Why Putin Has Doomed Himself with His Ukraine Fiasco

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”/“annexation” gimmicks that reek of desperation and prove Russia is losing even to Russians

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By Brian E. Frydenborg (Twitter @bfry1981, LinkedIn, Facebook), September 27, 2022, the same day Real Context News surpassed three-quarters of a million all-time content views; *update 11:09 PM; adapted October 2 for Small Wars Journal as Putin’s Ukraine War Had Doomed Him; Mobilization Only Weakens Him More; see follow-up October 6 article This Is the Beginning of the End of the War and related September 16 article I Saw This War Could Be Putin’s Undoing All the Way Back in Early March; also, since the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded on October 7 to Ukrainian activist Oleksandra Matviichuk and her organization the Center for Civil Liberties, listen to my April podcast with her here discussing war, Russian war crimes, human rights, and democracy in Ukraine.

ISW protests 9-26

SILVER SPRING—Before Russian President Vladimir 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 to Saturday; prices of flights out of the country are skyrocketing and flights are selling out; and traffic leaving Russia is 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.

Mobilizing Resistance

There appears to even be something of an insurgency—or “partisan” movement—breaking out as I write this in Dagestan and perhaps elsewhere, with people resisting security forces coming to conscript men into the military and even some attacks against recruiters and recruiting centers.  Unrest, protests, and even resistance are growing particularly in regions with large non-Russian ethnic minority populations, especially Dagestan: in a sick sense, Russia is focusing disproportionately on recruiting and conscription from these communities within Russia as well as from Tatars in Russian-occupied Crimea as a way to ethnically cleanse Russia and Crimea of “undesirable” non-Russians, acts that are nothing new in the history of the Russian and Soviet Empires, as I noted some time ago.  This should not be surprising, as Putin’s ideology and system, like that of the tsardom of the Russian Empire and the worst practices of Stalin, is heavily imbued with white Slavic Russian-supremacist racism, this being a big part of the reason why Russia is by far the most violently racist country in Europe.  The disproportionate use of ethnic minorities in the military in this war is also an attempt to shield Putin’s supporters among better-off ethnic Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg from the war’s effects. 

These dual aims expose the parasitic colonialist and imperialist nature of the Russian Federation towards its own citizens, especially in regions remote from its two aforementioned largest cities.  But these efforts come at a cost, causing unrest throughout the constituent parts of the Russian Federation, unrest that is spreading rapidly.  Even Putin’s local ally, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, seems to be refusing to comply with the new mobilization following recent public criticism on his part of Kremlin.

*Update 11:09PM: I have been trying to wrap my head further around why the Russian mobilization is proceeding as it is, and came to an additional conclusion that also, in part, these are not only are punitive—meant to take men who would form a more liberal opposition (active protesters) and more traditional insurgents (sometimes ethnic minorities, though this is also a Russian prejudice against minorities much like the heinous “dual-loyalty” accusation anti-Semitic bigots hurl at Jews and also reminiscent of Stalinist purges of largely innocent minorities like the Crimean Tatars)—not only to see these people somewhat politically purged or ethnically cleansed, but is also preventive, to put such people under government control and take them away from their home regions where they could form the core of any rebellion or insurgency, either to overthrow Putin directly or to carry out a separatist movement on behalf of some of the largely non-Russia republics within the Russian Federation; credit to Dmitry (@wartranslated) for pointing this out. But yes, this is also Putin showing he is afraid of the people, afraid or rebellion, separatism, and being overthrown, and thinking he is somewhat preempting such movements, though, like so many of his recent decisions, its effect may have the opposite one from what he intended.

(end update)

The rapid decline of support for Putin and his war is because the social contract he made with Russians who supported him is now null and void.  “Give me your freedom, your democracy,” he winked and nodded, “and, under me, Russia will be respected and feared again, powerful at home and abroad, strong economically and stable, and reversing the collapse of the Russian Empire.”

But now, Russia is less respected than at any time in living memory.  The Potemkin Russian military has been severely degraded and roundly humiliated by the far smaller Ukraine, until recent decades a vassal of Russia’s.  States deeply under Russian influence not long ago—Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia—are now distancing themselves from Moscow, defying Russian peacekeepers, or seeking American support, respectively, while other former Soviet states Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan just saw a deadly military flare-up between them.  Even though China told Russia their friendship “has no limits” early in February, the opposite is increasingly becoming the case.  And the Russian economy is already now bringing back memories of the nadirs of the Yeltsin days, with only far, far more economic pain for Russians—elites and masses—to come in the ensuing months.

These are all the things Putin essentially promised he would keep from ever happening again if Russians surrendered their freedom to him, yet here they are, happening again.  Instead of pride, now, all Russians can feel is humiliation; most of the them know this, and the whole world sees this.  And, as this has clearly been Putin’s Russia for decades, though there may be some “It’s Rasputin fault, not the tsar’s”-syndrome, most Russians will know Putin is responsible, blame him, and blame him harshly.

It is clear that the Russian military—rank-and-file and officers alike—are more aware of Putin’s failures than anyone as they wade through their own blood.  But this war is not just affecting them and regular Russians: the lifestyles of the elites—powered by luxury goods and lavish vacations—are also suffering; nobody in Russia is benefitting from this war and nobody will.  And nobody knows how bad things are going more than the very people surrounding Putin in the Kremlin, not just those closest to Putin, but the layers of bureaucracy underneath them.  When those types of mid-level government officials gave up on the Soviet system, they were happy to dismantle it from within to find some power to grasp onto amidst the system’s collapse and did not work to preserve it but to preserve themselves, one of the fatal five reasons Stephen Kotkin gives for the Soviet Union’s collapse.  Thus, the spawn of the crisis of legitimacy in Moscow that Gorbachev faced in the late 1980s and early 1990s is ready to return with a vengeance, this time targeting Putin and his regime.

Revolt, rebellion, revolution, resistance, whatever you want to call it, its smell is in the air.

See related article The Beginning of the End of Putin? Why the Russian Army May (and Should) Revolt published by Small Wars Journal March 8, 2022, which was featured on March 9 by Real Clear DefenseThe National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) Democracy Digest, and SOF Newsalso see related RCN articles excerpted and slightly adapted from that piece:

And see all Brian’s Ukraine coverage here

Brian’s Ukraine journalism has been praised by: Mykhailo Podolyak, a top advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; Scott Shane, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist formerly of The New York Times Baltimore Sun (and featured in HBO’s The Wire, playing himself); Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), one of the only Republicans to stand up to Trump and member of the January 6th Committee; and Orwell Prize-winning journalist Jenni Russell, among others.

© 2022 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

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eBook cover

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