Russia's Achilles Heel
War is a fundamentally human endeavor. Also, Putin is a moron.
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Putin’s “Noble Aims”
The outcome of the war is still in the balance, but it’s safe to say that Russia’s military capabilities no longer match its strategic vision. After being thoroughly mauled in the cities and towns of north and south Ukraine, Putin is shifting the focus of his Special Military Operation to Take Ukraine in 3 Days™ to the steppes of the Donbas in the southeast.
I confess that I have a rather difficult time envisioning Putin finding success in this new campaign. Ol’ Vlad could be described with a high degree of confidence as someone who wouldn’t be able to find his own ass with two hands and a phosphorescent Cammenga compass of exacting precision. Unless Russia can swiftly improve its supply lines, seamlessly reintegrate BTG replacements, and bolster what's starting to sound like the near-insuperably low morale of troops, it might be more appropriate to refer to Putin’s “noble aims” as pipe dreams.
Yes, it's true that by concentrating firepower on a smaller front and shortening supply lines, the strategic decision to shift toward the Donbas could give Russia a better shot at military success. At the same time, though, this reorientation — effectively moving the war to the southeast — will give Ukraine a unique advantage thanks to the change in scenery, and that’s the “luxury” of being able to remain in a dug-in, defensive posture while Russia is forced to advance out in the open, completely exposed. There's simply nowhere to hide.
The Donbas is an area the size of New Hampshire with the terrain of Kansas—flat, open fields with a frontline stretching hundreds of miles, a swath of bowling alleys dissected with trenches dug during the region's sporadic fighting stretching back to 2014. There's precious little cover and concealment above ground.
Interestingly, the fighting that'll take place here is going to require Russia to employ some of the same tactics used by the Red Army when it crossed this exact terrain to go on the offensive after Hitler failed to take Stalingrad. Also interesting is that it's just as possible this phase ends up more so resembling WWI, with fixed positions, oceans of steppes, extremely heavy artillery, and slow gains.
The problem, of course, is that Russia has yet to demonstrate anything close to competency when it comes to conducting rapid, decisive combined arms maneuvers, and so you’d be hard-pressed to argue that this time around the Russian Army will successfully open up parallel axes of advance using the same command and control capabilities—capabilities on par with a gaggle of asshole adolescents using Walkie Talkies to conduct an assault-by-snowballs on the fat kid or something. Not good.
Wars only end through political agreements. That's the reality. And unfortunately for dearest Vladimir, he’s been slowly forfeiting his position as top dog at the negotiating table. One might even say that it's Ukraine that now finds itself with the upper hand in “peace talks” thanks to its highly-motivated, tactically-adept resistance and a bottomless war chest with all kinds of neat goodies and gizmos courtesy of NATO.
The “art of war” is infinitely complex. It involves endless kinetic factors that folks rarely care to think about, let alone appreciate. But it’s also a fundamentally human endeavor. Tactical success, the actual fighting on the ground, hinges on human will, which in turn is inextricably correlated to morale—that intangible, unquantifiable quality that’s been a real game-changer (a force multiplier) for Ukraine and the Achilles heel of Russia.
The Azovstal Factory
Putin wants Mariupol. Badly.
A victory there would allow him to claim the “denazification” process a success, according to an EU security source. That, and Russia has already made plans to celebrate the victory on May 9—the day Moscow commemorates victory over Nazi Germany every year with a parade in Red Square and a bunch of other hullabaloo. Putin has indicated he’ll be giving a big speech or some such hubris-inspired oratorical tripe, and word on the street is there's a 100% chance at least 50% of the material included therein will be top-shelf bullshit. Be sure to bring the kids.
Reports from the Institute for the Study of War confirm that Russia is indeed on the brink of taking Mariupol. But in an act of defiance that's already become the stuff of legend, there are isolated groups of Ukrainian soldiers who’ve chosen to remain within the Azovstal iron and steelworks factory, one of Europe’s biggest metallurgical plants and an industrial fortress that's virtually impregnable. Outgunned, out-manned, and surrounded, they refused a Russian ultimatum to surrender by 1pm local time on April 17.
This situation is uncannily similar to the battle for the “Red October Plant,” which was an equally massive industrial complex with countless tunnels and staging points USSR soldiers used to repeatedly fight off overwhelming German attacks during the Battle of Stalingrad.
Around 1,500 soldiers from the Ukrainian 36th Marine Brigade and the Azov Battalion are holed up in this maze of steelworks and blast furnaces and rail tracks, underneath which runs an extensive network of tunnels and bunkers dating from the Cold War when they were built to protect workers from nuclear attack. These highly secure catacombs go six stories underground. The Russians are intent on clearing them out, but such an effort will cost them dearly. (It goes without saying that the place is impervious to bombings.)
“They are going to go down fighting and the longer they can hold out the more they will stop Russians being able to redeploy north, which is what Putin really wants them to be doing.” — Michael Clarke, Visiting Professor of Defence Studies at King’s College London
Take a moment to appreciate the massive balls of these guys holding out in the Azovstal factory. Their refusal to surrender means almost certain death unless something miraculous happens. Compare that kind of savage mettle to the sad majority of Americans who've been unveiled as the sort of people so consumed with themselves, so incapable of handling uncertainty and microscopic risks, and so enslaved to self-preservation that they're too scared to live; and let's not forget those frail souls dogmatically convinced that to be “mis-gendered” or forced to listen to something they don't agree with is traumatic.
It is embarrassing, and I will not disguise my disdain. If there’s ever another war requiring a draft, God help us.
“We've seen indications of some units that are literally, for all intents and purposes, eradicated.”
One of Russia’s most pressing issues, this one uniquely unfixable without cutting off the head of the snake, so to speak, is the complete and total absence of a moral compass within Papa Putin — he of the perpetual countenance of near-reptilian passivity belying a man who's as emotionally stable as an Ikea table and very probably insane (as in literally DSM-5 schizophrenic) — and his utter lack of regard for his own soldiers, an indifference that manifests most acutely in Russia’s casualty numbers, which are officially so high as to be beyond the reach of any meaningful adjective.
As of April 15th, the number of Russian KIA was believed to be around 20,000 (!!!). That’s a cautious estimate, according to retired U.S. Army General Mark Herting, a military analyst on national security and military affairs, and a source I trust.
The situation is dire. I’m not omniscient, and I'm not a savant, but based on everything I've read since February, Russia’s Army is slowly collapsing in on itself like a dying star and it's only a matter of time before it implodes.
“We've seen indications of some units that are literally, for all intents and purposes, eradicated. There's just nothing left of the BTG except a handful of troops, and maybe a small number of vehicles, and they're going to have to be reconstituted or reapplied to others. We've seen others that are, you know, down 30 percent manpower.” — Senior U.S. Defense official
Moscow might be shifting its focus to the southeast, pulling units back from around Kyiv and massing forces in the Donbas to renew concerted attacks, but there exists ample proof that Russian leaders have no regard for the well-being of their own troops, and they do not hesitate to throw heavily damaged units piecemeal into offensive operations that make limited gains at great cost. Of the 120 battalion tactical groups pushed into Ukraine, 40 of them have either been destroyed or crippled. The Kremlin claims that these BTGs will undergo a couple weeks of “refitting” before returning to combat operations, but reconstituting these units to restore any notable fraction of their nominal power would take months. In all actuality, it’s highly unlikely Russia manages to quickly redeploy effective forces in the Donbas—not with entire BTGs in disarray and soldiers damn near mutinous in some cases.
Russian Morale (Or Lack Thereof)
According to a senior U.S. defense official, Western intelligence indicates Russian soldiers “have been disillusioned by this war, weren’t properly informed, weren’t properly trained, weren’t ready, not just physically, but weren’t ready mentally for what they were about to do” and are becoming increasingly “frustrated with their troops’ performance, frustrated with their colleagues’ performance.” This would seem to be an understatement.
For one thing, reports of defiant Russian soldiers are becoming increasingly common: Per the Ukrainian General Staff, more than 80% of personnel in some Russian units previously involved in combat operations are flat-out refusing to return to the front. As but one example of many, the head of the Russian human rights organization Agora reported on April 8 that members of Russia’s National Guard (Rosgvardia) are rejecting new orders to go to Ukraine, or, having gone and returned, are refusing orders to make a second go of it.
A Russian Telegram channel reporting on Pskov, the home of the elite 76th Guards Airborne Division, noted that a growing number of paratroopers are contravening orders; upwards of 60 from one unit were dismissed for “cowardice.” More have submitted resignation papers, but commanders are refusing to accept them, reportedly leading some soldiers’ families to appeal in court.
By far the most shocking, telling example underlining just how bad things are morale-wise within Russian ranks concerns (per the GRU) an elite Russian SPETSNAZ unit that fought in Syria and refused to continue fighting in Mariupol after suffering 30 casualties between April 2 and April 4. Russian SPETSNAZ are analogous to U.S. Army SF. Such a thing happening amongst any of our green-eyed devils is, as you can imagine, unimaginable.
Below is an intercepted call transcript between a soldier and his mother that might prove illuminating:
Ukrainian military intelligence1 has also said that Russian soldiers have been injuring themselves to avoid returning to combat. According to another intercepted call, a Russian officer complained to his wife about a lack of food, confessed that he doesn’t believe the war is going to end well, and even admitted it’s unlikely he lives to draw his pension. When an officer is saying this kind of stuff, you're dealing with a grave problem.
There's been enough anecdotal reporting gathered in the form of videos, photos, and accounts from Russian POWs (and intercepted comms) that we can confidently piece together what circumstances and conditions are like from the perspective of the average Ruskie grunt, and the thing that's unequivocal is that they’re treated horribly by commanders and Moscow alike.
Even before the invasion, while Russian troops were staging just beyond Ukraine's border, some were left alone (more like abandoned, really) by officers for days at a time in crowded “nightmare” conditions and without rations, forcing soldiers to use what little money they had to buy food, and when they ran out of money, local Russian civilians had to provide for them.
One clip (with a translation) from a demoralized Russian soldier at an encampment shows the neglect — even contempt — Russian commanders have for their own men, and how pissed off these subordinates are, not only because of the lack of respect, but because of the gaslighting (“training exercises,” that's what they were told was happening; imagine how hard the truth must've hit when it dawned on them that they were about to get a brutal baptism by fire).
The Soldiers’ Mothers Committee is now accusing the Russian military of taking brand new soldiers to the border under the pretext of “training,” at which point they were pressured (i.e. - beaten) into signing extended contracts.
These reports are substantiated by Western intelligence. A senior Pentagon official told the press that parts of the Russian army made up of young, poorly trained soldiers are "ill-prepared" for battle, and, in at least one instance, "deliberately punched holes" in their vehicles' fuel tanks to avoid reaching the front. Jeremy Fleming, head of Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), has said that British intelligence confirms these reports. Fleming also detailed one case in which troops shot down one of their own aircraft.
Russia has a long history of using troops as cannon fodder. It wasn’t just WWII. During the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s, Soviet leadership was so concerned about public outcry over casualties that it sent home soldiers killed in action in sealed zinc coffins. Today, nearly two months into the war, reports about the actual number of casualties continue to be heavily censored, and it’s still unclear whether Russia even intends to repatriate its KIA.
“Do you know they have brought a cremation chamber with them? They’re not going to show the bodies to their families. They’re not going to tell the mothers that their children died here.” — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Putin is rapidly exhausting the manpower readily available to generate replacements, which is really saying something considering that Ukraine found ample proof during the first week of the invasion that conscripts were being used despite Putin's promise otherwise.
Obviously didn’t take long for that fable to blow up in smoke:
Just a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that conscripts and reservists were not being sent to fight in Ukraine, Russia’s Ministry of Defense has admitted they actually are. In a Wednesday statement, the ministry said some had even been taken prisoner in Ukraine after joining the Russian invasion. “Comprehensive measures are being taken to prevent conscripts from being sent into combat areas and to release captured servicemen,” the statement claimed. — The Daily Beast
This “whoops” excuse — Russia’s Ministry of Defense has tried framing this as if the conscripts were “discovered,” not sent — is almost certainly a lie as well. Russian law (ostensibly) prohibits the use of conscripts in combat, but according to families interviewed by “Meduza,” a Russian independent news organization, conscripts are being coerced into signing contracts of voluntary service to change their status and provide legal cover for sending them to war.
So but yes, that’s one reason it’s significant that Russia was using conscripts right out the gate: As word travels and undermines the Kremlin’s narrative, it’ll jeopardize Putin's tenuous support with the broader public—a broader public that can’t be too thrilled about the vice grip of sanctions.
But there’s also the simple matter of efficacy. Conscripts are not soldiers. More often than not, these are teenagers. It's not just an issue of youth and inexperience, though. You can’t just cobble together some dudes, sprinkle some magical fairy dust on them, load them up in the back of a deuce-and-a-half, and then send them off to war expecting them to operate as a cohesive unit under the most demanding circumstances possible—especially when they’ve had the bare minimum training, they barely even know each other, and few, if any, want to be in the back of said deuce-and-a-half to begin with. But that’s what Russia’s doing. I’ll go out on a limb and say we’re not exactly dealing with your Medal of Honor types here.
And now there are new accounts of conscripts in the separatist-backed Donbas region, another indication that the Russian Army is stretched beyond its means. While technically not part of the Russian armed forces, Donbas soldiers still fight alongside them. Some have purportedly been issued Mosins, a late 19th century rifle from reserve stocks—relics prized by memorabilia collectors.
One conscript that Reuters spoke to, a student, said, "I don't even know how to fire an automatic weapon,” a fact that his wife was very eager to second: “He doesn't even really know how to hold an automatic weapon.” And according to video testimony from a prisoner of war published by Ukrainian forces, some Donbas conscripts were given the “mission” to draw enemy fire onto themselves so other units could better pinpoint Ukrainian locations. Call it “reconnaissance by fodder.”
A Russian senator even complained publicly during a Federation Council meeting that conscripts were being coerced into signing contracts and that, in one unit, only four survivors out of 100 soldiers returned alive from fighting in Ukraine.
This Isn’t Fixable
Moscow has been casting about for extra bodies, grasping for Syrian volunteers and more mercenaries from the Wagner group. The Belarusian army is no longer available; having watched from the sidelines, they politely declined to join Russia’s soup sandwich, as did troops from South Ossetia, the breakaway enclave in Georgia.
“Military potential, as any system, is as strong as its weakest component. And Russia’s weakest component is its people. They have a lot of equipment, a lot of armor, but they have a big problem with trained personnel,” said Mr. Zagorodnyuk, the former Ukrainian defense minister. — WSJ
Russia’s dismal recruiting results aren't helping, obviously. Per Ukrainian intelligence, voluntary interest in joining the military is practically nonexistent, which isn't particularly hard to believe if efforts to attract recruits hadn't been going terribly well before the war began.
The Russian Defense Ministry is reportedly offering cash incentives in a desperate attempt to convince forces withdrawn from NE Ukraine to return to combat operations. They've even created an incentives program offering large “bonuses” if a soldier manages to destroy high-value Ukrainian assets: 300k rubles for fixed-wing aircraft; 50k for armored vehicles; 200k for helicopters, etc.
But it appears officials have transitioned from beseeching and offering incentives to flat-out forcing men to join. The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate reported that Russia’s now conscripting anyone and everyone, including those with childhood disabilities and workers in protected industries. In the Donbas, traffic inspectors are issuing on-the-spot conscription notices and establishing checkpoints on key highways, while Russian military police are said to be destroying any documents granting exemptions.
Russian pundits — whom I find fascinatingly cringeworthy but also weirdly telegenic — have recently taken up a new, belligerent patois as they call for Russia to transition from its “special military operation” to WWIII (literally, WWIII; “We’re getting smoked by Ukraine, lost 20k guys already… fuck it, let’s invite the full wrath and fury of NATO on ourselves”) after Ukraine defecated (figuratively) all over Putin by sinking the Moskva, the Black Sea fleet’s premier battleship. Which, it must be said, is indeed a very big deal, as sinking a major warship in battle is truly a rare event in modern naval warfare, and this was the biggest naval combat loss in the last 40 years. (It also has to be dreadfully embarrassing for Putin… you lost your flagship, during a land war, to a country without a navy?)
Dropping the “special operation” nomenclature and finally telling the Russian people they're at war would give Putin the green light to do essentially the same thing Ukraine did from the get-go, which is to make it illegal for anyone of the male persuasion between the ages of 18-60 to leave the country. Only difference is that nearly all Ukrainian men volunteered, sua sponte, to enlist in the Ukrainian Army or join the territorial defense force.
Point being that Putin could dispense with the not-very-coy conscription schtick and dictate that all males who can pull a trigger go to their nearest recruiting office immediately.
Of course, there's still the teensy-weensy morale problem.
For the record, Ukrainian intelligence has been excellent thus far. It certainly helps that, as covered in a previous post, Russia bungled its comms so badly that Ukrainians can basically listen in on every call.