The Russian people need to know
(Russian/Русский перевод) By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter @bfry1981) March 9, 2022; updated to add Tolkien content March 11; excerpted and slightly adapted from his article The Beginning of the End of Putin? Why the Russian Army May (and Should) Revolt published by Small Wars Journal March 8, which was featured on March 9 by Real Clear Defense, The National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) Democracy Digest, and SOF News; see related RCN articles excerpted and slightly adapted from that piece:
- March 11: On Casualties Counts in Russia’s War on Ukraine
- March 13: How Best to Penetrate Putin’s Media Iron Curtain in Russia? Dead Russian Troops
- March 19: Time for the Russian Army and Russian People to Revolt and Overthrow Putin
- September 16: I Saw This War Could Be Putin’s Undoing All the Way Back in Early March
Also see Brian’s preceding February 21 Small Wars Journal piece The Utter Banality of Putin’s Kabuki Campaign in Ukraine, featured by SOF News on February 26; see related RCN articles excerpted and slightly adapted from that piece:
- February 21: Why Is Putin Doing All This Now?
- February 25: How to Lose Nations and Alienate People, by Vladimir Putin
- March 1: Putin’s NATO Narrative Is Bullshit
- March 16: Putin’s Zombie Russian/Slavic Ethnonationalism Is Utterly Banal
…Then suddenly straight over the rim of their sheltering bank, a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.
It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace…—The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Book IV: Chapter 4: Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954
WASHINGTON and SILVER SPRING—Going back in history, the greatest leaders and commanders in wartime understand a few basic things, among them, morale and organization can do wonders for winning even when supplies and force size are lacking. After all, many of the great shocks in military history, from the Spartans at Thermopylae through the Vietcong against the U.S. Military in the Vietnam War, demonstrate this. And while few would argue (at least up until a few weeks ago) against the idea that Russia has one of the most powerful militaries in the world—several ranking systems have Russia as having the second most powerful military, only behind the U.S.—some of the most powerful militaries in history have fallen into hubris and been surprised by weaker enemies that they did not respect (most relevant here would be the 1939-1940 Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland). And if a military is going to rely on size and power, but neglects morale and organization while going on the offensive against a smaller but dedicated and well-led foe fighting on his own territory, well, that is asking for trouble.
One thing that is already undeniable here is that Russian soldiers have clearly been treated horribly by their government and commanders. There is enough anecdotal reporting that has been gathered—especially video, photos, and accounts from Russian POWs and communications—that we can put together a near-certain picture of what is going on in certain respects with the Russian military.
The bulk of the rank-and-file Russian troops seem to have had no briefing or barely any briefing on what they were getting into before they crossed the Ukraine border. If they were even told there was going to be a “military operation,” this seems to sometimes include that they would be greeted as liberators.
Even before the invasion, while many of the Russian troops were staging across the Ukraine border in Russia, some were left by alone by their officers for days in crowded “nightmare” conditions in the winter cold and with no rations, the soldiers forced to use their own money to buy local food; when they ran out of money, local Russian civilians were forced to provide them with food.
Bored, cold, hungry, and lonely, some even began matching with Ukrainian women on Tinder.
A Russian human rights group focusing on abuses within the Russian military—the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, or Soldiers’ Mothers Committee—is accusing the Russian military of taking brand new conscripts to the border under the pretext of “training.” The group says they were then pressured heavily with lies and intimidation to take on the status of the more professional contract soldiers, with those speaking against this beaten and having their phones confiscated, their subsequent status unknown. Some of those whose phones were not confiscated have been calling their mothers in panic to report the abuses. Many say do not want to fight in Ukraine and do not believe in the war, and it seems only senior officers were briefed ahead of time. And the government tells the soldiers’ concerned families almost nothing.
It has not gotten better since the hostilities commenced: one video (along with a translation) from a demoralized Russian soldier at an encampment of his uniformed comrades shows the deep neglect, even contempt, Russian commanders have for their soldiers and how dissatisfied and angry these soldiers are at the lack of respect and at the gaslighting (“exercises” is what they were told they were going to). And it seems quite a few are being given rations by the Russian military that expired years ago, seven years ago, apparently, in at least one case and presumably more.
Additionally, Russian troops have not only not been given enough food as they went into Ukraine, they were also not given enough fuel for their vehicles or anywhere near proper logistical support, many of their vehicles being in disrepair and not properly maintained. Even worse, many functional vehicles are simply being abandoned by Russian soldiers with low morale who are just giving up and leaving their posts and vehicles.
While Putin (who may be the world’s de facto richest man) and his infamous oligarchs (key right hand men, along with the Russian mafia, who carry out Putin’s will and often act as extensions of the Russian government) live as literal billionaires (the parody of Orwell’s Animal Farm, but without the communism), this is how the fighting men of Russia are treated. A tiny fraction of one of Putin’s oligarchs’ wealth—or of Putin’s wealth—could have easily provided for better food and warmer uniforms for Russia’s soldiers, another fraction to repair and better maintain many of the vehicles on which they would depend but that would eventually failed them.
It gets even worse when actual combat is considered. That there was very likely the aforementioned lack of necessary briefings is reinforced as a likelihood because the very tactics often carried out by Russian ground units in this war show they clearly were not prepared for ambushes and did not expect to encounter serious resistance in smaller towns, alongside roads, etc. I say this because over and over again there have been examples of small convoys easily ambushed and destroyed by Ukrainians. It also seems there is not much communication or coordination among (or even within) Russian army units (to fatal effect), or, if there is, it is between medium- or higher-level officers because the lower-level commanders are making mistakes that show ambushes in one area were, at least for some time, not leading to prudent caution in other areas, with the same types of ambushes occurring repeatedly in different areas of operations. In other words, by walking into the same traps and over again on different fronts, the most logical conclusion is a lack of communication and briefings for the low-level commands leading different individual units forward.
The combined effect of these factors is obvious from an abundance of collected photos and videos from around Ukraine (many of which have been confirmed by independent investigators): the sheer number of successful ambushes carried out by, and other successful engagements of, Ukrainian forces against Russian convoys demonstrates that many Russian soldiers, lower-level commanders, and units have been ill-prepared, not properly briefed, and sent into harm’s way with little forethought or regard for their safety. This has decimated many units and further destroyed army cohesion for Russia, making their miserable failure of a performance even more a miserable failure of a performance.
In short, wildly irresponsible overconfidence and sloppiness coursed through the planning and execution of this operation.
Ukraine has, apparently, captured hundreds of Russian soldiers, many without food, crying, and desperate to call their mothers who knew nothing of their sons’ whereabouts, as several dramatic videos posted online appear to convincingly show (some of these are difficult to confirm and it is possible they are being coerced to say these things, but a good number seem quite authentic, this remarkably reflective POW in particular). Along with the clearly high number of dead, other intelligence indicates plummeting Russian morale, too. Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Nations even read aloud to the United Nations General Assembly several alleged text messages from a frantic Russian soldier to his mother just before he was killed in combat, seeming to confirm other accounts that Russian soldiers and their families are being kept in the dark and lied to by their government.
Among the most stinging facts to emerge is that while the Kremlin will give Russian families little or no information on their missing sons captured, wounded, missing, or killed in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government has done what Putin’s regime should have: set up a hotline to inform Russians of the fates of their loved ones sent into harm’s way in an unjust, illegal war of revanchist imperialist aggression by Putin (unjustifiable, utterly banal justifications, as I noted here for Small Wars Journal recently).
Sickly, since virtually the whole world now knows of the invasion, it is certain these secrets and silences are not being kept still out of any national security purpose related to the war in Ukraine, but merely to keep Russians in the dark and domestic opinion in Russia from turning against Putin.
In writing this, the text from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings I quoted to open this entire piece kept coming to my mind; it is hard not to feel sorry for these Russian soldiers, in many ways like the men of Harad (including the dead one Samwise Gamgee sees fall near him; for all you movie fans, in The Two Towers film Faramir says aloud what in the book are Sam’s thoughts) and other parts of Middle Earth who came to fight alongside the forces of Sauron in the War of the Ring with little agency as individuals. These abused and misused Russian soldiers also lack much agency, and we know “what lies or threats had led” them to Ukraine: the lies and threats of Putin and his Kremlin.
Whole other articles can, and should, be dedicated to the shocking incompetence of the Russian military displayed in Ukraine, especially the details of the failures of command-and-control and logistics, but such will not be dealt with in detail here. Overall, this war on Russia’s part is truly one of the great military blunders by a superpower in world history, but it is the cavalier, disgraceful betrayal of Russia’s fighting men (and their families) by Putin’s regime that I most wish to emphasize here and that should be seized on urgently by Ukraine, NATO, and the world, but not just them: the soldiers of the Russian Army, their families, and the Russian people must seize on it even more so.
See all Brian’s Ukraine coverage here
© 2022 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
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