The 2022 invasion of Ukraine has been a disaster for Russia, because Russian troops ran into unexpected and very effective Ukrainian resistance. Russia lost more troops in less than a year of fighting in Ukraine than they did during eight years of fighting in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Russia did have one success because of the Ukraine War, but that occurred in Russia, not Ukraine. Back in Russia, many people opposed the war. While the Russian government portrayed the fighting in Ukraine as an effort to keep NATO from harming Russia, it was obvious that no one was invading or attacking Russia and that it was Russians that invaded Ukraine. Like the Germans who invaded Russia in 1941, where they were on the defensive by 1944. the Russians invading Ukraine were soon on the defensive and could be driven in another year or less.
Fourteen months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainians are attacking and driving the Russian forces out. This is bad news for the Russian government, which has been facing growing criticism from Russian citizens about not merely the war’s cost, but the need for it at all. The Russian government responded to the internal criticism and did so more effectively than their military efforts in Ukraine.
Throughout most of its history, Russia has been a police state. In addition to the secret police, Russia also intercepted and read mail and overheard radio and telephone conversations. Russia mobilized support inside Russia for detecting anonymous critics and threatening them with arrest if they did not curb their criticism.
This criticism made it obvious that the Russian government was losing the support of its own people, including a growing number of senior officers who spoke out, usually via encrypted messages on Telegram, a popular cell phone app in Russia and Ukraine. Early on many of these Russian Telegram based military bloggers (“mil-bloggers” supported the invasion and were supplied with information by the Russian government, including opportunities to spend some time with the troops inside Ukraine. By June the Russian mil-bloggers were no longer reporting the official Russian version of events in Ukraine, but what was being reported by Russian veterans of the fighting in Ukraine.
After Russia announced a pause in offensive military operations in early July, one of these mil-bloggers, a former general who had served in occupied Donbas before the invasion, reported a different reality. He insisted that Russia had suffered higher losses in eastern Ukraine (Luhansk province) than the Ukrainians, who were conducting a classic attrition defense. The Russians had suffered far more losses in men and equipment than the Ukrainians who were not driven out of Luhansk, but withdrew slowly and deliberately to encourage Russia to keep attacking and losing troops and combat vehicles that could not be replaced. Meanwhile the Ukrainians were receiving more weapons and equipment from NATO and forming new units, including armed resistance groups in Russian occupied Ukraine. This was not the official Russian assessment but it was the reality that Russian troops in Ukraine were experiencing and some Russian mil-bloggers were reporting.
All this was nothing new. When the most modern and effective Russian forces were assembled to invade Ukraine in 2022, they quickly discovered they were not facing an inept, poorly trained and armed foe but one that was far more effective than the Russians were. The main offensive in the north against the Ukrainian capital took heavy losses and within weeks was forced to retreat. Russian troops were told by their government that they had encountered NATO troops who were in Ukraine preparing to invade Russia. The surviving Russian troops knew better because all they encountered were Ukrainians, usually armed with weapons similar to what Russia used as well as more effective ones they had received from NATO. The Ukrainians used more effective tactics and some new weapons that were based on Western models but Ukrainian- made. The Russian state-controlled media was ordered to ignore reports like this and stick with the official story that this was all a secret NATO operation to attack Russia via Ukraine.
While this information war played on, the Russian military ordered everything Russia had, short of nuclear and chemical weapons, into use in an effort to salvage the situation. Russia was at war with a near-peer opponent and losing. Many Russians, civilian and military, figured out what was happening and openly criticized, or sometimes even physically attacked, their government because of the mess in Ukraine that was killing a lot of Russian troops. These Russian critics were often well-educated professionals in regular contact with Westerners, including more than a million Russians who had left since 2014 because of fears Russia was headed for what actually happened in 2022.
Russia encountered major problems trying to control information made available to its people. This became a critical problem after the invasion of Ukraine and the government wanted to conceal the extent of their military failures. Passing new laws against disclosing such information and shutting down the last few media operations that were not state-controlled were not enough. The ban on casualty information created a lot of public protest that found ways to get past the censorship.
The Russian government persevered and was eventually successful at organizing effective resistance to internal criticism by Russian officials and civilians. This was done by relying on the growing number of Russian firms that were developing new tools to read encrypted messages and track those who were anonymously news of the Ukraine War that was critical of Russian efforts. The FSB, the Russian secret police that replaced the Cold War era KGB in the 1990s, encouraged the establishment and growth of Russian companies that were developing new tools for the KGB to use for detecting, tracking and eavesdropping on the communications of Russian critics who thought they were safe when using encrypted apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. The Telegram app was developed by the two Russian Durov brothers in 2013 and soon attracted unwanted attention from the Russian government, which wanted to take possession of Telegram before it became widely used in Russia and prevented the government from knowing who was saying what to whom. The Durov brothers left Russia and continued their work on Telegram elsewhere. Over the last decade Russia has sought Russian firms willing and able to develop tools to degrade the effectiveness of Telegram and other encrypted messaging apps that have become common on the Internet. These encrypted apps were used by government critics inside Russia and the Russian leader wanted to put an end to it. Several Russian firms responded to this by developing tools and apps that can track the use of encrypted messages and identify who is saying what to who.
These efforts to track the users of encrypted apps and even decrypt some of the messages have produced some successes. Despite that Russians continue criticizing their government, especially the Russian actions in Ukraine. Portions of Ukraine still under Russian control are dealing with resistance from the native Ukrainians by moving the Ukrainians to Russia and uncertain future. The departed Ukrainians are replaced by Russians willing to risk living in a disputed area. The reward is that they receive free housing as they occupy the empty homes of the forcibly departed Ukrainians. Russia has already been condemned for its policy of seizing the young children of hostile Ukrainian civilians and sent the kids to Russia and adoption by Russian couples. This sort of thing appalls many Russians because Russian history books describe similar behavior by the nazi German invaders during World War II. The Russian government denies any similarities between its activities in Ukraine now and what the German invaders did inside Russia nearly 80 years ago. Russia declared it illegal to spread these ideas. There were a few arrests, but that was also unpopular and the prison system could not handle a large number of Russians convicted of thought crimes.
Successful government tracking and identification of Russians criticizing their government was seen as a victory against the spread of anti-Russian information on the Internet. However, this did little to stop Russians from discussing and criticizing government misbehavior. The government is undeterred and continues to reward Russians and Russian firms that come up with new tools to decrypt encrypted messages and track the extent of this critical information and who was involved.
Russian is also continuing to work on its plan to cut most Russians off from Internet users outside Russia. This involves isolating Russian Internet users from the rest of the world. There was recently a test of the system which was unsuccessful. The main problem is that too many Russian firms and individual Russians have legitimate economic or government reasons to maintain Internet connections outside Russia. The only nation that has successfully done this is North Korea, which is more of a police state and economically isolated than Russia ever was in the past. Iran and China have achieved partial isolation of domestic Internet users from the foreign Internet users. Chinese and Iranian Internet users are angry over these official efforts to restrict Internet access to the outside world and have come up with ways to bypass the restrictions. This is illegal, but if you keep quiet about using this approach, you are unlikely to be punished. Russians should be so fortunate because they live in a country where thought crimes are prosecuted and the government has outlawed private conversations via the Internet.