Russia: Searching for a Way Out

Russia: Searching for a Way Out. By James Dunnigan.

Russia found that their armed forces were far less effective than they and other nations believed. … The Russian military was revealed to be ridden with corruption, poor leadership and a government that underestimated how serious those known problems were. …

Russia has long been a major arms exporter and existing and potential customers are revising their purchasing plans. Nations already equipped with a lot of Russian weapons and military gear also have to revise their military plans. …

Several NATO nations are still buying Russian oil because they cannot afford to cut Russian oil and gas imports completely until they have sufficient alternate sources to avoid an economic collapse. This will take from six to 18 months or more and this is accepted as an essential move to avoid economic collapse in NATO nations getting most of their oil and gas from Russia. …

[Sanctions degrade] future Russian economic prospects. That has a negative impact on Russian allies. These foreign supporters now see their powerful patron as less powerful than believed and now feel desperate or simply afraid. And then there is China, which does not have allies, only trading partners and tribute states. Russia is now moving from trading partner to the lower tribute state status. …

Putin invents a foreign threat, but the Russian public are wary:

Post-Soviet Russia was a democracy that is now run by Vladimir Putin, a self-appointed president-for-life who still has to convince the majority of Russians that his Ukrainian Operation is not a war but an effort to save Ukraine from NATO and the West in general.

Putin enacted a law that makes it a crime to call the Ukrainian Operation an invasion or a war. He had already revived state control of the mass media to ensure most Russians are exposed to nothing but his version of reality. Other interpretations are literally a crime and punishable by imprisonment.

Putin was a junior KGB officer when the Soviet Union collapsed and admits he never got over that tragedy, as he describes it. One thing Putin has not been able to revive is the Soviet-era ability to compel large numbers of men to serve in the military and combat. This was one of the Soviet-era practices that Russians have demonstrated opposition to reviving. The reason is simple; World War II killed about 18 percent of the population, most of them civilians but also about a quarter of all military-age males. Westerners have a hard time appreciating the long-term impact of these World War II losses on Russians. These losses were so bad that their extent was kept secret until the collapse of the Soviet Union opened the Soviet archives for a while. …

Russian World War II leader Josef Stalin boasted that he could compel Russian soldiers to tolerate heavy losses to achieve his goals. During World War II it was noted that in the Red Army it took a very brave man to be a coward. Those who did not fight could be killed on the spot by officers. Even with that motivation, there were 19,000 Russian soldiers executed for such cowardice during the Stalingrad campaign. That form of encouragement has returned in Ukraine but, unlike World War II Russia, it isn’t working. In 2022 Russian conscripts realized that they were not facing NATO troops but Ukrainian men and women, including many who were recently civilians and all highly motivated and determined to defeat the invader.

Since 1991 efforts to maintain conscription have been under constant attack as most potential conscripts and their families view conscription as an unnecessary evil that justifies widespread draft evasion. Putin has not been able to convince Russians that Russia is engaged in a life-or-death struggle with NATO similar to the World War II struggle against Nazi Germany. While Putin can silence most open dissent, he cannot motivate current troops or potential recruits and conscripts to cooperate. …

Putin’s May Day Parade speech had no declaration of war or mass mobilization:

He continued to insist that the war was about Russia defending itself from NATO aggression. Putin did not announce a national mobilization and did not comment on the growing resistance to his policies inside Russia. Military recruiting centers are being set on fire while there have been more spectacular fires, and explosions, at several ammunition storage sites. …

So what now?

He still believes that he cannot afford to accept defeat and keep the war going even if it means reverting to a largely defensive posture. It’s easier to get reluctant troops to defend themselves than ordering them to attack.

The Ukrainians have proved adept at encouraging Russian troops to surrender. In part this is because the Ukrainians treat prisoners of war better than Russia treats it own soldiers. …

Ukrainians have no interest in negotiating with the Russians because several previous agreements were useless. Russia violated every one of them. Ukrainians will fight on, and do it more effectively and with more attention to the welfare of their troops than the Russians.

Putin believes NATO is expecting a coup or revolution in Russia and that’s their motivation for supporting Ukraine. There’s some truth to that as many Russians, Ukrainians and Westerners believe peace will come faster and with less pain if Putin is removed from power, or does the improbable and admits defeat and withdraws from all Ukrainian territory.

Putin will also have to return all the Ukrainian civilians sent to Russia and confined to internment camps. Then there are the accusations of war crimes in Ukraine, which Putin will be stuck with no matter whether he keeps fighting or withdraws. One major incentive for withdrawal from Ukraine is that it will end the extensive sanctions that are crippling the Russian economy and risking long-term damage if not lifted soon.

Russia continues to hit Ukrainian cities and infrastructure with ballistic and cruise missiles as well as abusing Ukrainian civilians. Many of these civilians escape from Russian occupation bringing first-hand accounts of how the Russians occupation forces operate. The refugees often have videos and pictures documenting what they are fleeing. …

Morale and discipline in the military had plummeted since the invasion began. Since the start of the fighting at least one general a week has been killed in action, along with many brigade and battalion commanders or staff officers of the same rank. In eastern Ukraine another offensive failed to advance because of Ukrainian resistance, heavy Russian casualties and timid behavior by troops and junior officers. …

In Ukraine, the Russian war effort is led by general Aleksandr Dvornikov, a veteran of the war in Syria, which Russian entered in 2015. In Ukraine Dvornikov discovered that he could not win a military victory and was allowed to shift major military resources to economic targets. Transportation, energy and all manner of economic targets are being attacked. Even this effort has limitations as Russia has nearly exhausted its stockpile of modern ballistic and cruise missiles that are used for essential targets. Russia still uses warplanes for some attacks, but these risk damage or destruction from Ukrainian air defenses.

Russia will run out of missiles and aircraft before NATO runs out of weapons, they are supplying Ukraine. Russia cannot compete in a long conventional war, which is why the threats of using nuclear weapons. The nuclear option is not popular with most Russians or foreign supporters like China. Meanwhile Ukraine is seeing its economy demolished more and more each day. As with the British response to German use of ballistic and cruise missiles during World War II, that made the British more resolved to defeat Germany, not sign another peace treaty with them.

The Russians are behaving unbelievably badly and counterproductively. Putin will  eventually have to make peace with Ukraine, and live with them as neighbors, but he is wrecking their economy and wantonly killing and brutalizing Ukrainians. How does he think Ukrainians feel about this? What will they do in return?

There is a surprising history to this. This somewhat long article is the best I’ve read, for those interested in following up. Some provocative excerpts:

Putin’s aim, which has been echoed very publicly in the Russian media and by the Russian Orthodox Church, is to wipe Ukraine and Ukrainians from the face of the earth. Those Ukrainians not killed or forced to flee would be subjected to a brutally enforced Russification process that would include executions, mass arrests and “re-education camps”.

Immediately after the February invasion Putin’s popularity with the Russian people jumped from 60 per cent to 71 per cent. It is now in the 80s. According to surveys most Russians are said to be proud of what their forces are doing in Ukraine. …

The Ukrainian population is largely Russian-speaking, largely nominally Orthodox (nominally because religiosity was pummelled by communism) and overwhelmingly pro-Ukrainian. The last point is supported by the fact that … the vast majority of the population voted for Ukrainian independence in 1991. For example, in Cherkasy oblast [Ukranian speaking] Kravchuk won with 51 per cent while in Poltava oblast [Russian speaking] Kuchma won with 58 per cent, but in the independence referendum these region’s respective votes were 96 per cent and 94 per cent. …

Among Western commentators it is still common (and consistent with the Kremlin playbook) to see the Maidan Revolution of 2013-14 as a CIA plot that happened because of “encouragement from the US”. … It was caused by Victor Yanukovych reneging on his election promise to seek EU membership and instead pivoting to Putin and his corrupt crony kleptocracy model. … That was neither “US backed” nor a coup. It was a process that would have been achieved in a matter of minutes in a Westminster system, without blood, by a simple crossing of the floor.

The Russians are still smarting from being the historical offshoot of Ukraine, and being seen as the little brother. Cultural legitimacy rests on defeating the Ukrainians.

Also respect. To many Russians, the greatest crime of the Nazis was regarding them as inferior untermenschen, and to “de-Nazify” means to wipe out this attitude. But then their much vaunted war machine turns out to be rubbish, and Ukrainian civilians armed with NATO toys are thrashing them. Oh the ignominy.