Vladimir Vladimorovich Putin is in a bit of a fix. Faced with a sputtering war in Ukraine costing tens of thousands of Russian lives, and two or three more small wars in and around Russia’s borders, he has trouble enough in the near abroad.
At home he is being attacked and urged by ultra-nationalists to go further, declare a full scale war and smash Ukraine utterly — the demand of several former loyalists in the Duma, the Russian parliament, to defend the nation from dishonour and oblivion.
Like the natural gambler he is, Putin has doubled down – twist or bust– declared Russia will seize the entire Donbas, raise a new army of 300,000 and defy Nato’s challenge, even if this means going nuclear.
The national call to arms is scarcely a bugle note – more of a bum note really. In his recorded television address, Mr Putin was only ordering a ‘partial mobilisation’ of veterans and former reservists. Conscripts , student ingenues in military arts need not apply. It is as if the Russian president sensed, in his somewhat nervous recorded television appearance, that a full national mobilization would be tempting fate. It as if he sensed many would refuse this call to serve his colours.
Similar reasoning is reported to have shaped his thinking against calling for a national lockdown in Russia’s huge Covid pandemic. Too many would have defied the call of their modern-day Czar.
In doubling down and a calling on what might be a phantom new army of 300,000 Putin is defying one of the oldest military maxims: never reinforce failure.
The facts on the ground along the nearly thousand miles of battle-lines from Kharkiv across Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia to Kherson and the mouth of the Dnepro, are grim. The Ukrainian forces are pushing forward, but victory is not assured. Russia invaded in February with 120,000 out of total combat army of 180,000. At least 60,000 have been killed, wounded, and lost. Putin tried to reinforce with a new 3rd Army Corps specially prepared and trained to the south of Moscow. That barely exists now , so he is forming a new 4th Corps. The Parachute Brigade has been withdrawn from Syria. The elite 1st Guards Tank Army, the best armoured unit in Ukraine, was destroyed outside Kharkiv a week ago.
From tomorrow the Russian authorities will hold referenda in four oblasts, Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson to request full absorption into Russia. None of the four is entirely in Russian hands today, and centres like Donetsk City and Airport and Kherson will be under shell and rocket fire. No matter, say the Russian authorities, most of the voting will be done ‘remotely’ and ‘virtually’ – which is likely to cover a multitude of misdemeanours.
The next 90 days are no easy proposition for the Ukrainian forces and their commanders. They have to continue to fight street by street and field by field, with a peculiar hybrid brand of warfare they have pioneered, and from which they have much to teach the most advanced militaries in Nato. They are using the available tools in the first big digital war, cyber tactics, electronic surveillance and targeting and jamming. But they are also fighting the close battles of infantry and tank combat. One of their biggest skills is their ‘make-do’ approach to stripping abandoned Russian kit and putting it to work in the next battle.
The bigger crisis now developing is likely less to be in Ukraine, with its continuing mayhem, but in Russia itself. Putin has called for anew force of 300,000 – but they will be older, less trained, less equipped and less motivated even than those who went to battle in Ukraine seven months ago. The Russian forces have gone through over forty per cent of their old Soviet stock of artillery shells, howitzers, tanks and rockets. They have had to scrounge drones from Iran, guns, shells and rockets from North Korea. There are no trainers available for the new Russian Dad’s Army – because nearly all are committed to Ukraine.
The broadcast appeal to the nation to half-mobilise, trash the Donbas, and fear Nato was odd in itself. It was less than confident , the had sloping to one side and the eyes glazed in a twenty yard stare . Had he been shoved reluctantly in front of the camera with their prepared script by his more bellicose nationalist critics ?
The timing itself was awful – again a strange aberration for one once believed be the master of diplomatic poker. It was broadcast in the morning, giving plenty of time for the delegates to the UN General Assembly to digest and consider before their day’s work.
It has given them time to fix Vladimir Vladimirovich’s fix on their own terms.