Standing in front of enormous Russian Federation flags and behind his little white podium yesterday, it was difficult to fathom what was going on in Vladimir Putin’s mind, behind his inscrutable facial demeanour. Announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian regions might be seen by some of his Russian faithful as something of a triumph or a victory but deep down inside, Putin must surely know that this was nothing short of a desperate sticking-plaster exercise.
If Putin has been told anything resembling the truth, he knows he is in serious trouble. The illegal annexation of the four regions is a poor consolation prize from the original objective to secure Kyiv and effect regime change. He must have a rising fear of being consumed by his own hubris and the recent partial mobilisation order was a product of it.
At a stroke, Putin converted what for most Russians was someone else’s war into their war. The special military operation did not affect them – the person on the Moscow street could be indifferent to what was going on – but mobilisation changed all that. Tens of thousands of Russian men have voted with their feet, by plane, by car, by bicycle or by size ten boot, to get out of Russia. It is hard to conceive a greater indictment against a decision by one’s own government.
Those bold enough to stay or are outside the call up criteria have now found the courage to display their disapproval by popular protest, despite the violent suppression by internal security forces, whose members themselves must fear the draft if they falter in their duties. But for those already drafted, the fear of an untimely death on a Ukrainian battlefield is conflated with the misery of their existence as conscripts.
The Russian army’s logistic system cannot cope with the unplanned mobilisation. Recruits are expected to provide their own sleeping bags, medical kit and backpacks. Combat helmets and ballistic body armour are considered optional items.
During the Cold War and into the early 1990’s there were huge army warehouses storing millions of tonnes of food in deep freeze storage which after twenty years were taken out of store and used to feed the troops. This recycling stopped in the mid-1990’s and today conscripts are being fed with food from freezer warehouses that are decades old.
Moreover, some of what military clothing there is dates back to the 1950s. The boots are particularly loathsome as, lacking socks, feet must be bound with whatever cloth is available. Weapons issued from stores have not been oiled or maintained for decades and many are a positive danger to the user. Is it therefore any wonder that morale within the Russian forces is at rock bottom?
On the battlefield, the single biggest supplier of military hardware to the Ukrainians is the Russian army. Tanks, artillery pieces, ammunition and the baggage of war have been abandoned by demoralised troops confronted by well-led and motivated Ukrainian soldiers fighting to liberate their homeland. Lyman, in the newly annexed Donetsk province, is likely to become the venue for the next Russian military catastrophe as Ukrainian troops complete an encirclement.
The pressure is mounting on Vladimir Putin. What are his options? He has played the mobilisation card and it has back-fired spectacularly. The nuclear option clearly remains on the table but if he is possessed of any remaining rationality, he must realise that the consequences for the Russian people would themselves be catastrophic. His best hope is to keep throwing onto the battlefield his ill-equipped and poorly trained conscripts to keep the war going in the hope that the cost of energy and economic pressures will erode the will of the West to continue support to Ukraine.
That is his hope – our challenge is to maintain our resolve.
General The Lord Dannatt is a former Chief of the General Staff
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