RUSSIAN REGIME: Thorny crown: Vladimir Putin is at risk of losing war with Ukraine and his own throne

War, Peace and Security

Some of the units have already demonstrated the singular characteristic of troops throughout history who have lost faith in the cause they are serving and in the competence of their commanders to initiate a rational strategy.

Tell-tale signs are those pell-mell retreats, the abandonment of still-operable heavy military equipment and personally carried weapons and other equipment, as well as the examples of precipitate surrender by small units or attempts by individuals to masquerade as unlucky civilians rather than risk being captured or killed.

These are predictable outcomes of being successfully outfought by a people deeply committed to defending their homeland — and of their being increasingly well-supplied by other nations with hi-tech, top-line materials and real-time electronic data. (Americans who were drafted and sent on to fight in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and perhaps South Africans who were sent to “the border” in the 1970s and 1980s may well recall having had similar feelings or experiences to these demoralised Russian soldiers.) 

Fleeing call-up

Given the broad popular support the majority of Russians presumably had for Putin and his policies in previous years, the growing tide of young Russian men voting with their feet is astonishing. Their response to the opportunity to fight for Putin’s dreams has been to flee to places that still have visa-less, open borders for Russians, such as Georgia, Kazakhstan, Finland — and even Mongolia. Despite the newness of the mobilisation, about 200,000 men have already taken such a route out of danger. 

Consider that about 40,000 young American men avoided military service in the 10-years of major American participation in the Vietnam conflict, from 1965 to 1975, mostly by fleeing to Canada (and some smaller numbers to European states such as Sweden). 

In a comparative sense, then, from a smaller population base and in the face of only a partial mobilisation, five times as many Russians as Americans have already chosen to flee their nation. (I remember efforts to avoid being drafted in the midst of the Vietnam War and, in my circumstances, managing to find a vacancy in an Army National Guard infantry unit. Yes, it was infantry but at least it was far less likely to be called up for active service in “the Big Muddy”.)

For me, at least, the ocean journey from eastern Siberia to Alaska by those young men seems quite the most extraordinary response to Putin’s recruitment of new soldiers, even more than videos showing the head of Russia’s Wagner Group, the mercenary fighter-for-hire, Yevgeny Prigozhin, attempting to recruit prison inmates to join his parallel militia for a chance to serve in Ukraine. The waters between Siberia and Alaska are not an easy passage, even for modern, well-equipped, ocean-going vessels. There is a film to be made out of this journey.

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Putting generals out to pasture

Meanwhile, a number of oligarchs, previously in Putin’s orbit, are continuing to turn up dead, including one who fell out of a sixth floor hospital window. It is impossible to pin down whether these people are being purposely targeted or just very unlucky, but the coincidences are mounting up. 

Moreover, Putin is running through the roster of available senior generals as both their strategic and tactical decisions are being shown up for the failures they have been. 

Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova, writing in the Washington Post, described the cycle of generals being put out to pasture as failures, saying:

“Russian Ground Forces Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, who over a 44-year military career was best-known for scorched-earth tactics in campaigns he led in Syria and Chechnya, was named overall operational commander of the war in Ukraine in April. He lasted about seven weeks before being dismissed as part of what appeared to be a wider shake-up in response to heavy losses and strategic failures.

“Around the same time, Col. Gen. Andrey Serdyukov, another four-decade serviceman, the commander-in-chief of the elite airborne troops, was stripped of his post after nearly all divisions of the airborne forces suffered major losses.

“And just last week, Col. Gen. Alexander Zhuravlev, the head of the Western Military District responsible for Kharkiv, where Russian forces lost huge swaths of territory in early September, was removed after four years on the job, according to Russian business daily RBC.

“Far from bestowing glory on Russia’s military brass, the war in Ukraine is proving toxic for top commanders, with at least eight generals fired, reassigned or otherwise sidelined since the start of the invasion on Feb. 24. Western governments have said that at least 10 others were killed in battle, a remarkably high number that military analysts say is evidence of grievous strategic errors.

“The upheaval in the upper ranks of uniformed officers highlights Russia’s fundamental mistakes in war planning, and the dysfunctional chain of command that resulted first in Moscow’s failure to achieve its primary military objective — the quick capture of Kyiv and toppling of the Ukrainian government — and more recently in the retreats on the eastern and southern fronts.”

Further, the behaviour and circumstances of Russia’s military performance in Ukraine is beginning to receive some surprisingly frank criticism from Russia’s more hawkish quarters, with some of them asking on television why their military is not being even more aggressive towards Ukrainian forces and cities than it has been already. 

Or, as the Kyiv Independent described it:

“When the Kremlin launched its all-out war, Russian ‘liberals’ were the only small group expressing dissatisfaction with the invasion and Putin’s regime. In September, they received an unexpected ally.

“The most outspoken critic of the Kremlin’s war strategy in the pro-war camp was Igor Girkin, also known as Strelkov — a Russian warlord who was among the first Kremlin-led mercenaries to take part in Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

“Girkin, charged by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service with shooting down the MH17 passenger plane, killing 298 people onboard, has lambasted the Russian leadership for military blunders and for refusing to carry out mobilization since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.

“After Ukrainian troops launched an offensive in Kharkiv Oblast, Girkin called for court-martialing those responsible for the Russian defeat. ‘For unclear and unexplainable reasons resembling utter idiotism, they created perfect conditions for the enemy to launch this attack,’ he said. ‘If our forces don’t launch a counterattack, this will mean that the Russian army has lost the battle for initiative’.” 

In other words, when you have dug yourself into a hole, Girkin’s advice is to keep digging deeper, but with a bigger shovel.

Meanwhile, Kirill Rogov is a Russian political scientist and journalist, now a fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and founder of the Re: Russia policy network. His essay in the current issue of the Economist is an effort to evaluate the real level of Russian support for their country’s invasion of Ukraine. Its contents are worth quoting at length.

Rogov wrote:

“According to recent opinion polls, conducted by pollsters such as the Levada Centre which has offices in Moscow, 70-75% of respondents in Russia support the war with Ukraine. (These surveys were conducted before Mr Putin announced his mobilisation drive.) [And before much of the recent advance by Ukrainian forces in reclaiming territory, let alone the destruction of the Kerch Strait bridge.] But these shocking figures are deceptive. Public opposition to the war can result in criminal prosecution, so people who are critical of the war and the regime are less likely to agree to speak to a pollster. This results in skewed samples and inflates the level of support for the war.

“To understand the nature and composition of the pro-war majority, you need to dig deeper. By analysing some additional questions, taken from a survey by the independent pollster the Russian Field Group, we know that about a third of the Russian population constitutes a solid party of war; some 15% support the war with reservations; another 20% support the war but would have preferred it had the war never happened. Russian state television — instrumental in shaping public opinion — serves all these audiences…

“In practice, however, the chaotic nature of the mobilisation is throwing off Mr Putin’s calculations. It has undermined the common man’s confidence in the state machine, its efficiency and its dedication to a common cause. Thus it has undermined the very sense of unity and nationhood that Mr Putin hoped to manipulate. 

“For one thing the mobilisation was announced too late, when Russian troops were already being defeated by Ukrainian ones. For another, it has exposed how the centralised administrative machinery, built by Mr Putin, struggles in an emergency. That is because it is built on corruption and sycophancy, not competence.

“Overall, the war’s outcome will depend on the mood of the group who support it and on the group of conformists who go along with it. That is because its most avid proponents, and its most intractable opponents, will not change their minds.

“If those who see it as a ‘just’ war start to suspect that it is slipping into an existential conflict with the West, or if conformists change their risk calculations because they face being drafted, the balance of opinion may shift decisively.

“That is why recent protests in Dagestan and Yakutia, organised by the relatives of those being mobilised, are more important than the protests in Moscow and St Petersburg organised by anti-war activists. The more radical the narrative justifying the war, the higher the cost and the more hopeless the management of the mobilisation, the more likely it is that the consensus in favour of the war will crack. After the muddled start of the mobilisation campaign, this looks probable. But it would be premature and irresponsible to say that this has already happened, or that it is inevitable.” [Italics added]

Although the jury comprising the Russian population may still be arguing about the nature of the crime, what we can say, based on historical analogues with America’s seemingly endless, apparently pointless Vietnam engagement or the South African “border war”, is that the longer the fighting in this invasion goes on, the body bags will continue to flow back across Russia to families so that they can contemplate the purpose of their son/husband/father’s death. 

They will also need to grapple with the consequences of the economic pressures that become ever more visible as a result of the tightening sanctions regimen. 

Moreover, the population will find a lack of coherence in support of this invasion will manifest itself in conversations all across Russia and even on state-run media. Crucially, as with no end in sight to the war or any measurable metric to show a plausible road to victory, support for the war will begin to weaken and shrink. 

As that happens, Russia’s strongman will be forced to make some unpalatable decisions. Should he:

  • Declare a kind of victory and pretend it all never really happened;
  • Find some plausible scapegoats to punish for having got the country into this mess; or, perhaps most terrifying,
  • Try to work up a rationale for deploying a tactical nuclear weapon or two to try to wave off Western support for Ukraine and forestall the inevitable.

So much still remains unclear. And so much of it depends on whether Putin is willing to admit to the realities on the ground — and not in his head. DM

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