Small Wars Journal

Putin’s Ukraine War Had Doomed Him; Mobilization Only Weakens Him More

Sun, 10/02/2022 - 6:06pm

Putin’s Ukraine War Had Doomed Him; Mobilization Only Weakens Him More

By Brian E. Frydenborg

Putin’s mobilization is myopically feared by some but does more damage to him at home than anything to help the war effort, the dynamics of which have been set and cannot be altered by this mobilization or “referenda,” gimmicks that reek of desperation and prove Russia is losing even to Russians

ISW protests 9-26

Things are not going well for Russian President Vladimir Putin.  The prosecution of his war went from bad to worse to pathetic months ago and have gone from pathetic to catastrophic since. There is no doubt that on February 24, he did not envision his war of choice would now be in its current shambolic state.  Before Russian Putin’s massive February 24 escalation of the war in Ukraine, few people who follow the conflict gave Ukraine much of a chance against Russia.  I myself felt Ukraine would put up quite a fight but still felt Russia would be able to take most of Ukraine, with a best-case scenario being Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would survive a Pyrrhic Russian victory in Kyiv and lead a robust insurgency that would succeed partially over time (years) with Western help.

But not even two full weeks after February 24, I was experiencing one of the most dramatic surprises of my life: during the second week of the war, it was clear to me that Russia’s leadership, government, and military were not only systemically failing in their approach to the war, but were, collectively and institutionally, incapable of any grand adjustments that would change their failure to success, that even if they adjusted their strategy, their tactics doomed them to a poor performance.


Russia and Its Military: Dysfunction Exposed Early in War Persists

Ukraine had performed as well as possible, Russia as poorly as possible in any realistic sense, and the consequences of this would only explode exponentially over time as the war would drag on.  Even less than two weeks in, it was clear:

  • Russian tanks and vehicles had no defense against Javelin missiles and other Western-supplied anti-tank weapons the Ukrainians were receiving or would receive
  • Russian troops were poorly supplied, without enough food, water, or fuel, with a terrible logistics system that was highly vulnerable (follow Trent Telenko on Twitter and you will understand just how bad the Russians are at logistics)
  • Russian troops were poorly led, lied to by their superiors and unprepared for the resistance they encountered, their lives wasted in repeating disastrous tactics time and time again, with little proper coordination between different branches, leading to horrific casualties, while Ukrainian troops were much better led and protected by their leaders and had far higher morale
  • Russian equipment was inferior, poorly maintained, and thus performed poorly at high rates
  • Russian hubris led Russia to attack on many axes, spreading their troops thin, and Russian losses in the early days included some of their best troops and equipment
  • Russia had virtually no international support or aid, while Ukraine has tremendous international support and aid that would only grow parallel to Russia’s isolation and depletion
  • Russia could not economically withstand Western sanctions or support this war over long periods of time (unsustainable short-term measures and myopic analysis notwithstanding)

If you put these on one side of a mathematical equation and add to it Putin’s dogged determination to persist, on the other side of the equals sign, you end up with not only Ukrainians victory, but the end of Putin and his regime: Putin, proud man that he is, would be unwilling to admit defeat and would double down on failure until it brought him down, destroying most of the Russian Army in the process unless it or his people revolted against him first.

Hence, I could posit in my article for Small Wars Journal published March 8 that this war would be “the beginning of the end for Putin.”  Many analysts and pundits would be dismissive of such claims, including specifically of my own argument (among them George Beebe, an advisor to Dick Cheney when he was vice president and a former top Russia specialist at the CIA) but all of those dynamics have persisted, and indeed, increased since then, exploding (literally) in disaster after disaster for Russia.  And while I recently briefly revisited how I thought back then that Putin would doom himself with his hubris, now is a good time to do a full reexamination of that notion.

From the total collapse of Russia’s Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy fronts to the sinking of the Mosvka, from Crimea becoming vulnerable to Ukrainian forces—the last two of which I predicted in April—from the counteroffensive in Kherson to the total collapse of Russia’s Kharkiv front, it has simply been one disaster after another for Russia since late March, with only minimal, gradual gains for Russia (some of which are already being reversed) alongside numerous sudden, dramatic victories for Ukraine.  In fact, the totality of the conflict since February 24 has seen Russia initially make quick but often costly gains up to the gates of Kyiv, then saw that and other fronts in north-central Ukraine to collapse suddenly with catastrophic losses beginning by the end of the fifth week of the war, and, in the nearly half-year since then, Ukraine has taken far, far more territory than what Russia has gained (and that was true even before Russia’s dramatic collapse on the Kharkiv front).

Ukraine war maps ISW

Click to go to my map collage’s source article

All the while, Moscow’s body count has continued to grow, astoundingly all throughout, perhaps as high as 57,000 killed, with that number set to only increase and increase dramatically.  These dead Russians have friends and family, and it is hard to hide such death; even without official notification, official silences reveal much.  And those friends and family are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the conduct of the war, the war itself, and Putin himself; with more combat deaths comes more people with more anger.

KI 9-26 casualties

Russia’s military is so desperate to bring in new recruits to bolster its beleaguered force that its de facto extension, the Wagner mercenary group run by Putin henchman Yevgeniy Prigozhin (known as “Putin’s chef”), is recruiting inmates from prisons, with predictably pathetic results for Russia.


Mobilizing Myopia and More of the Same (Dysfunction)

And no dysfunctional mobilization—“partial” (as just announced by Putin) or otherwise—on the part of Russia can alter these dynamics anytime soon, especially rushing to train and deploy old or untried troops still operating as part of this exceptionally ineffective system as describe above.  Protests are now erupting in reaction to Putin’s “partial” mobilization announcement (which he has already lied about), and authorities are arresting many people, some of whom they are forcing into the military; that is hardly the way to build a motivated fighting force.  As it is and as noted earlier, the Russian government has been unable to properly train, equip, supply, and lead its existing military, and there is nothing whatsoever from what we have seen thus far that should lead anyone to think it can competently so now for an additional 300,000 troops.  Thus, while there are no rational reasons to think that the troops-to-be-mobilized will perform or be treated any better that the already poorly performing Russian military currently operating in Ukraine, we have multiple reasons to conclude rationally that they are likely to perform and be treated even worse.  And there is the further conundrum that the longer the Kremlin waits to deploy these troops-to-be-mobilized, the worse a losing situation they will be thrown into, but also that the faster they are deployed, the less-trained, less-prepared, and more poorly equipped they will be.

Part of me feels as if “partial” mobilization of Putin’s is half a public relations attempt to show that he is doing something to respond to the obvious fact that Russia is losing and he, as leader, must be seen to do something while also being half an actual attempt to actually do something that would, in theory, help the war effort, but that, in the end, it is a half-assed approach to each, a move that will fail to restore the approval and stature he has lost and is losing in the eyes of the Russian people and will not appease hardliners even as it angers nearly everyone else, a sorry measure that will not actually reverse the tide of overall failure Russia has been experiencing for almost the last six months of this seven-month war.

Because more and more, the failures outlined above are going to be obvious to all but the most credulous of Putin’s supporters and sooner rather than later (if they are not already); the rest of Russia might be going through stages of grief when it comes to their support for Putin (those that still do support him enthusiastically).  Through the acts of defiance of municipal politicians to the plea from queen of Russian pop music Alla Pugacheva, from the cracks in the normally-solid wall of Russian state television propaganda to the increasing refusal of Russian soldiers to fight in the war, it was clear earlier this month clear that Putin was losing support among the Russian people and losing it dramatically. 

Now, as hundreds of thousands of young Russian men flee their country to avoid serving in a military that will mistreat them and throw their lives away carelessly in a war they do not want to fight, Putin’s hold on power has never been weaker.  Russia’s FSB (one of the successors to the dreaded Soviet KGB) apparently counted over 260,000 men fleeing Russia from just this past Wednesday, September 21, to Saturday, September 24; prices of flights out of the country are skyrocketing and flights are selling out; and traffic leaving Russia was backed up in gridlock for some ten miles on the border with Georgia, with a long line of cars also building up on Russia’s border with Mongolia and even Kazakhstan offering sanctuary to Russians fleeing Putin’s mobilization.