The war. Problems of Putin’s Russia are becoming more obvious

Despite the annexation of new Ukrainian territories and the Kremlin’s threat to use nuclear weapons, the Ukrainian counter-offensive. The ongoing “partial” mobilization in Russia not only does not bring the desired results to Putin, but, on the contrary, even reveals huge problems, both in the Russian army and in the state as a whole. The failures at the front occurring one after another predictably provoked an active search by the Kremlin for those on whom they could throw all the blame. Such a search displays itself in the form of both backstage and open confrontations between various groups in the highest echelons of Russian power and law enforcement agencies associated with them. In all likelihood, the “gift” in the form of the Crimea bridge blast, which Putin received on his 70th birthday, is one of the stages of this confrontation.

The situation at the front

As noted in preliminary analyzes, Russia’s “referendums” in the occupied Ukrainian territories and their subsequent annexation make little difference for Ukraine and its armed forces. They continue their successful counter-offensive operations in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions. Thus, over the past week, Ukrainian forces have achieved the largest breakthrough in the south since the start of a full-scale Russian invasion, breaking through Russian defenses and advancing rapidly along the Dnieper River. As a result, 29 towns and villages were liberated, and the total number of liberated territories in the Kherson region increased to 500 square kilometers.

In the Kharkiv direction, over the past few days, Ukrainian units have advanced 55 km into the depths of Russian defense. As a result, since the beginning of the offensive operation in this region, 96 towns and villages have already been liberated and more than 2.4 thousand square kilometers have been taken under control.

In addition to the liberation of one territory and the creation of prerequisites for the further de-occupation of others, the counter-offensive of the Ukrainian army in these two regions (especially in the Kharkiv region) has another positive effect for it, namely: obtaining a large amount of captured equipment and ammunition. According to some estimates, during the retreat, Russian troops left more heavy weapons than Western countries supplied Ukraine during the entire war. And what is very important, part of the captured equipment is ready for immediate use. Damaged equipment is either repaired and sent to the front, or (in case of serious damage) it is dismantled for spare parts.

So, according to the Oryx (the OSINT project), the Ukrainian army obtained the following weapons left by the Russians: 421 tanks (320 received from the West), 445 infantry fighting vehicles (210 from the West), 192 combat vehicles (40 from the West), 44 MLRS (70 from West), a significant number of artillery shells. These figures are not final, and the actual amount of captured Russian weapons and ammunition that the Ukrainian army captured could be even higher. In Ukraine, these Russian trophies are jokingly called “the Russian Lend-Lease”.

As for the American lend-lease, on October 1, the law on it in the United States officially came into force. Now the White House will be able to provide Ukraine with weapons, equipment, ammunition, dual-use goods, and simply various necessary products (from fuel to food) under an accelerated procedure.

“Side effects” of military failures

At the same time, Russia traditionally continues to refuse to acknowledge its military defeats in Ukraine and seeks various excuses for them. Currently, among the most popular are the allegations that Russia is not at war with Ukraine, but with NATO. This explanation is promoted not only by Russian propaganda but also by top Kremlin officials. In particular, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, recently stated the following: “Against us, the NATO bloc is fighting, whose members provide the Kyiv regime with heavy weapons, ammunition, intelligence, and provide training for military specialists.” According to him, “NATO takes part in the planning of operations, and also engages in blackmail with the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

There is also information that in the internal intelligence data of the Russian army regarding the situation in the Kharkiv region, there was information that in the Kupyansk region “enemy sabotage and reconnaissance groups consisted of foreign mercenaries – servicemen of the Polish special forces unit GROM and the British SAS regiment”. That is, propaganda explanations of failures at the front are also being practiced in the internal official documentation of the Russian army. Lies and propaganda in relation to their own commanders in no way better characterize the current state of the process of operational control of the Russian armed forces.

It is increasingly difficult for the Kremlin to hide the recent increase in “goodwill gestures” and “regroupings” of its troops in Ukraine. Discontent is growing both among the population, especially its passionate part, and among representatives of Putin’s regime. Therefore, the Kremlin needs to find someone on whom it would be possible to throw all the blame for the failures of the so-called special military operation (SMO). The fact that the main culprit is the one who started all this – that is, Putin – is out of the question. In terms of attitude towards the head of state in Russia, little has changed over the past few hundred years: the tsar is a saint, and therefore beyond all suspicion. Thus, by and large, two main “suspects” remain: the military, who actually developed the plan for the so-called SMO and are still implementing it (it is another question how successfully they are doing), and the FSB, which actively participated in the preparation of the “special operation”, reported to Putin that Ukraine was “ready for demilitarization” and that it would pass for Russia, not only as efficiently as possible, but also spectacularly. Considering that Putin himself is a former KGB officer and that his regime is, in fact, a KGB-style, it becomes obvious that the military will play the role of “scapegoats”. By the way, they have long been criticized by various (FSB-controlled) Russian “patriots” like Girkin, but after the latest failures in the Kharkiv region, the “heavy artillery” began to shell on them. The “landlord” of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, the “Putin’s cook” Yevgeny Prigozhin, and even the former commander of the 58th army of the Southern Military District, General Andrey Gurulyov, practically razed the chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov, the commander of the Central Military District Aleksandr Lapin and several other high-ranking military officials to the ground. These three men propose that the big military leaders “who have not justified high trust” be demoted and sent to the front line in the trenches. That is, it becomes obvious that problems at the front are beginning to shake the foundation of the “Kremlin towers” more and more.

Problematic mobilization

The mobilization carried out in Russia instead of having a positive effect on the so-called SMO, on the contrary, shows all the defects of not only the Russian army but also the Russian state.

The total number of “partially” mobilized in the first wave is a little over 90 thousand people, and not “more than 200 thousand”, as Russian propaganda is trying to show. Even the main organizational and mobilization department of the Russian General Staff doesn’t hide the fact that “partial mobilization in several districts encountered difficulties of an organizational and technical nature and resource insufficiency.” Under such conditions, it appears to be a rather difficult task to gather “official” 300 thousand people, and especially one million – as some media wrote.

It is likely that within the next month, the “first list” of mobilized, which can be used, will not exceed 17-18 thousand people. Almost all of it will be used to replenish the units already deployed on the territory of Ukraine. But the process of forming a reserve, given the above-described pace of mobilization and all its “difficulties”, remains a big question. 

As for the “quality” of the replenishment of the Russian army, it seems to be even worse. The mobilized simply do not have enough beds, food, uniforms, and money. Their training is carried out only on paper. And this is not strange, because there is no time and also personnel for it, as all the junior command staff who should be doing this is either in Ukraine or have already “finished fighting”. Relatives of the mobilized complain that just anyone is taken to the war – those who did not serve in the army, people after operations, strokes, and heart attacks. The mobilized also had problems with receiving salaries, as their passports and mobile phones were taken away from them. As a result, there are examples of riots of those, who refused to go to the front due to lack of supply and brutal attitude towards them on the part of officers.

Against the background of all this, the Deputies of the Russian State Duma, in addition, withdrew the law, which would have provided for a lump sum of 300 thousand rubles to the mobilized and other benefits, without explaining the reason for their decision.

One can only guess with what mood and motivation after all this the mobilized Russians will go to Ukraine. It can hardly be positive.

A “gift” for Putin

Well, probably the main event of last week was the blast on the Crimea bridge. The bridge is the symbol of the Russian occupation of Crimea and one of the main arteries to ensure the life of the peninsula and the Russian military infrastructure there, and after February 24, the entire southern grouping of the Russian army in Ukraine … And exactly after Putin celebrated his 70th birthday, this symbol was attacked. One can’t imagine a worse “gift” for Putin’s birthday.

The Crimea bridge blast is an important event that will have important consequences for Russia in the military, image terms, and, quite possibly, for the Putin regime itself.

From a military point of view, the destruction of the Crimean bridge will for a long time complicate the supply of everything necessary to Crimea, especially weapons and ammunition, which were supposed to supply Russian groupings in the southern Ukrainian regions.

In terms of image, this is a huge slap in the face to Putin and a strong psychological blow to the Russians. When the bridge was just under construction, Russian propaganda convinced that its structure was “so strong that it can calmly support its weight without support at the second end of the span” and that in terms of security “everything is kept under control here, from space to the bottom of the Kerch Strait”. Now, the myth about the reliability of the bridge and the super system of its protection, as well as the fact that it can become an object of attack, has come to an end. What happened to the Crimea bridge once again reminds the Russians that the war, which they so recently supported and believed that it would not touch them, is getting closer to them.

As for who is behind the attack on the bridge, it is still difficult to say for sure. However, given the general situation around the Russian-Ukrainian war and the internal situation in Russia itself, two main versions can be considered.

1. The work of the Ukrainian army.

Expediency, both military and informational, can speak for this. In the context of the ongoing counter-offensive in the Kherson region, depriving the enemy of an important logistical artery is definitely positive. Well, a nice “bonus” would be the already-mentioned humiliation of Putin on his birthday.

The limited possibilities of Ukraine for this can be against this version. The bridge has really serious security and defense system, which involves a whole range of federal departments: the Ministry of Defense, the FSB, the Russian Guard, etc. The entrance to the bridge is carefully controlled by the radio-technical complexes of the security department of the Ministry of Transport, which check the incoming cars for the presence of explosives.

Getting on or under the bridge undetected would be quite difficult. And Ukraine still does not officially have missile weapons (like the ATACMS) that could strike the bridge.

2. The work of the Russians themselves.

For this option speak, firstly, the possibility of access to the bridge, as well as knowledge of all the features of its design, including “weaknesses”. This gives the possibility of transporting the required amount of explosive to the bridge and laying it in the “right” places. Secondly, it is the presence of missile weapons in Russia that could lead to the destruction of this nature (although this option is still considered unlikely because the nature of the damage to the bridge indicates that this is most likely the detonation of explosives and not a missile attack). And, thirdly, it is a motive. As already noted, one can observe active attacks by the FSB on the Russian Ministry of Defense and the General Staff to make them the main culprits in the failure of the so-called SMO and hide their miscalculations. For some high-ranking military personnel, such as Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov, such attacks can end quite badly. Therefore, the instinct of self-preservation could work, and the military could decide to strike back at their main competitors. The target for the strike was not chosen by chance: the sacred significance of the bridge for Putin and extreme importance for the FSB, since it is the main responsible for its protection. Thus, the military (they also have enough performers for such a task – for example, the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces (GRU)), on the one hand, could strike back at the FSB, and on the other hand, create an excuse for future defeats in the Kherson region (which are only a matter of time ).

Arguments against the Russian trace in blowing up the Crimea bridge are not yet so obvious.

In general, the situation regarding the Russian-Ukrainian war continues to develop in a rather unfavorable way for the Kremlin and Putin personally. And the worse it gets the stronger and more violent will be the confrontation of both the “Kremlin towers” and those who are their pillars. Under such conditions, the best thing is, as the sports fans say – “to support both teams”. 

Igor Fedyk

Head of the South Eastern Europe Section

Igor coordinates the South Eastern Europe Section of the New Geopolitics Research Network. He previously worked as the Head of the Balkan section of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, as well as the Deputy Editor-in-chief of the English-language magazine The Ukrainian Defense Review.

His current research interests are focused on the political, economic and social aspects of the development of the South Eastern Europe and Balkan countries, their interstate and inter-ethnic relations, as well as the relations with third parties (countries not from the region, international organizations), which have an important impact on the situation in the region and in Europe.

He is the author of a number of articles and analyses in various Ukrainian and foreign Media.

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October 2022
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