Russia: Ukraine at War


January 15, 2024: President Vladimir Putin of Russia sent his armed forces into Ukraine in early 2022 and, by 2023, that effort, justified by the Russian need to halt eastward expansion nations joining NATO, had Russia on the defensive. Ukraine has a population of 33 million, but nearly ten percent of Ukrainians have fled the country to nearby countries because of lost homes and jobs. Most of those who left will return when the war ends. The sooner the war ends the larger the number of exiled Ukrainians will return. Russia has a population of 143 million and wants to add all Ukrainians to that and make Russia stronger. The Ukrainians are not interested in becoming Russians. Russia is not discouraged by that bad attitude.

As early as 2021 Putin had been threatening war with Ukraine to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the European Union. Putin declared that Ukraine was part of Russia and ignored the fact that the Ukrainians disagreed and were willing and able to fight any Russian interference. The 2022 invasion was not a complete surprise. Since 2014 Russia has been making a lot of headlines with threats against Ukraine, but not much else. The 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea and parts of two eastern Ukraine provinces led to economic sanctions by the West. Soon the Russian economy was a mess, as in stagnant and shrinking. Russia has fewer friends or allies, and the future looks dim. Sending troops into Ukraine (2014), Syria (2015), Libya (2016) and Ukraine in 2022 has not helped solve any of the fundamental problems there but made for great propaganda.

What went wrong? Russia entered the 21st century with a new elected government dominated by former KGB secret police officers who promised to restore economic and civil order. They did so but in the process turned Russia into a police state with less political and economic freedom. Many Russians opposed this, and the government responded by appealing to nationalism. Russia has turned into what Germany had become in the 1930s. This included police state ways and the traditional threatening attitude towards neighbors. Rather than being run by corrupt communist bureaucrats, the country is now dominated by corrupt businessmen, gangsters and self-serving government officials that characterized the last czarist government of a century ago. The semi-free economy is more productive than the centrally controlled communist one but that just provides more money to steal. A rebellion against the new dictatorship has been derailed by astute propaganda depicting Russia as under siege by the West and NATO. Opinion polls show wide popular support for this paranoid fantasy, but some Russians continue to struggle for better government and beneficial reforms. For now, most Russians want economic and personal security and are willing to tolerate a police state to get it. The 2022 invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions did more damage than the ruling politicians expected. That atmosphere, plus the anxiety generated by having troops fighting in Syria, Ukraine and Libya has scared away a lot of foreign investors and many Russian ones as well. Russia can downplay this in the state-controlled media but without all that foreign and Russian capital the economy cannot grow. Since 2014 most Russians can see daily that they are worse off than before. Meanwhile China, the only real threat to Russia, quietly makes progress in the east. There China has claims on much of the Russian Far East and is openly replacing Russia as the primary economic, military, and political force in Central Asia.

Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022 and that was the first major war since the early 1950s Korean War. The Ukraine War is local, but it involves a major power, Russia, that was a more powerful major power before the Cold War ended in 1991 and the Soviet Union dissolved, losing half its population. The Ukraine War is the first step in rebuilding the Russian empire that was run by monarchies for centuries until the early 1920s when the communist Soviets took over. The former components of the Soviet Union do not want to rejoin any Russian empire and that is why Ukraine fights so hard against the invading Russians.

At the end of 2023 Vladimir Putin ordered the military to increase active duty troops to 1.32 million. This involves finding another 170,000-670,000 recruits (depending on whose statistics are used). If you include civilian military employees, the Russian military purportedly now has 2.2 million personnel. That’s 1.5 percent of the Russian population. At the beginning of 2023 there were purportedly 1.15 million Russian military personnel. By the end of 2023, Russian personnel losses in Ukraine had grown to over a million, of which at least half were permanent losses, mostly dead but also prisoners, missing and those discharged because of disabling wounds. About 40 percent of Russian casualties are dead compared to only 20 percent of Ukrainian casualties because the Russians in this war get no battlefield medical treatment whatever, though even in World War Two they did have at least minimal medical treatment for casualties, largely by dragging wounded off the battlefield, often using female soldiers to do this and bring the wounded to medics. Wounded soldiers in freezing conditions die of exposure or shock within about an hour unless they are carried to shelter, but that was not happening for Russians in the Ukraine. Prospective recruits know this.

Putin wants to replace those losses and increase the size of the military. To that he has to depend mostly on volunteers and former soldiers, or reservists. Then there are the conscripts, young men who are obliged to spend one year in the military. Once that year is over, these men are eligible to become reservists or, now that the military service law has changed, subject to mobilization to supply the military with more troops.

Mandatory conscript service brings in nearly 300,000 new troops a year. Half these men are called up between April and July while the other have are called up during the last few months of the year. This has been the way it has been done for over a century. Conscription gives Russia some badly needed military manpower but there is a catch. Conscripts only serve for one year and nominally cannot be sent into a foreign combat zone. The Russian public will not tolerate tinkering with the 12-month limit and the post-communist Russian government lacks the coercive power to overcome that. Conscripts have been sent to the Ukraine war, but an uneasy de facto compromise has arisen that they can only be used in non-combat roles.

Since Putin ordered Ukraine invaded in February 2022, he has clashed with Russian attitudes towards conscription and lost. After the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the communist rule was replaced by democracy and frequent opinion polls. There were no professional politicians to make the new democracy work. There were former Soviet officials trying to get elected to powerful positions. More than ever before, these new political candidates had to pay close attention to public opinion. Former KGB officer Putin got elected once and managed to change the rules to keep him in office for as long as he wanted and survive efforts to remove him. Two years of futile combat in Ukraine has led to discussions in Russia about getting rid of Putin. This happened despite Putin putting most Russian media under state control. The catch was that successful dictators, and Putin is one, pay attention to public opinion because if too many of your subjects get too angry, it’s the end for the supreme leader. Russia experienced this in 1991 and even zealots like Putin must pay heed. Push the Russian people too far and they will push back.

Putin’s solution is to make the most of a bad situation. Conscripts currently get a few weeks of training followed by service doing any work they can handle. This allows many of the volunteer, or contract, soldiers to go to Ukraine, where the Russian personnel situation is desperate. Training for the conscripts tied up the few remaining military training facilities all the time, as almost all the pre-war training staff were sent to the Ukraine after the war started and became casualties themselves. Russian non-commissioned officers are basically useless because 70 years of the Red Army predecessor of the current Russian army destroyed their role as trainers and leaders of more junior enlisted men, and all attempts to revive an effective non-com system since 1991 have failed.

This makes it impossible to provide training for the contract soldiers or older men, former conscripts, mobilized into the military for as long as the government can get away with it. Few Russian men serve in Ukraine voluntarily and most are coerced or tricked into volunteering, with a few persuaded by offers of high pay, which they rarely get, or are convicts spending six months in Ukraine to get a full pardon. Putin’s alleged plan is to obey the law about not sending conscripts into battle, and hope to later persuade them, after their discharge, to volunteer for some form of mobilization. Putin lacks sufficient internal security forces to overcome a lot of public opposition to his seriously unpopular or illegal schemes, so he has to be resourceful.

The fighting in Ukraine crippled the Russian ground forces and destroyed most of the modern equipment Putin had managed to manufacture since the early 2000s. Economic sanctions reduced the amount of money he has available for military operations. Sanctions have also increased the percentage of Russians living below the poverty line. Putin embarrassed himself in Ukrainian because he initially boasted that the victory in Ukraine would be quick and relatively painless because the Ukrainians were not willing or able to fight, and most accepted the Putin view that Ukraine was actually part of Russia but that people in Ukraine got confused and lost their way.

The reality was that Ukrainians were better prepared, armed, and motivated to defeat the invading Russians. Putin’s initial response was to claim that it was NATO forces that inflicted all those casualties on Russian troops. That fiction worked for a short while because state-controlled media had been pushing the idea that NATO was conspiring to destroy Russia. That fable faded as the months of defeats went by and Russians were told by returning wounded soldiers that Ukrainians were fighting back and simply doing so more effectively than anyone expected. Many Russians have family, friends, or contacts in Ukraine and that, added to what Russian soldiers who had returned Ukraine said put an end to Putin’s attempt to blame NATO. Putin propagandists had to come up with a new explanation for the mess in Ukraine and he came up with a reheated version of the NATO is trying to destroy Russia, explanation for the mess in Ukraine.

Russia has a problem with the fact that for over a year Russian soldiers have been fighting in another country and getting killed or wounded in large numbers. Russia had not been invaded and Putin sought to portray it as a successful Russian defense of the homeland. Once more, Russians eventually see through that disinformation by paying attention to Ukrainian media which makes no mention of plans to invade Russia, only efforts to get Russian soldiers out of Ukraine. Putin also tried, with some success, to persuade people in nations supporting Ukraine with weapons and money that Ukraine is not worth the expense because of a growing list of Russian short shelf-life disinformation.

Russia has few allies or foreign supporters and most of these, like Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Cuba have little to give. China could provide lots of tangible support but prefers not to because China believes the Ukraine invasion was a stupid idea and does not want to get hit with sanctions for providing military support for Russia. China and India both advise Putin to just get out of Ukraine and out from under all those sanctions before long-term damage is done to Russia.

Putin is working on what he agrees are needed reforms so that the next time Russian troops are in combat they will perform better and perhaps even win. There have been several rounds of unsuccessful military reforms since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. One of the major causes of that collapse was their unaffordable and largely ineffective armed forces. In post-Soviet Russia there were far fewer restrictions on criticizing the military. Most Russians had a very negative attitude towards conscription and the reforms underway because of the Ukraine War disaster were seen as typical of several previous efforts to remedy problems that continue to resist any fundamental change.

The new plan calls for a massive training program to replace all the officers lost in the first few months of 2022’s fighting. The immediate problem with that is all the officer instructors were sent to the front in March and April 2022 where they too became casualties. Next is that Putin insists on constant suicidal attacks which maximize Russian casualties and interfere with reform attempts. Finally there is another serious problem that few want to discuss, corruption. Even in wartime, especially during the recent fighting, corruption was still a problem. Officers and other government officials continued to put their own financial gain above the need to equip the troops with what they needed to survive and win. There have been several corruption scandals in Russia since the Ukraine War began. The military’s corruption is rooted in political corruption at the highest levels including Putin and his cronies, and inevitably drifted downward until even supply sergeants routinely steal back and sell gear issued to new troops before they leave for the front. Russia is descending into a Third World state known as a resource kleptocracy but run by a for-real gangster confederacy. The only difference with Russia is that they have nuclear and biological weapons from before the Soviet Union collapsed.

By late 2022 over half of Russian military personnel were volunteers serving on contracts or career officers. The ability of the military to hold onto those contract or contrakti soldiers was always weakened if there were a lot of casualties or too much chance of being sent to a combat zone. Volunteering to be a contract soldier used to be considered a smart move because the Russian economy had been increasingly weak over the last decade. After the fighting began in Ukraine, the contract soldiers suffered as much as the conscripts and junior officers did.

The result of this was contract troops refusing to renew contracts. Most of the combat units sent into Ukraine were composed of contract troops who were killed in large numbers. When the survivors got back to Russia, either because of wounds or because many combat battalions returned because of heavy losses, there was a sudden shortage of contract soldiers. That was because most contract troops were near the end of their two-to-three-year contracts and refused to renew. The army had signed up many soldiers for the new, since 2016, six to twelve month contracts for former soldiers, or conscripts willing to try it, and found that there were far fewer vets willing to sign these short contracts because, so few recent short-term contract soldiers had survived service in Ukraine.

The government then tried to solve this reluctant contract soldier problem by changing the contracts so that contract soldiers had to remain in the army for as long as the fighting continued. Realizing that it was a death sentence if they were sent back to Ukraine, many contract soldiers simply refused to go. There were so many men refusing to go that the government backed off from threats to prosecute the reluctant contrakti.

At this point the Russian armed forces have dire and apparently unsolvable manpower problems. They are taking ghastly casualties making suicidal attacks during winter with their front-line troops knowing very well what is happening. The survivors make certain other troops know it too. They have no junior officers to lead and make sacrifices with them because most officer training staff were killed in 2022 and the rest cannot produce replacements fast enough. At this point almost all prospective contrakti recruits know how little training, support, medical treatment, and effective equipment they will get, and how few of them will survive.

Both sides are being forced into mostly drone or UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) wars. The Russians had to do so because of the lack of manpower and the Ukrainians for lack of artillery shells and rockets, and lack of American support due to Congressional deadlock over funding the Ukrainian war effort.

At first supplying Ukraine with munitions was not a problem for the United States because the Americans agreed with their NATO allies, especially Poland and Germany, that defeating the Russian invasion of Ukraine would discourage the Russians from trying that against NATO countries, like Poland and the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Germany agrees with Poland and the Germans have decided to expand their armed forces to deal with the potential Russian aggression. Poland and the Baltic States have taken similar measures. Poland spent nearly $15 billion to buy a thousand modern tanks and other combat systems. South Korea provided this equipment because South Korea has become a major manufacturer and exporter of modern weapons. Recent sales to Poland and other NATO countries surprised the Americans, who had not paid attention to the growth of South Korea as an exporter of weapons.

The European NATO nations still want American support in the form of munitionand weapons. The Americans produce many essential systems for the Ukrainians to use, like the HIMARS vehicles and the guided rockets they are armed with. Patriot anti-aircraft and anti-missile missiles are also American. Japan is the only foreign country to obtain a license to produce Patriot missiles and has agreed to increase production for NATO countries. The United States and other NATO nations have sent most of the Patriot missiles to Ukraine and those missiles have defeated most of the Russian missile attacks. Meanwhile, many American politicians decided that the United States had other obligations closer to home and cut U.S. support for Ukraine.




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