What does it mean to defeat an enemy in the field when you lose your army to do it? Admiral Tony Radakin, the top commander in the British military, told an interviewer that Vladimir Putin has already “strategically lost” in Ukraine no matter whether Russia holds the Donbas and the Sea of Azov ports it has captured. The amount of gains are “negligible” next to the real men and materiel Putin has lost — let alone the loss of the deterrent value of the Russian army:
“Russia has strategically lost already. Nato is stronger, Finland and Sweden are looking to join,” he said.
Radakin said that while Putin may achieve “tactical successes” in the weeks to come, it had come at the expense of a quarter of his country’s army power for “tiny” gains and was running out of troops and hi-tech missiles.
“The Russian machine is grinding away, and it’s gaining a couple of – two, three, five – kilometres every day,” the admiral said.
“And Russia has vulnerabilities because it’s running out of people, it’s running out of hi-tech missiles.
“President Putin has used about 25% of his army’s power to gain a tiny amount of territory and 50,000 people either dead or injured. Russia is failing.”
True enough. That would, under normal circumstances, force Putin to recalculate his risks elsewhere and rethink his Ukraine project. However, Putin’s claim to power rests on his ability to validate centuries-old Russian imperialism, or at the very least to justify the centuries-old Russian paranoia that rationalizes its imperialism. If Putin’s losing in Ukraine, it’s only more evidence that he must fight more and harder to keep Russia’s enemies from swallowing Moscow.
But even that has its limits. Putin has chewed up so much of his army in Ukraine that he’s risking a collapse as units on the front lines fail, even if they appear to be performing better in Donbas than they did in the north. A full mobilization would likely create a panic in Russia as that would reveal the true Russian situation against a country that most Russians barely considered as such, let alone a significant military power in the same league as the Russian military. Putin has decided on an incremental approach to refilling his ranks instead, hoping to sell patriotism to gain more cannon fodder:
The Kremlin has so far declined to order a general mobilization of draft-age soldiers, because this could signal that the war is not proceeding as well as depicted in the Russian media and threaten to stir grass-roots resistance to the military campaign.
Instead, the military has embarked on a campaign to expand the ranks of active soldiers who have voluntarily signed contracts by cold-calling eligible men and trying to reactivate reservists.
“These efforts represent a form of shadow mobilization. These are piecemeal efforts that allow the Russian military to sustain itself in the war, but do not address the fundamental deficit in manpower,” wrote Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a think tank in Virginia, in a recent analysis.
Just a few weeks after the Feb. 24 invasion, online job sites began advertising thousands of positions offered by the Defense Ministry, which is looking for all kinds of service members, from antitank grenadiers to drivers and reconnaissance snipers. The listings, which were first reported by the BBC Russian service, are republished or updated every few days.
Putin’s going for the hard sell to look for action-seekers:
In a recruiting ad posted in Rostov-on-Don, just a few hundred miles away from Ukraine, a deep voice narrates: “Test the limits of your abilities! No, screw the limits, are you ready to break yourself every day?” The action-packed ad continues: “You’ve decided to prove something to yourself. You are trying to detect an enemy in every shadow because if there is no enemy, there is no fight, and if there is no fight, there is no victory.”
That could read as the personal motto and raison d’etre for Putin himself. The former KGB colonel has spent his life looking for an enemy in every shadow, just to have a fight, and just to claim a victory. Up to now, Putin’s had it pretty easy, too — he’s picked on the weak and vulnerable as a way to project power. Putin must have thought Ukraine would make for an easy target too. As Admiral Radakin put it, that was Putin’s “dreadful mistake.”
This new campaign bears watching, and not just for manpower reports. Thus far Western media is convinced that Putin has ordinary Russians supporting his genocidal campaign in Ukraine, but judging public sentiment in a tyranny is trickier than in a free society. It’s easy enough to pay lip service to Tsar Vlad I when in the public square, but how many Russians can Putin get to sign up for his Paranoia Corps with this ad campaign? That will be a much more reliable test for Russian morale and Putin’s staying power.