Russia Does Not Have Unlimited Manpower to Stay in the Ukraine War

Putin’s ethno-nationalism hinders the recruitment of his army

Shankar Narayan
7 min readMar 17, 2023
Licensed Image

More than a million Russian men have run. They packed their suitcases, filled their wallets, picked a location and then they crossed the Russian border. Pregnant Russian women are flying to Argentina to deliver their child because an Argentinian passport offers a brighter future than a Russian passport.

200,000 Russian men have been buried ten feet under.

I might be wrong about that number because a whole lot of Russian bodies are left under the care of Ukrainian weather around Bakhmut. Littered sounds a bit more apt. When the dead are left to wither away in the nature, it is a bit cruel to discuss the plight of Russian men who are wounded.

The Kremlin has set Russia on the path of drastic economic shrinkage. The impact will only be felt in full after the war is over. For now, the war in Ukraine is holding the Russian economy together. Domestic spending is geared towards the war. Putin sells oil and spends the money on his war. The gap between revenue and spending can be manipulated for some time.

Eventually, the bills will catch up.

A steady human drain will crack open the economy. Taking out one hundred thousand brains at $12k per capita will cost the economy $1.2 billion. The economic impact of the cascading spill will be many times greater than that.

  • 1 million men ran.
  • 200,000 dead.
  • Maybe half a million are injured.
  • 2000 to 3000 men are added to the list of casualties every day. Maybe even more.

Putin’s recruitment runway for war is shrinking every day. If you ask his supporters in Western countries, they will tell you the opposite. They argue that Russia has unlimited manpower, so they can continue fighting indefinitely. They argue that Ukraine cannot fight forever since the war is already a stalemate.

Russia is the only country that has difficulty staying in this conflict. The second-best army in the Ukraine war is also the second-best at endurance.

Despite the fact that the war is costing more and more, Putin has avoided an internal revolt by picking on ethnic minorities to fight for him in Ukraine. State-sponsored media have played a significant role in twisting the story and presenting the Kremlin’s perspective. Even though it must have helped recruit a bit, each additional month will only exacerbate the question: why haven’t we won?

First, the loss of men in the neighborhood will slow the pace of Russian army recruitment in the region, and then, eventually, people will refuse to join the army. The Russian generals have exacerbated this problem by ordering a discriminatory draft that recruited a large number of ethnic minorities after Putin ordered partial mobilization in September 2022.

The generals made the cardinal mistake of following Putin’s words to the letter. They inherited the darkness from their Czar.

“In 2014, on the day he annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, Putin gave a speech in which he claimed that “Crimea is primordial ‘Russkaya’ land, and Sevastapol is a ‘Russkii’ city.”

According to Russia expert Kimberly Marten, Putin’s use of the term Russkii was a watershed moment. When discussing Russian identity, Putin had hitherto favored the term Rossisskii, which denotes Russian citizenship, regardless of ethnicity.

By contrast, Russkii specifically refers to Russian ethnicity. Under Marten’s interpretation, this seemingly minor substitution signaled Putin’s more open adoption of Russian ethno-nationalism”.

It was nine years ago that Putin signaled his embrace of Russian ethno-nationalism. Now, his army is using one group of minorities to get rid of another. A discriminatory draft that shot the Russian army in the foot.

I don’t think they are going to recover from this mistake.

The Myth of Unlimited Power

There are 146 million Russians. Not everyone can fight.

Data from public sources. Table created by author

There are 146 million people in Russia, of which 77.51 million are women. 17 million men are under the age of 19, 12 million men are above 60. That leaves a pool of 38.3 million men in the 20 to 59 age group to choose from. This age group is the bedrock of economies around the world.

Putin is not ready to recruit from this group in a balanced manner. He is targeting ethnic minorities because they are economically backward and lack the collective strength to fight the government. The pool of available human resources drops to just over 32 million as Putin avoids population centers where more than 15% of the Russian population lives.

By picking on ethnic minorities, Putin’s army recruited way too many men from certain pockets of Russia. Now, so many are dead. The rest of the men in these communities know fully well their friends are dead. They will be more than glad to find a way across the border than being bused to the frontline in Ukraine.

Unequal mobilization will now yield unequal response

The Russian army is in a critical bind.

Recruiting in city centers is not going to be easy. It is going to be very difficult. This is where most of the Russian elites live. The level of education and awareness is far greater in urban centers compared to rural areas. If Putin was so scared of recruiting in these areas when he lost less than 100,000 soldiers, how is he planning to convince city dwellers to fight for him after killing 200,000 men.

The whole notion that Russia has unlimited manpower is a myth.

Putin has a potential pool of 30 million men from which to recruit; this is also the working base of the Russian economy. If you keep draining this pool of resources, the economy will suffer permanently.

The End is near

The second best army in the Ukraine war is also the second best in terms of recruitment. There may be more people in Russia than in Ukraine, but the collective value of those willing to fight for Russia is far less than in Ukraine.

An explanation for the imbalance between the two armies can be found in the net flow of people across Russian and Ukrainian borders. Russian homes are safe because Ukraine does not attack them. Despite zero threat to their homes due to the war, millions of Russians have left the country. Many more are still leaving.

Ukraine, however, is experiencing the exact opposite trend. More than 8 million Ukrainians fled the country during the early stages of the war. Nearly 5.6 million have already returned.

The Russian government is firing missiles at Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure indiscriminately. Power cuts are common in cities. Kyiv is suffering from water shortages. Ukrainians know they are under constant attack, but they keep coming back. They believe victory is possible. They want to defeat Putin and his thugs. They want to fight.

It has been centuries since imperial armies used one group of people to fight against another group of people. But after losing his first army, Putin built a second army based on unequal mobilization. Modern armies do not build such battalions because they always fail in crunch situations.

Putin’s ethno nationalism has already filtered its way to the army. The generals are not going to treat the Buryats, Tatars and other ethnic minorities serving in the Russian army as soldiers. They will treat them like inferior humans. You can’t treat someone inferior and expect superior results.

This still baffles me. I cannot comprehend it.

You are losing and fighting to stay alive. And yet, you go ahead and order an imbalanced recruitment and try to get rid of minority groups.

Never forget the Economics

I never believed the west could stop Russia from exporting oil and gas. The world is too big and cheap can make some governments happy to trade. Russia successfully rerouted oil from western countries to India and China.

However, the sanctions and the search by wealthy consumers for alternatives have completely rearranged the oil and gas industry’s pricing dynamics. Anything Putin sells in the future, the West will not touch. Countries that buy commodities from Russia, such as India, China, and others, will have no reason to pay market prices. Long-term, Russian oil and gas production will be a huge drag on global commodity prices.

Non-Russian producers will have access to better pricing. As a result, they will have every reason to replace Russian production. In the meantime, Russia will have to make any money it can. Consequently, production will be in excess. But the downward pricing pressure will be disproportionately felt by Russia. That trend is already underway.

Moscow earned $11.6 billion from oil exports last month, down from $14.3 billion in January and a 42 percent drop from $20 billion earned in February 2022, according to the IEA. Russia, however, was still shipping “roughly the same” amount of oil to the world market.

Same amount of oil for less revenue.

In order to recruit his third army, Putin needs a lot of money. Every month, he will be under pressure to maintain the cash flow. A struggling economy will not help Putin recruit. If he orders full mobilization to stay in the war, he will cause another round of exodus, thereby hurting the economy and setting the stage for internal revolt.

Between the two armies, the Russian army is the one that has a lot less staying power. The west can end this madness before the end of the summer.

Just arm Ukraine and let them find their way to freedom.



Shankar Narayan

He didn't care what he had or what he had left, he cared only about what he must do.