Putin watching military exercises through binoculars, 2015

US Intel Leaks Highlight Russia's Limited Options in Face of Ukraine's Counteroffensive

May 05, 2023
Pavel Luzin

The massive leaks of U.S. intelligence documents that came to light last month are no game-changer for the Kremlin's war in Ukraine. But they do help paint a picture of a Russian war machine that is weaker in manpower than previously estimated, struggling technologically, poorly coordinated and left without much flexibility in preparing for Ukraine's coming counteroffensive. Though Moscow showed a burst of frenetic war-related activity following the leaks—reshuffling senior commanders and publicizing a rare visit by President Vladimir Putin to the combat zone—its main bet militarily seems to be on reaction: Apart from the dreaded wild card of tactical nuclear weapons and the ongoing bombardment of Ukrainian targets, Russia will likely try to stop Kyiv's offensive once it starts, rather than show strategic initiative on the battlefield. Public statements made this week by the U.S. intelligence chief confirm this view.

What the Leaks Revealed About Russia's Forces in Ukraine

In terms of troop numbers, the leaks were far from exhaustive. But they did provide new data points that help us do some math of our own, ultimately suggesting a smaller Russian troop presence than claimed before. Most significantly, if enough of the figures are accurate, we can estimate that total regular forces of the Russian Defense Ministry deployed in Ukraine—not counting mercenaries, volunteers and Rosgvardia troops—number slightly more than 120,000.1 These numbers, like others before them, call into question the Russian claims of 300,000 soldiers mobilized in September–October, alongside 18,000 volunteers, and Ukrainian estimates of 369,000 Russian military personnel in theater. (It is telling that a BBC investigation published May 3 says the Defense Ministry, since September, has been recruiting inmates from prisons in at least 25 different Russian regions to serve in Ukraine.) In looking for troop totals, if we add to the newly calculated 120,000 all the Russian fighters from sources other than the Defense Ministry,2 then the figure given this week by U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Mark Milley sounds perfectly reasonable: "around 200,000 Russian troops, poorly led, not well trained, poorly equipped."3

Another problem highlighted by the leaks is Russia's dearth of ammunition—a challenge faced by Ukraine, as well. One of two key bits of information in this respect, unverified of course, was that Russia tried to purchase 40,000 rockets in Egypt for its multiple-launch rocket systems; for comparison, the number of MLRS rockets supplied to the Russian armed forces by state-owned arms behemoth Rostec in 2017 totaled 10,700. The second noteworthy anecdote is that the Kremlin-linked Wagner military contractor reportedly tried to secure supplies of artillery ammunition from Turkey via Mali. (Hypothetically, it is possible that the publication of so much sensitive intelligence could scare away potential "swing states" that had considered supplying arms to Russia.) Aside from the leaks, Russia's limited capacity to produce sufficient ammunition seemed to be confirmed this week when Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told military top brass that, “right now, it is necessary to double the production of high-precision weapons in the shortest possible time.”

The leaks also made multiple references to inter-agency frictions. While these have been a feature of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine from the outset, their continuation a year into the war suggests problems with combat coordination and communication that could hurt Russia badly during a major offensive when speedy decision-making will be essential. Specifically, the documents note that Federal Security Service (FSB) officials have accused the Defense Ministry of undercounting total Russian losses by excluding from its reports the casualty figures of forces not directly subordinated to the ministry. This suggests that army commanders are limiting their sphere of responsibility only to the ministry's own combat activity—and, by extension, that overall coordination of the war lies not with Russia's military leadership but with the Kremlin. The infamous Wagner mercenary group also cannot act without the Kremlin’s institutional control, as its operations in Ukraine cost billions of rubles a month. The leaks don't shed light on Wagner's specific role within the constellation of groups executing the war, apart from reports that Putin personally tried to mend fences between its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Shoigu. (That effort seems to have fallen flat, judging by Prigozhin's latest gory, obscenity-laden video in which he lambastes the defense minister and his chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, over a lack of ammunition for his fighters.)

Nervous Agitation in Moscow

Whatever the intention behind the leaks, their potential to disconcert the Russian leadership and stir up worries about falling morale has been clear. Moscow's initial response was a mix of circumspect comments and old talking points about the West's pernicious role in the Ukraine conflict. Gradually, however, it came to seem that the leaks contained sensitive information about Russia's military capacity, mostly obtained through electronic, signals and/or cyber intelligence—likely a troubling sign for Moscow that U.S. penetration into the Russian military apparatus ran deep. Russian officials and state-run media shifted their messaging mostly to one vein: calling the story disinformation, fake, highly unlikely. These assertions were fueled by the fact that the leaks generally revealed little about Ukraine's troop strength and ordnance that hadn't been known from publicly available data4; perhaps the narrative was also an attempt to downplay the leaks' significance among the Russian public.5 At the same time, official Russian sources largely avoided commenting on the leaks' substance. But when newly declassified U.S. estimates of Russian casualties were publicly released this week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov was quick to take the skeptical tack, saying the estimates were “spun out of thin air” because Washington could not "give any correct numbers. They don’t have such data.”

In the wake of the leaks, the Kremlin looked like it had been spurred to action, trying to improve Russia's military command structure for the war. But whether these attempts were in fact linked to the leaks is, for now, pure speculation. Measures included the replacement of the top general in charge of logistics—swapping out Mikhail Mizintsev for Alexei Kuzmenkov—plus unconfirmed reports of other dismissals among senior officers,6 as well as Putin's highly publicized visit to the combat zone. It was Putin's second such visit in 14 months of fighting and came less than one month after his first. According to the Kremlin, he traveled unaccompanied by Shoigu or Gerasimov and he reportedly told on-site commanders in the Kherson region to fill him in on the situation there directly, before moving on to the pseudo-annexed Luhansk region in the Donbas.

Countdown to Counteroffensive

Both the U.S. intelligence leaks and other available evidence strongly suggest that, as Ukraine's chance for a counteroffensive approaches, the Kremlin has little choice but to rely on a strategic defense approach, trying to use captured Ukrainian territories to its advantage. Though Russia has quantitative superiority in air power and artillery—with Ukraine actively trying to degrade the latter—Moscow lacks manpower, arms, commanders and a sustainable, efficient command structure. Taking all this into account, it came as no surprise this week when U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines publicly gave the assessment implied by last month's leaks: "Even if Ukraine's counteroffensive is not fully successful," she told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 4, "the Russians are unlikely to be able to mount a significant offensive operation this year."


  1. This calculation is based on the leaked numbers of total Russian battalions in Ukraine (474) and of battalions and troops around Donetsk (91 and 23,050, respectively), which allow us to figure out the average number of men in a battalion (not a fixed quantity) to be 253.3. Multiplied by 474 that average totals about 120,063.
  2. While the manpower of Russian irregular forces (mercenaries, volunteers and Chechen units) and Rosgvardia units (subordinated directly to the president) deployed in Ukraine remains unclear, it is certainly much less than that of the Defense Ministry's regular armed forces there. For instance, one prisoners' rights group estimated the number of prison recruits still deployed by the Wagner Group as of February-March at about 10,000; as for Chechen forces, or “Kadyrovtsy,” their leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, said Jan. 11 that the total number to take part in combat operations since the February 2022 invasion had been 21,000.
  3. There are at least two Defense Ministry options for increasing troop numbers that the leaks don't cover: efforts to organize volunteer units, which began in March 2023, after the period referred to in the leaked documents, and the existence of a reserve of drafted soldiers who can by law be sent into combat after just four months of training. Taking advantage of the latter merely requires a political decision (the same is true of Rosgvardia reserves, which have several tens of thousands of soldiers and have intensified their trainings in recent months, according to the author’s sources); the success of the volunteer campaign is thus far unclear.
  4. New publicly available information giving a better picture of Ukrainian capacity emerged soon after news of the leaks. In the leaked intelligence documents themselves, however, the references to Ukrainian personnel numbers were limited to the mention of eight brigades totaling 10,000-20,000 personnel around Donetsk and 12 more preparing for the counteroffensive. Likewise, little was said about how many weapons Ukraine has gotten from the West. Data on this can be accessed without leaks: For example, as of April 19, the U.S. had provided Ukraine with some 4.4 million artillery shells, tank rounds, rockets and mortars, plus 200 million rounds of small arms ammunition, according to Department of Defense documentation reviewed by The Drive; this far exceeds Putin’s public estimate, made in March, that the West would supply 1 million artillery rounds to Ukraine in 2023-2024.
  5. This week, a report from Meduza cited an anonymous source close to the Kremlin as saying that the latest guidance to Russian state-run media recommends "emphasizing … that Ukraine is being armed by NATO while discouraging any suggestion that Kyiv is underprepared," according to The Moscow Times; it is too early to say whether such guidance really exists or, if it does, continues to apply.
  6. The names mentioned included Army Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, Col. Gen. Alexander Zhuravlyov, Col. Gen. Rustam Muradov and Maj. Gen. Oleg Gorshenin, head of the national defense operations center in Moscow, only appointed in October.

Pavel Luzin

Pavel Luzin is a political scientist focusing on international relations, global security and space policy. He is a visiting scholar at the Russia and Eurasia Program of Tufts’s Fletcher School, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a non-resident senior fellow at CEPA and a columnist at Riddle

Opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author, unless otherwise noted.

Photo shared by Kremlin.ru under a CC BY 4.0 license.