Putin's Russia: War fatigue sweeps the ranks

Russian mobilisation

First published at Russian Dissent. Translated by Dan Erdman.

After a series of heavy defeats in September and early October, Russian troops managed to stabilize the front in early October. This was partly due to the assistance of Iranian drones in the field of combat, which were not very effective on their own, but delivered strength in numbers - about two and a half thousand of them. The Iranians themselves of course denied the deliveries, but even on the official Russian television observers kept blurting out the truth, referring to the devices’ Iranian origin. At the same time, inevitable questions arose - Why, without the help of Iran, which has been under sanctions for many years, could Russian troops not get this type of modern weapon?

Another factor in the stabilization of the front was the replenishment of combat units with a large number of the mobilized. Although even according to official data most of those called up remained in the rear - having neither weapons, nor uniforms, nor training - those recruits who were sent to Ukraine turned out to be enough to increase the density of battle formations for a short time, and to plug the gaps that arose in them.

By the end of October, however, the situation began to worsen again. It was quickly discovered how to shoot drones down; this was done not with the help of modern anti-aircraft missiles, which cost more than the drones themselves, but through the use of traditional anti-aircraft guns and machine guns, the same that had been used during the Second World War. Shooting at drones with hunting rifles from balconies and windows of apartment buildings has become such a frequent occurrence in Ukraine that the authorities were forced to intervene, fearing casualties. And the arrival at the front of a large number of untrained and poorly disciplined Russian conscripts, who were often commanded by completely incompetent and unmotivated officers - themselves often freshly mobilized - led to a rapid increase in casualties, frequent squabbles with mercenaries, and a number of scandalous cases of unauthorized abandonment of combat positions. In addition, the increase in the number of troops has exacerbated problems with their supply chain (and material support has never been a strong point of the Russian army).

Nevertheless, there was another important factor holding back the Ukrainian offensive - the spring thaw. It was possible to move forward for long distances only along the roads, leaving the invaders vulnerable to artillery fire. Lacking a large arsenal of heavy equipment and wary of unnecessary losses, the Ukrainian commanders preferred to engage in positional battles, shooting at Russian units with long-range artillery, in which they had an advantage. On the right bank of the Dnieper, where the entire territory occupied by Russian troops was shot through, holding Kherson turned into a hopeless task for the defenders. The evacuation of civilian personnel began (including the pro-Russian regional administration), monuments began to be taken out of the city, including even the coffin with the body of Prince Potemkin, the founder of the city. The deputy head of the pro-Russian administration, Kirill Stremousov, said that troops began to leave for the left bank, though this was never confirmed. On the evening of November 3 (the “national unity” holiday invented during Putin’s rule), the Russian flag was lowered on the building of the regional administration, although the Ukrainian units were still several tens of kilometers from the city. The Russian command is still not ready to surrender Kherson, but it is already well aware that it will not be possible to keep it.

And yet, the main problem for the Kremlin authorities is not bad news from the front, but the growing crisis in the rear. Sociological surveys show that the majority of the population is already in favor of a speedy end to the war. Numerous cases of riots and protests among conscripts demonstrate that the mobilization idea, if not completely failed, has been accompanied by unacceptably high costs. The ruling circles may, of course, disregard public opinion, but the dissatisfaction of the people who are to be given weapons must somehow be addressed. It was decided to announce the cessation of mobilization due to the fact that “all tasks were completed.” However, in this case, true to their usual methods, the Kremlin leaders left the situation extremely ambiguous. Putin made a statement about the termination of mobilization, but there has been no decree or any other document abolishing the call-up of reservists. Therefore, roundups of young men continue, although not with the same intensity.

Protests continue, some of which are successful. Separate groups of conscripts ensured that they were not sent to the front, and some were even sent home. In Kazan, the rebellious mobilized men threatened the units of the Russian Guard, which had supposedly been sent in to pacify them. But it is typical that such protests did not take the form of a broad all-Russian movement. Each situation remained local, unrelated to similar protests that were taking place at times just a few kilometers away. The weakness and ineffectiveness of the protests once again revealed the characteristic problem of Russian society, in which disunity reigned. Due to the extremely weak social ties and the low level of solidarity, the ability of modern Russians to engage in spontaneous solidarity actions is minimal, and the authorities have very effectively destroyed all mechanisms of civil coordination. Russian society is like a kind of inert substance, the molecules of which practically do not interact. It remains to be seen if the country will be in this state forever, as the war and mobilization have already changed a lot.

But what bodes ill for the authorities is not the dissatisfaction of the lower classes, but the confusion, disunity and mutual claims of the upper classes. Yevgeny Prigozhin, who heads the Wagner Private Military Company, and the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, have not only created their own private armies, but are also openly at odds with the Russian military. These two have not only driven the commander of the Central Group of Forces, General Alexander Lapin, to submit his resignation, but reports of armed skirmishes between the army and the Wagnerites come literally every week. The struggle for Putin’s legacy is already in full swing, and the ruler himself, who has lost his former grip, can only hope to contain these conflicts, not to prevent or resolve them.

A political crisis inevitably and naturally follows military failure. It remains only to wait for accumulating, insoluble problems to explode the situation.