Before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to expand their war against Ukraine from the night of February 23, the Russian military had 168 battalion tactical groups.
A BTG is the basic Russian army unit for ground warfare. Each BTG comprises around 800 soldiers plus around 50 armored vehicles. For the Ukraine campaign, the army has concentrated at least 125 of its 168 BTG, or three quarters of the overall combat strength.
Three months later, the Ukrainians destroyed 4,100 Russian vehicles, killed up to 15,000 Russian soldiers and wounded perhaps several times that number. Russia’s losses amount to the disbandment of about three dozen BTGs.
It is therefore worth asking: as Russia tries to support a new offensive against a small pocket of Ukrainian troops in the city of Severodonetsk in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, how many BTG does he stay? And how many more battalions can the Kremlin mobilize?
As the Russian army withdrew from northern Ukraine in March and April, it replenished some BTGs and also deployed new battalions from the fringes of Russia. On May 16, the Pentagon estimated that Russia had 106 BTGs in Ukraine. Ten days later the number of battalions was 110, despite the Russians losing one or two BTGs trying to cross the Siverskyi Donets River north of Severodonetsk in early May.
With 110 BTGs in Ukraine, the Russian army might only have 20 or 30 battalions in reserve. Realistically, some of them cannot deploy without exposing the towns or borders they are guarding. For example, the remaining BTGs in Kaliningrad, Russia’s geographically separate enclave on the Baltic Sea.
As losses continue to mount, not adding forces to Ukraine is not an option for Russia unless it wants to, well, to lose. The solution, of course, is to implement new BTGs. But with what troops and equipment?
According to a recent mobilization order, which some analysts claim to have seen, the Kremin plans to raid its training base. It’s a risky move.
Every brigade and regiment in the Russian Army trains at least two BTGs for combat, both with professional contract soldiers. A so-called “third battalion” oversees a brigade or regiment’s conscripts – who by law are not supposed to deploy to a combat zone – and handles training and policing duties.
The Mobilization Order directs higher units to strip their Third Battalions of all legally deployable manpower in order to form an additional BTG. Conflict Intelligence Team open source analysts to believe the army can extract an additional 30 or 40 BTG from the existing third battalions.
These units will not be well armed. The army lost a third or more of its active tanks. New construction cannot actually replace them. Russia’s main tank factory was idled in March as new sanctions stripped it of microchips and optics, which Russia usually imports.
On paper, the Kremlin has 10,000 tanks in storage, including thousands of reasonably modern T-80s and T-72s. But many of these tanks also lack chips and optics, and others have rusted away from years of exposure to rain and snow.
Some of the oldest stored tanks have held up the best. The sixty-year-old T-62s don’t have a lot of fancy equipment and might be easier to regenerate. This helps explain why social media users began spotting trains loaded with old tanks rushing towards Melitopol in Russian-occupied southern Ukraine.
As the wider war in Ukraine enters its fourth month, the Kremlin begins the painful process of potentially forming dozens of BTGs to replace an equal number of battalions the Ukrainians have destroyed. The deadline would be in June.
But these BTGs will ride in outdated vehicles. And they will leave behind the empty shells of brigades and regiments that will have little or no training base left.
Trainers are the regenerative fabric of an army – the means by which it sustains itself after the damage of war. When you deploy the trainers, you lose the ability to regenerate. This means that Russia can replenish its military in Ukraine, restoring it to roughly the numerical strength – if not the technological sophistication – it possessed on day one of the wider war.
But he can only replenish the army once. If Ukraine destroys these additional Russian BTGs, there may be no battalions left to replace them.