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Putin and the Decline of Third Rome
Defeat trajectory in Moscow
Territory is not victory. Attempts to parse a win out of minor map changes are at best propaganda, at worst a delusion. One army pushing another out of, say, Kharkiv Oblast looks great on an animated map, but it says nothing about the state of either army right now, or what it will be like next week. A lot else is going on.
Since last weekend, when Ukrainians pushed Russians past the Oskil, they fell back behind it, and then recrossed it again over the weekend, once again breaking the Russian front line, though to what depth is unclear. An attack on Lyman also developed yesterday and continues at this writing, threatening Russian control of Luhansk.
Logistics had to catch up, artillery had to be deployed, Kupyansk had to be cleared out and secured, before hese movements could begin. Operations have a rhythm — roughly one day of preparation for every day of activity, on the Ukrainian side — and Kyiv has a schedule to keep.
Rain is due to arrive with the fall season and turn everything to mud soon, limiting offensive operations by either side until the ground freezes. Cutting another railroad line through Luhansk would stretch Russian logistics in the south to the breaking point just in time for General Winter to arrive.
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If that seems a grim analysis for Russians, consider the right bank of the Dnipro in Kherson. Ukrainians interdict convoys by fire every day at ferry crossings and along the few roads. Contrary to hope-based pronouncements by Russian milbloggers, the Inhulets river crossing does not seem to have been affected by the mild flooding their cruise missiles created more than 60 miles upstream.
Unlike the lightning advance to Kupyansk, the Ukrainian objective in the south is not territorial. It is attritional. Rusia’s army is the target. They aim to reduce Russian forces before the wet fall season bogs down everything. Then, as winter arrives in force, Ukrainian advantages in logistics and supply will make a crucial difference here, too. It’s a good plan.
Heedless, Vladimir Putin is doubling down on his losing hand, gambler to the end, fighting to the last Russian. First he hollowed out his army; now he is breaking his army, and blaming his army for breaking. It will have to be replaced. But with what?
Tabloid talk of a possible “assassination attempt” on Putin last weekend seems like fake news to me. Putin has been forced to admit the defeat in Kharkiv and fob off the blame on his advisers. In that context, a “loud bang” and a bit of smoke seems like someone creating drama.
Criticism in the Duma outpaced Putin’s ability to reign it in with arrests, an unexpected display of political weakness. But the problem is not Putin, it is Putinism.
Within Russian politics, one side of the political “criticism” right now is couched in demands for greater violence, with more half-measures and quasi-mobilization for war. Right now, this faction is louder than the peace party.
Both sides of the argument are disconnected from the maximalist demands of the war party, which is the smallest faction of all. However, it is led by the Telegram bloggers reporting on Russian failures, and Putin is trying to win over that “community” by pretending all the problems are the fault of bad advisers.
Putin will never resolve the dissonance on his own. A mass mobilization is not in his interest. It would bring the war home to Moscow and St. Petersburg, the urban centers which have largely dodged high casualties so far while Siberians and other ethnic minorities did an outsized share of the dying. To declare a formal state of war against Ukraine would excite public passions both for and against the invasion, dividing the Russian polity and undoing two decades of purposeful political demobilization.
That Russian politics remains unable to commit to full war mobilization at this late date is emblematic of Putinism, the absolute culmination of his career. But like the supposed bombing of Putin’s limousine, it is all pointless drama at this point, anyway. The mobilization debate no longer matters. Decisive action has been delayed for too long.
Russia will need a decade just to rebuild their army, let alone put together a force that could hope to turn back the Ukrainian advances of the last two weeks or rescue the situation in the south. While Ukraine spent the six months since March building and training an army to do what we are seeing now, the Russian order of battle was degrading, and now it is withering at an accelerated rate.
Even mere sustainment is out of the question. Casualties have been highest in the most important formations. Rosgvardia, VDV, Naval Infantry, 1st Guards Tank Army — the more elite the unit, the more total the destruction. Even the internal security forces, the praetorians of Putinism, keep suffering high losses in tactical situations that are far beyond their training or equipment. Units that have been used to commit atrocities have been pressed into battle until annihilated, as if to eliminate potential witnesses. The much-vaunted 3rd Army Corps of volunteer regiments got mauled in Kharkiv and melted away. At this point, there are serious doubts that Russia could even generate the material needs of a new force.
Large-scale conscription would very likely overwhelm the Russian MoD’s ability to induct, train, and equip new soldiers, particularly since the Russian training base appears to be strained in preparing the limited numbers of volunteer battalions currently being fielded. Russia would likely first have to expand its training base significantly, a time-consuming process, and then find and prepare for combat sufficient equipment to kit out large numbers of new units before it could even begin to handle a large influx of new conscripts. Widely-reported Russian materiel shortages suggest deep failures in the Russian military industry that would make generating the necessary equipment, ammunition, and supplies for a large conscript army very difficult. ISW has not identified any indicators that preparations for such activities have been ordered or are underway.
Here we find the biggest shift taking place in Russia today. Wagner paramilitary leader Yevgeny Prighozin has emerged as the public face of Russia’s war effort. Popular with the milbloggers, he speaks of palingenesis, spiritual renewal of the nation through blood sacrifice.
Yet this is not the sort of leadership that creates coherent force mobilization, or uses newly-generated forces with any sort of judicious wisdom. It is the kind of leadership that gets a lot of people killed in futile frontal assualts, so that it is always scraping the bottom of the barrel to fill out the ranks, and almost any male body will do.
Wagner PMC never rushes from its own assigned front at Bakhmut to answer emergencies elsewhere. They never fill gaps in the line. Instead, Prighozin has continued attacking towards Bakhmut throughout the Kharkiv and Kherson offensives, pursuing his own private strategy.
Russia no longer has a coherent army. Wagner seems to be recruiting mainly from prisons right now. Some of these prisoner formations have already surrendered en masse. They are poorly-armed, with no incentives against desertion.
Prighozin is not an idiot. He has to understand that he will never reach Bakhmut. The “Gray Zone” Telegram channel associated with his Wagner PMC regularly makes the most damning, fact-based indictments regarding Russian training and doctrine and strategy that everyday Russians are allowed to read.
As a propaganda project, I suspect that Russians are being groomed to remember Bakhmut as a totemic defeat in which Yevgeny Prigozhin was the hero. Putin is waning; his hot dog vendor has aspirations, perhaps, so Bakhmut may already represent a lost cause, an historic injustice to be reversed by a future Russia which has cleansed itself of weakness, preferably under the genius leadership of Prigozhin’s clique, no doubt.
Weakness defines Russia now. Since Ukrainians reached Kupyansk a week ago, Azerbaijan has attacked Armenia, while Kyrgyzstan has attacked a much weaker Tajikistan. Both border disputes implicate the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, which is Russia’s 1992 military policy replacement for the Soviet Union, and Russia has maintained an interest in these disputes solely because they affect the borders of Russian imperial influence. Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan both see that the Russian Army is hollowed out, so they are acting out. Real autocrats send real force in response to such provocations. The best Putin can do is hold a phone call with the combatants when they have declared a case-fire.
In Ukraine, there is nothing he can do now to prevent conventional military defeat. I don’t think he really means to even try.
Back in June, I proposed a loose schedule for future Ukrainian battlefield victories. Ukraine has kept to my arbitrary schedule. They restored their access to the Black Sea in August, and they have Russia outgunned in at least three major operational theaters during September. Manpower shortages begin to matter most, now. By December, a shortage of capable, trained Russian soldiers within tactical formations will make other standard material dimensions of conflict, such as the number of tanks and weight of fire, irrelevant to the outcome.
This is not some sort of pejorative take on Russians. It is just math, a function of Lanchester’s laws. Some still doubt whether Ukraine has the force levels needed to win back all of Ukraine. At this rate, the better question is whether Russia will have the force levels to stop them in 2023. What will become of Russia after that is anybody’s guess, but we should probably begin thinking about a postwar world in which Russia takes an even darker turn in the aftermath of military defeat.
Western planners are already thinking this way. Ukraine has done so well with what they have received already — HIMARS, M777, Gepard, CAESAR, HARMs, etc — that systems like the A-10 and ATACMS, which were floated in July as potential weapons to be supplied to them, have been deemed unnecessary for their ultimate success.
Those weapons might even make Russia so angry that Putin does something desperate, goes the argument, and so we should not take the risk of sending them. Agree or disagree with this policy, it is being shaped by the collapse of Russia’s conventional military state. Some sort of unconventional paramilitary state seems likely to evolve from the political wreckage.
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