Ukraine Situation Report: Conscripts Won’t Solve Russian Army’s Systemic Problems, Pentagon Says

Even hundreds of thousands of newly conscripted soldiers will not fix the logistics and sustainment problems that have dogged Russian forces since they invaded Ukraine in February and likely will exacerbate an already moribund military force, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. 

Calling up thousands of reservists is one way to address a lack of personnel, but it will take time and is unlikely to immediately affect the war, Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said during a press conference at the Pentagon on Sept. 22.

“It’s our assessment that it would take time for Russia to train and prepare and equip these forces,” Ryder said. “And I think it’s important also to point out here that while in many ways this may address a manpower issue for Russia, what’s not clear is whether or not it could significantly address the command and control the logistics the sustainment, and importantly, the morale issues that we’ve seen Russian forces in Ukraine experience.”

Destroyed Russian military equipment in the center of Izyum, Ukraine, on September 14, 2022. Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post via Getty Images

“If you are already having significant challenges and haven’t addressed some of those systemic, strategic issues that make any large military force capable, there is nothing to indicate that it’s going to get any easier by adding more variables to the equation,” Ryder added. 

Asked how long it would take Russia to adequately train and equip an army of conscripts before sending them to Ukraine, Ryder joked that he has “never been in the Russian military.” 

“I don’t plan to ever be in the Russian military, so I’m not going to speak for them,” he said. “But I think we’ve seen some of the systemic challenges that they have in their force. And I think they will have their work cut out.” 

Russia’s mobilization plan is playing out all over the vast country, with conscripts being gathered almost as soon as Vladimir Putin’s declaration was issued on Sept. 21. For more on what mobilization technically means for Russia’s war effort, see this War Zone explainer.

Videos of mass conscriptions have surfaced online from various parts of Russia where military officers are looking to fill Putin’s quota of at least 300,000 new troops destined for Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had a message for soldiers rounded up to serve in the war, namely that 55,000 of their soon-to-be comrades had already died there. 

“Tens of thousands are wounded and maimed,” Zelensky said, as seen in the video below. “Want more? No? Then protest. Fight back. Run away or surrender to Ukrainian captivity. These are your options if you want to survive.”

But the ranks are being filled, it seems, disproportionate from remote provinces of Russia populated by ethnic minorities. In areas like Dagestan and the far east in Magadan, recruits are being rounded up and either bused, trained, or flown in military cargo planes to where they will be trained before heading to Ukraine. 

Bakhti Nishanov, with the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, said ethnic minorities from far-flung Russian republics are being “mobilized in disproportionately large numbers” and likely being deployed as “cannon fodder.” 

Sam Greene, Director of Democratic Resilience at The Center for European Policy Analysis, agreed, saying that most evidence of the current conscription campaign, even if anecdotal, is that it is “falling hardest on the communities already hardest hit by the war, particularly ethnic minorities.” 

There have been protests around Russia in response to the mobilization orders, as well.

Always a dangerous proposition in Russia, protesting now can apparently result in conscription into the war. There have been multiple unconfirmed reports of this occurring, so it will be interesting to see how widespread the practice is being employed if it really is at all.

Russia’s mobilization could alter the war’s course in many unseen ways. Russian recruits face a possibly brutal Ukrainian winter in the coming months.

Before we get into what’s happening now, be sure to catch up on our previous rolling coverage here.

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The tactical situation has not changed significantly in the few weeks since Ukraine recaptured much of Kharkiv Oblast in the northeast. However, that and other offensive operations are ongoing, according to the Pentagon. 

“We continue to see Ukrainian forces conduct counter-offensive operations in Kharkiv and the Kherson regions,” Ryder said. “The Russians continue to conduct operations in the area, with the Ukrainians holding the line, but largely speaking, [there are] no significant updates for me to provide today.”

U.S. government officials tell Newsweek they are watching for any signs that Putin plans to deploy nuclear weapons to turn the tide of the war or just to freeze the conflict. The Russian leader indicated that he could do so if Ukraine continued its advance into the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions. 

Ryder said Putin’s comments in no way alter U.S. nuclear posture in the region and will not change its commitment to continue supplying Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend its sovereignty.

“In terms of the statements or the announcements coming out of Russia, it does not affect the department’s commitment to continue working closely with our international partners and our allies on providing Ukraine with the support it needs in their fight to defend their country.”

Ukrainian forces did manage a breakthrough of Russian lines around Lyman in the Donetsk Oblast, as seen on the map below.

Ukrainian officials continue clamoring for more advanced weapon systems to help them follow up the gains made so far with further territorial advances. That includes larger unmanned aerial vehicles like the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, for which Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov and others have made urgent requests. On Thursday, a bipartisan group of seventeen U.S. lawmakers sent a formal request to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that he speed up the Pentagon’s review of donating the drones, Defense News reports. The ongoing risk assessment is an effort to gauge what damage could be caused by Russians studying the technology should they shoot down or capture one. For their part, Ukrainian fighter pilots and others say the MQ-1 would be vulnerable to enemy air defenses and largely ineffective.

The weapon that has made a huge difference in the past month or so can be seen in action below. The M31 Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) is seen hitting a Russian ammunition storage facility, which proceeds to cook off after impact. It is unclear whether this rocket was fired from an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, typically called HIMARS, or an M270 tracked launcher, as both systems can fire GMLRS. What is clear is that Russia has little to no defense against this highly effective weapon that has sent dozens of ammo dumps up in spectacular fireballs. 

Ukrainian forces also claimed a man-portable air defense system, or MANPADS, attack on what appears to be a Ka-52 attack helicopter. The drone video below shows the impact of the missile and the stricken helicopter catching fire before hitting the ground. It is unclear if the aircraft crashed or made a controlled landing, as there is no explosion on impact and the rotors appear to continue to churn the smoke after it has come to a stop.

As many as three more off-the-shelf Skyeye unmanned aerial vehicles, which Ukraine has been using as long-range suicide drones to strike Russian strategic targets in Crimea and Russia, have been shot down by Russian forces over the occupied peninsula. In at least one of the photos, the wings are marked with red Russian stars, likely to confuse enemy air defense gunners as the drones must fly deep into Russian-occupied territory to reach their targets. 

In a somewhat odd but technically true statement, Belarussian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei issued a statement online that “Belarus has never been in favor of war” and that “Not a single [Belarussian] soldier, not a single piece of equipment was sent to Ukraine.” While partially accurate, the statement omits that Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has been a staunch ally of Vladimir Putin and supportive of the war in Ukraine by allowing Russia to stage weapons and personnel within its borders before and during the invasion. Russian missiles and bombers have also struck at Ukraine from inside Belarus.

Many Ukrainian defenders of the Azovstal Steel Plant were released as part of a prisoner-of-war swap. The Avostal defenders held out for months under a relentless Russian siege of the plant. Living underground as Russian artillery and bombs rained overhead, the Ukrainian defenders were heroically resupplied by helicopter missions that delivered supplies and evacuated the wounded. The entire garrison — at least what remained of it — was eventually forced to surrender. 

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense posted a video of when the Azovstal defenders were liberated. More than 200 Avozstal defenders were released during the swap.

The Ukrainian government’s main Twitter account simply tweeted a powerful photo of an Azovstal defender, spreading his arms bathed in a beam of light streaming through the bombed-out ceiling of the steel plant.

Two American prisoners captured by Russian forces while fighting for Ukraine also were released, according to White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Sullivan thanked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Saudi Arabia for helping to secure their release. 

British prisoners of war held by Russian forces for months were also released on Sept. 21 and allowed to return home, according to Member of Parliament Robert Jenrick. He thanked the Saudi Crown Prince, the Ukrainian government, and others for making their release possible. British citizens Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, along with Moroccan Saadun Ibrahim, were found guilty of mercenary activity and other charges by a court in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic pro-Russian separatist region in June. 

British Prime Minister Liz Truss said five British nationals were freed in the prisoner swap. 

Ukrainian BBC News reporter Myroslava Petsa said the prisoners were exchanged, at least partly for Viktor Medvedchuk, Putin’s right-hand man in Ukraine. Medvechuk, who held high-level positions with pro-Russian political organizations in Ukraine for two decades, was arrested by Ukrainian forces in April.

Many of Russia’s neighbors are preparing for a potential showdown following Putin’s mobilization declaration. Lithuania, one of the Baltic nations in the shadow of Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave, decided to put its Rapid Reaction Force on high alert. Lithuania is a member of NATO, meaning a Russian attack on it would likely bring a collective response from fellow members, including the United States. 

Poland is distributing iodine tablets to regional fire departments in preparation for a possible nuclear catastrophe at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant

Meanwhile, in Russia, yet another Putin ally plunged to his death. This time Anatoly Gerashchenko, former head of Moscow’s Aviation Institute, fell inside the institute headquarters rather than out of a window. However, the fall down at least one flight of stairs proved as deadly for this high-up official as a fall outside a building’s window has for many others. 

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