Before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to widen their war on Ukraine starting the night of Feb. 23, the Russian army had 168 battalion tactical groups.
A BTG is the Russian army’s basic unit for ground warfare. Each BTG includes around 800 soldiers plus 50 or so armored vehicles. For the Ukraine campaign, the army concentrated at least 125 of its 168 BTGs—three-quarters of the overall combat force.
Three months later, the Ukrainians have destroyed 4,100 Russian vehicles, killed up to 15,000 Russian troops and wounded perhaps several times that number. Russia’s losses amount to the dissolution of around three-dozen BTGs.
So it’s worth asking: as Russia attempts to sustain a fresh offensive across a small pocket of Ukrainian troops in the city of Severodonetsk, in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, how many BTGs are left? And how many more battalions can the Kremlin mobilize?
When the Russian army retreated from northern Ukraine in March and April, it reconstituted some BTGs and also deployed fresh battalions from Russia’s fringes. The Pentagon on May 16 estimated Russia had 106 BTGs in Ukraine. Ten days later the battalion count was up to 110—this 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 have just 20 or 30 battalions in reserve. Realistically, some of them cannot deploy without exposing the cities or borders they guard. For example, the remaining BTGs in Kaliningrad, Russia’s geographically-separate exclave on the Baltic Sea.
As casualties continue to mount, not adding forces to Ukraine isn’t an option for Russia unless it’s willing to, well, lose. The solution, of course, is to stand up new BTGs. But with what troops and equipment?
According to a recent mobilization order, which some analysts claim to have seen, the Kremlin plans to raid its training base. It’s a risky move.
Every brigade and regiment in the Russian army forms 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, aren’t supposed to deploy to a combat zone—and handles training and constabulary tasks.
The mobilization order requires the higher units to strip their third battalions of all legally deployable manpower in order to form an extra BTG. The open-source analysts at Conflict Intelligence Team believe the army can squeeze another 30 or 40 BTGs from the existing third battalions.
These units will not be well-armed. The army has lost a third or more of its active tanks. New construction realistically can’t replace them. Russia’s main tank factory idled back in March as new sanctions deprived it of microchips and optics, which Russia usually imports.
The Kremlin on paper has 10,000 tanks in storage, including thousands of reasonably modern T-80s and T-72s. But many of those tanks lack chips and optics, too—and others have rusted away after years of exposure to rain and snow.
Some of the oldest stored tanks have fared the best. Sixty-year-old T-62s don’t have a lot of sophisticated equipment and could be easier to regenerate. This helps to explain why social-media users have begun spotting trainloads of the ancient tanks trundling into Melitopol in Russian-occupied southern Ukraine.
As the wider war in Ukraine enters its fourth month, the Kremlin is beginning the painful process of forming potentially dozens of BTGs to replace an equal number of battalions the Ukrainians have destroyed. The deadline reportedly is in June.
But those BTGs will ride in obsolete vehicles. And they will leave behind them the empty shells of brigades and regiments that no longer will have much, or any, training base.
Trainers are an army’s regenerative tissue—the means by which it sustains itself after wartime damage. When you deploy the trainers, you lose the ability to regenerate. What that means is: Russia can replenish its army in Ukraine, restoring it roughly to the numerical strength—if not the technological sophistication—it possessed on day one of the wider war.
But it can only replenish the army once. If Ukraine destroys those extra Russian BTGs, there might not be any more battalions to take their place.