Russia may have lost the war, but that does not mean Ukraine will win it

This is Dispatches with Patrick Cockburn, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

Pro-war Russian bloggers are scathing about Russia’s “Black Week” in Ukraine and are calling for mass mobilisation to stave off defeat. “Events in the direction of Kharkiv can rightfully be called a catastrophe,” writes one. “Signs of things to come were known long before. They were seen and reported on. But they do not fit into the format [of President Vladimir Putin’s Special Military Operation].”

Another critic is more specific about the shortages that contributed to the latest Russian military debacle, writing that “there are NO thermal imagers, NO bulletproof vests, NO reconnaissance equipment, NO secure communications, NOT enough copters, NO first aid kits in the army”.

Even a diatribe like this understates the crisis for Putin as he pays the price for a military campaign typified by a succession of avoidable blunders. The greatest failure took place within two or three days of Russian troops and armour invading Ukraine on 24 February. It rapidly became clear that the Ukrainian government and army would resist and Russia did not have the strength to overcome them.

Far too few soldiers

Putin’s great gamble was already doomed and he was not going to reconquer Ukraine, a land which Russia had held for most of the previous 300 years. Without it, Russia remains a powerful European state, but nowhere near recovering its status as a superpower.

The initial failure is irredeemable, but a succession of unforced errors made a bad situation far worse from the Russian point of view. Putin might have tried to recover by mobilising Russian manpower and resources, much as the Ukrainian government had done since the first days of the war. But he pretended instead that he was engaged in a limited conflict which was less than a war and full conscription was therefore unnecessary.

As a result, the Russian military has far too few soldiers to fight a long war in a country as large as Ukraine with a population of 44 million and allies prepared to supply it with weapons.

A dictator controlling information

Losses in trained manpower and equipment in the first abortive strike on Kyiv could not be replaced. Russian strategy was to engage in attritional warfare in Donbas, denuding the defences elsewhere. Michael Kofman, Russian military specialist at the CNA security think-tank, estimates that the Russians have between 80,000 and 100,000 combat troops available, ensuring that along much of the frontline they are too few to form more than a cordon sanitaire. Once this is broken, there are no reserves to plug the gap.

I am suspicious of the argument that Putin dare not risk full-scale conscription because he fears a negative popular reaction. Maybe this is the case, but he is a dictator controlling information and able to crush all opponents. More likely, he suffers from the occupational disease of autocrats, which is to be only told news which fits their preconceptions.

As a result, there were few regular Russian units around Kharkiv. Defences were manned by semi-trained militia and national guards who abandoned their tanks and heavy weapons without fighting. According to Kofman, the Ukrainian strike force was on the small side – only four or five brigades – but it swiftly sliced through the thin front line.

The attack was a surprise, despite signs that it was imminent, making it one more colossal failure by Russian military intelligence – unless they did inform the Kremlin and were ignored.

Bizarre and self-destructive

The Ukrainian military has the great advantage of operating on interior lines. The Russian army is all around them on three sides, but Ukrainian forces are in the centre and can move from the Kherson front in the south to Kharkiv in the north-east in a day or two. It would take a week or more for Russian troops to do the same, as they would have to move in an enormous semicircle back into Russia before returning to Ukraine.

Reporting from the Ukraine side has inevitably focused on their prowess and skill. Less emphasis is put on how far Ukraine has been aided by Putin’s disastrous strategy which has not only been unsuccessful but bizarre and self-destructive. After the Kremlin’s first failures, it came to believe that it could win a prolonged war because of its strength of will and superior manpower.

More from Opinion

Had all Russian resources been thrown into the fight early on this might have been the case, as Putin’s pro-war critics now maintain. But they optimistically call for total war, wrongly supposing that the absorption of large numbers of untrained conscripts is easier than it is in practice. The Russian military simply does not have the experienced officers to train and command a newly raised mass army.

These weaknesses are for the most part self-evident, so why did the Russian general staff and officer corps not predict them? Almost certainly they did, but Putin and his inner circle paid no attention to their reservations about the Ukraine plan. It does not take long in any organisation – particularly in an autocracy where dissent and nonconformity are punished – for word to spread that it is useless or dangerous to inform those in charge about what is really going on.

A word of caution

I once asked the former Soviet charge in Baghdad, who knew the Iraqi leadership well, why none of them had told Saddam Hussein in 1990 that invading Kuwait was a disastrous idea. He replied that in the dictator’s innermost council “the only safe position is to be 10 per cent tougher than the boss”. So if Saddam Hussein asked his senior lieutenants, some of them intelligent men, if Iraqi troops should invade Kuwait, the safest course was to say: “Brilliant idea! And let’s go on and invade Saudi Arabia while we are at it.”

A word of caution here. Hubris is not the monopoly of autocrats. Premature triumphalism exacts a price, as Western political leaders should have learned in the Iraqi and Afghan wars. The Ukrainian army had close to a walkover in Kharkiv, but the same was not true of its offensive directed against Kherson where it suffered heavy casualties.

As Ukrainian forces were winning victories around Kharkiv, John Hudson from The Washington Post was interviewing Ukrainian soldiers who had been wounded in fighting near Kherson. “The soldiers said they lacked the artillery needed to dislodge Russia’s entrenched forces and described a yawning technology gap with their adversaries,” Hudson writes. “We lost five people for every one they did,” said Ihor, a 30-year-old platoon commander.”

Both Russia and Ukraine could be the losers in this war.

Further Thoughts

“On polio, we simply cannot roll the dice,” said Dr Mary T Bassett, the New York health commissioner a week ago. In July the first polio case in nearly a decade was identified in an unvaccinated man in Rockland County in upstate New York. Governor Kathy Hochul has now declared a state of emergency to control the growing outbreak of a disease that used to be called “the Crippler” and which mainly struck at young children.

It is a measure of the fear caused by the recurrence of polio that there has so far been only one case, but the virus has been detected in 57 samples of sewage. A full-scale epidemic is unlikely because of the vaccine that was developed in the 1950s. I have a personal interest in this because I caught polio in one of the last epidemics in western Europe in Cork in 1956 and was disabled by it. In 2005 I published a book about the epidemic in Cork and more generally about the spread of the disease in all countries.

It is sometimes compared to the Covid-19 epidemic, but it carried a greater charge of fear because the victims were mostly young children and not the elderly. In an epidemic in New York City in 1916, cats were suspected of spreading it and 72,000 were hunted down and killed. Towns in Long Island and New Jersey sent out deputy sheriffs armed with shotguns to set up checkpoints on the roads to turn back cars carrying children under the age of 16. Memory of this terror evaporated swiftly after mass vaccination, but it would not take much to bring it back.

Below the Radar

Almost everything published in Britain this week has some reference to royalty, so as my contribution I have been trying to think of jokes by or about the Royal Family. The only mildly funny one I have ever heard about the late Queen is that she would refer to a Lady Ross, whom she considered vulgar, as “Lady Roscommon”, after the Irish county of that name.

More amusing is a story told about her grandfather, George V. At the height of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, it was suggested to him that, in keeping with his government’s austerity policy, he should make some economies by cutting the number of his domestic staff. “Perhaps,” proposed a royal advisor, “his Majesty might consider getting rid of his second pastry cook.” “Good God,” replied the King, horrified by the suggestion, “a man can’t do without his bun!”

Cockburn’s Picks

Here is an interesting study suggesting that Liz Truss cannot recreate the populist alliance which enabled Boris Johnson to win the 2019 general election. Some 79 per cent of Leave supporters voted Conservative at that time, but today the polls show that this figure is down to 45 per cent. Increasing friction with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol would not work as a tactic to reunite the Leavers because few voters in Britain care about what happens in Ireland, north or south. Truss may instead rely on the traditional Conservative vote, but the problem for her here is that a large majority of Conservatives favour increased government spending over tax cuts.

This is Dispatches with Patrick Cockburn, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.