meanwhile, it has already lost an estimated 200,000 casualties among its troops and over 26,000 civilian casualties.

Ukraine, in theory, has millions more men that it can press into service. But in practical terms, its military has tripled in size since February 2022 but probably couldn’t double again without major strain.

Russia’s manpower struggles

So, yes, Russia’s population is nearly triple the size of Ukraine’s. And it’s taking losses at just 1.5 times the rate of Ukraine (an estimated 300,000 Russian casualties to 200,000 Ukrainian ones). If Russia and Ukraine both poured their men’s blood into a pit at the current rates, Ukraine would run out long before Russia.

But Russia is fighting a war of choice and aggression very poorly. And its poor and disenfranchised masses understand that they’re being used as fodder for Putin’s vanity war. Russia’s population is surprisingly diverse, with five minorities representing over 1 percent each of the population, and over 23 percent of Russians not claiming Russian ethnicity.

But Russia is disproportionately calling up its ethnic minorities, and they’ve noticed. And, believe it or not, oppressed minorities would typically rather not die subjecting other ethnicities to oppression.

Remember, when Russia called up 300,000 men for military service and an estimated more than 200,000 fled the country in a week?

And AP just released phone calls of Russian soldiers who want to flee their units.

Russia can barely keep up the bonuses needed to keep drawing volunteers into the military, and that’s without paying many of the death bonuses. Because, yes, Russian families are supposed to get death gratuities, but Russia is reportedly hiding many deaths to prevent paying out.

Meanwhile, the Russian economy continues to flash warning signs, the economy that’s needed to provide those bonuses. As well as pay for the massive amounts of destroyed war material.

A conscription further damages the economy, requires more money for training, money for enforcement, and then more money for death bonuses and funerals. Indeed, Putin is reportedly afraid to call another mass mobilization precisely because of the damage to the economy and popular sentiment.

The Russian economy is in the toilet

Most media credulously prints whatever economic numbers that Russia claims. But more skeptical economists have double-checked Russia’s claims. First, the bulk of Russia’s income, as always, comes from the sale of Urals Crude. But Urals Crude is trading at less than $62 a barrel as of the time of writing. And that’s despite massive OPEC production cuts and Russia restricting exports. So Russia is collecting little per barrel while also selling fewer barrels.

The exact numbers are hidden since so much Russian oil is smuggled on a “dark” tanker fleet, that Russia had to buy, but oil revenues are definitely down.

Meanwhile, Russia claims that its economy has grown while admitting that large portions of it now exclusively produce war goods instead of consumer goods. But even those numbers are suspect, since researchers at the European Central Bank found that Russia claimed its factories were humming at full-strength even as air quality data and energy consumption showed quite clearly that Russian factories must have either gone entirely solar or else were sitting dormant.

Economist Dr. Joeri Schasfoort held a YouTube live with one of the European Central Bank researchers on his channel Money & Macro. He said academics largely trusted Russia’s numbers before the war, but its data since sanctions started are entirely suspect.

So, yes, Russia is the larger country with the larger population. But with its economy already strained, its men already fleeing conscription at nearly the pace that men are accepting it, and it taking heavier losses than Ukraine, it’s not actually clear that it has some endless pool of soldiers.

Instead, we should see Russia as an already wounded animal. We may not know how much blood it has left. But we also know it will pass out or die before it hits zero. Imagining that Russia can bleed forever is a weird, dark fantasy.

Logan Nye was an Army journalist and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. Now, he’s a freelance writer and live-streamer. In addition to covering military and conflict news at We Are The Mighty, he has an upcoming military literacy channel on Twitch.tv/logannyewrites.