Modernizing a recurring theme in 20th-century military history, Ukraine inaugurated a no-cost surrender line for Russian soldiers and units.
Over the past few decades, many Westerners have come to see the Russian fighter as a superman.
Hollywood produced Dolph Lundgren as “Red Scorpion”. Undeterred by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin held annual Victory Day parades in Red Square. As a journalist in Moscow, I covered eight of these events. Putin’s press advisers have always ensured that foreign journalists get good angles for shooting tanks, bombers and ICBMs. In the field, military attaches from Western embassies received VIP treatment during Russian military training exercises.
But Russia’s historical record has not always been so heroic.
During World War I, 3.3 million soldiers from Tsarist Russia raised their hands and surrendered.
During World War II, 5.7 million Red Army soldiers surrendered. Surrenders were so widespread that Joseph Stalin issued the order “not a step back”. The political police were posted behind the frontline troops with orders to shoot anyone who retreated.
This month, flight and surrender have been the hallmarks of Russia’s debacle in northeastern Ukraine. In two weeks, Russia lost 3,500 square miles of occupied land, nearly four times the size of Berkshire County.
Thousands of Russian soldiers crossed the border. They left the lunches on the tables. They stole civilian clothes and cars. At Stanytsia Luhansk, a checkpoint in Russian-controlled Ukraine, a line of cars reportedly stretched eight kilometers.
Slower Russian soldiers waved white T-shirts and gave up. Within a week, Oryxa military analysis website, documented 580 pieces of major Russian equipment – mostly tanks and armored personnel carriers – were abandoned or destroyed in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region.
Since the attack on Ukraine on February 24, Russia has lost nearly 6,000 pieces of major military equipment, nearly four times Ukraine’s losses. Referring to the American aid that saved the Soviet Union during World War II, Ukrainians call this largesse “Russian Lend-Lease”.
Igor Girkin, a Russian military blogger and former intelligence colonel with half a million Telegram followers, bitterly compared the defeat at Kharkiv to the Battle of Mukden in Manchuria. This was the turning point for Tsarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Girkin did not mention that in two weeks 22,000 Russian soldiers surrendered – against 2,000 Japanese.
Serfs versus Citizens
Today, the difference is between an army of serfs and an army of citizens.
Ukrainian soldiers are mostly volunteers. They fight to defend their land, their families and their properties against a foreign invader.
By contrast, Russia is increasingly scratching the bottom of the barrel to fill its ranks. To date, the US government estimates total Russian casualties at 80,000 soldiers killed or wounded.
From day one, the Kremlin saw its elite units chewed up.
Last week, Russia was forced to withdraw the 1st Guard Tank Army from the Kharkiv region, reports the British Ministry of Defence. Long responsible for defending Moscow against a NATO attack, this prestigious unit will take years to recover, predict the British. A retired US general recklessly joked this week that Lithuania could take St. Petersburg.
Russia increasingly relies on conscripts and recruits from impoverished peripheral regions like Altai, Buryatia, Dagestan, North Ossetia and Tuva. For contract soldiers, pay can be three to four times higher than local averages. In Sakhalin, the island in the Russian Far East, the signing bonus is $5,000, the equivalent of a year’s salary.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, is said to be seeking to recruit prisoners with the offer of high-paying cards and no release from prison. But news of high death rates in Ukraine is filtering through to prisoners, and only 5,000 Russian prisoners have registered.
Desperate to meet quotas, a town’s army targets alcoholics, Igor Eidman writes. In his hometown of Nizhny Novgorod, recruiting posters for contract soldiers are placed in shops that sell “samogon” – cheap moonshine.
From Russian-occupied Donbass, there are reports of men hiding in apartments for months at a time and of waiters being rushed straight from restaurants for military service. Last week in Kharkiv, many of these soldiers cut themselves and fled. Back in the “People’s Republic of Lugansk”, these conscripts complained that their Russian officers had abandoned them. Photos this week were meant to show street protests against calls to return to fighting.
On state-controlled Russian television, commentators say Putin faces a choice: a national emergency plan or peace talks with Ukraine.
“It is impossible to defeat Ukraine using the resources that Russia is now trying to fight with…contract soldiers, mercenaries and no general mobilization,” Boris Nadezhdina former Russian legislator, lamented last weekend on the Russian channel NTV.
Military defeat leads to political change
In Russia, wartime defeats invariably lead to political changes.
After losing the Crimean War in 1856, Tsar Alexander II enacted modernization reforms, including the emancipation of serfs – essentially slaves. In 1905, defeat in the Russo-Japanese War forced Tsar Nicholas II to create the Duma, modern Russia’s first parliament. After heavy battlefield losses in World War I, Tsar Nicholas was overthrown in February 1917. After eight months of further casualties, his successor, Alexander Kerensky, was overthrown by the Bolsheviks.
Joseph Stalin survived World War II by winning. Mikhail Gorbachev lost the Cold War and lost power. Putin knows that if he loses his war in Ukraine, his head will be on the block.
Cracks are appearing around Putin’s empire and sphere of influence. Last spring, Putin withdrew most of his troops from Syria. Last week, fighting erupted again between Azerbaijan and Armenia, two former Soviet republics where Moscow has long served as arbiter. The latest death toll is 176. Sensing a weakness in Moscow, Georgia is considering a referendum on taking back the territories occupied by Russia.
In Central Asia, a region long considered by Moscow as its backyard, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan on Tuesday. Speaking from the largest of the region’s five former Soviet republics, he bluntly warned Moscow: “We will resolutely support Kazakhstan in defending its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Last summer, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev publicly refused to support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Kremlin-controlled TV responded by noting that northern Kazakhstan was historically Russian land – and that Kazakhstan could be “next”.
To the west, Sweden and Finland are on track to join NATO. It would end nearly eight decades of cautious neutrality. Estonia and Finland are already planning military cooperation.
This would turn the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake, thwarting Russian ambitions since Peter the Great to have unfettered access to the world from St. Petersburg.
In the wake of the collapse of the Russian military in the Kharkiv region, two US analysts this week planted the idea that the world should start thinking about a post-Putin Russia. Anne Applebaum wrote a forward-looking piece in The Atlantic titled “It’s time to prepare for a Ukrainian victory.” Janusz Bugajski, a Polish-American political scientist, predicts a future breakup of Russia in an Atlantic Council essay:Russia may not survive Putin’s disastrous decision to invade Ukraine.”
In Washington on Wednesday, Ilya Ponomarev, an exiled member of Russia’s State Duma, spoke to reporters about the National Republican Army, a Russian-based urban guerrilla group, and Russia’s Freedom Legion, a Ukrainian battalion. Russian emigrants and former prisoners of war.
“Attacks are now happening at the rate of one a day, all over Russia,” Ponomarev told me in a phone interview about the Republican army attacks, largely firebombings. against military recruiting offices. “Members of both organizations currently number in the hundreds. The queue of people wanting to join is in the thousands – security background checks hold things up.
In Ukraine, Russian surrenders and desertions are expected to increase. In Kherson, Russia’s only stronghold on the west bank of the Dnipro River, around 25,000 Russian troops are trapped in an ever-tightening Ukrainian army noose.
With their backs to the river and winter coming, the Russian soldiers know that Putin is inspired by Stalin’s strategy to liberate Stalingrad. Today, Russian army “barrier units” are stationed on the east bank of the Dnipro, tasked with firing on soldiers who attempt to swim or paddle across the river.
On Monday, Ukrainian Armed Forces spokeswoman Natalia Humeniuk said Russian units in Kherson were “trying to negotiate with the Ukrainians for surrender and transfer under the auspices of international law.” The toll-free number takes calls.