If Ukraine Can Hold Out Long Enough With Western Assistance, Putin’s Potemkin Army Can Be Defeated

For years during the Cold War Americans serving at forward bases in NATO countries were cautioned to fear an invasion from the “vaunted” Russian Army. It may have been true then, but the current Russian Army that we have seen struggle in Ukraine over the past three weeks appears to be a Potemkin Army.

Vladimir Putin built his kleptocracy by surrounding himself with equally greedy and corrupt men whom he made oligarchs by giving them control of state run industries. Putin believed he had bought their loyalty by making them fabulously wealthy and dependent on him to continue their wealth and status – he could always end it at any time by having them imprisoned and confiscating their wealth. Those are strong incentives in what amounts to a criminal syndicate.

Despite their loyalty to Putin, it appears that the greedy Oligarchs were skimming off the top from the boss and lying about it, to the detriment of those serving in the Russian Army. Poliitco reports, Russian military’s corruption quagmire:

In the first days of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s performance was notoriously — and unexpectedly — underwhelming. Russian troops were slow and disorganized and failed to establish control of any major cities.

To explain this surprising development, experts pointed out that the Kremlin had wrong assumptions about Ukraine’s willingness and ability to fight. And while that may hold true, there is another factor that might have contributed to Russia’s incorrect pre-war assessments and poor performance on the ground — systemic corruption in the country’s defense and security sectors.

On the operational level, the corruption in defense procurement has also likely undermined logistics, manifesting in soldiers receiving inadequate equipment and supplies on the ground. Poor logistics slows down the advancement of troops, undermines their morale and hinders military effectiveness. 

Early on in the invasion, there were accounts indicating that some Russian soldiers received rations that had expired in 2015. Most companies responsible for providing food to the Russian military are connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin — the patron of PMC Wagner, the mercenary organization, and sponsor of the Internet Research Agency, which has been accused of meddling in the United States elections. Several years ago, Prigozhin’s companies were accused by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny of forming a cartel and gaming the state’s bidding system for defense orders, receiving contracts for several hundred million dollars. The quality of food and housing in the Russian military is reportedly worse than in its prisons, with unreasonably small meals and some carrying harmful Escherichia colibacteria.


Radio Free Europe adds, ‘Hungry’ Russian Soldiers Loot Ukrainian Shops, “Russian soldiers have been seen looting grocery stores and banks in several Ukrainian cities. Security camera footage posted on social media showed Russian soldiers grabbing food and trying to steal a safe. Ukrainian officials say that invading Russian soldiers are running out of fuel and were sent into Ukraine with only three days of rations, although that could not be independently verified.”

There are also reports that Russian advances in Ukraine were slowed by lack of fuel — and this in a country rich with oil and gas. But ineffective control over fuel consumption in the Russian military actually long preceded the war in Ukraine and had historically created opportunities for embezzlement — that is why fuel is often called the Russian military’s “second currency.” It is plausible that the long-standing tradition of corruption in fuel supply decreased the pace of Russian advancement in Ukraine.

It is also important to remember that the weapons currently targeting Ukraine were produced despite this level of corruption. Meanwhile, many technological innovations, including those that could increase the precision of Russian strikes, have never materialized due to graft, embezzlement and fraud.

In 2020, Transparency International’s Government Defence Integrity Index had found Russia to have high corruption risk in its defense sector. The increased secrecy surrounding the industry limited the civilian oversight of companies engaged in corrupt deals with the Ministry of Defense without competition. Unsurprisingly, most of Russia’s defense companies expressed either low or very low commitment to anti-corruption action and transparency.

For example, in 2012, a Russian arms company received about $26 million to develop an aircraft system for the interception of nonstrategic missiles, according to local press reports. But the research never took off, as the firm signed fraudulent contracts with shell companies, some of which were registered to the addresses of public toilets in Russia’s Samara region. In a separate case from 2016, another company which was responsible for the supply of radio navigation equipment and control systems for high-precision ammunition, was embroiled in an embezzlement scandal in which its leadership imitated research and development activities to steal money through fraudulent contracts.

Corruption in Russian defense is not limited to the military-industrial complex. It penetrates the political level as well, likely altering the incentive structure for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top security officials. Recent investigations show that top officials in the Russian Defense Ministry own property that significantly outmatches their income, pointing to possible involvement in corrupt deals.  

Maintaining a luxurious lifestyle disincentivizes top security officials from giving expert advice that might disappoint the autocrat and cost them access to corruption networks. In the case of Ukraine, this would have meant the risk of reporting to Putin that the country he wanted to invade would put up a fight, that civilians were not looking forward to joining the “Russian world” and would likely greet troops with Molotov cocktails rather than bread and salt, as per local tradition. In this way, the corrupt loyalty of Putin’s top officials might have backfired and contributed to intelligence failures and erroneous risk assessments in Ukraine.  

Of course, corruption in the Russian security sector does not predetermine the outcome of the war. Russia still has extensive capabilities and numerous troops to be thrown into combat. But whatever gains the military might make, they will have done so while battling the challenges caused by rampant corruption, from erroneous risk assessment at the top to expired military rations on the ground.

Putin’s Potemkin Russian Army is suffering heavy losses and a high rate of attrition in Ukraine. Forbes reports, Military Equipment Losses Provide Insight Into Russia-Ukraine War (excerpt):

The Kremlin claims the Russian “special operation” is going as planned and they are well on their way to demilitarizing Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has claimed that Ukrainian forces have killed 12,000 Russian soldiers and destroyed over 2,000 Russian vehicles. From a high level, it appears clear that the Russian offensive has stalled, however, the actual state of each military is fairly unclear.

One commonly cited source of information about both is Oryx, a blog a blog that tracks the destruction of military equipment through open-source reports (e.g., social media, Reddit), with each claim backed up by photographic evidence. The equipment list consists of heavy weapon systems and vehicles — including tanks, armored vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles, trucks, aircraft and watercraft.

There remains a large amount of uncertainty as to the accuracy of the website, especially since it is based on open-source reports. Critics have noted that there may be more imagery circulating of Russian losses given the interest of both Ukrainian troops and civilians in maintaining operational security and morale. Regardless, Oryx provides a more accurate picture of the progress of the war than other sources, many of which show a clear bias. Furthermore, the lists of damaged equipment aligns well with the narrative of events that has unfolded during the Russian invasion and can provide some insight into the details of what has occurred.

The website has counted significantly more Russian equipment losses than Ukrainian losses: 993 versus 277. Of particular importance, it has counted losses of 465 Russian heavy vehicles (tanks, armored fighting vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers), versus 138 for the Ukrainians.

Since the first week of the war there have been scattered reports of Russian Forces Abandoning Their Vehicles and Surrendering. Social media has also shown a number of Ukrainian farmers towing away abandoned Russian tanks and other military vehicles. Ukrainians Citizens Are Taking It Upon Themselves To Capture Russian Military Vehicles (Updated).

Doctrinally, the numbers make sense. An invading army should expect three times the losses of the army on the defense, if the two armies are equally matched. These numbers suggest that the two militaries are fairly equally matched and that neither side necessarily has a technology advantage.

Note that although the Russian military has sustained greater losses, the impact of each loss is smaller for the Russians than the Ukrainians given the relative sizes of their militaries: for example, Russia went into the war with 9,780 tanks while Ukraine had 2,170. [Versions of the T-72].

Oryx further analyzes the images to validate its authenticity and determine the make and model of each piece of equipment. A large amount of the equipment on both sides are remnants of the Soviet era. This aligns well with reports about a stagnant Russian defense industrial base, from which both sides have procured their equipment, and underfunded militaries. If properly maintained, the equipment would be expected to operate without issue, however, approximately 15 percent of the equipment listed on Oryx was abandoned.

While some may be due to Russian soldiers fleeing, of which there have been several anecdotal reports, about half of the vehicles appear to have been abandoned due to maintenance issues, with nothing else appearing wrong with the vehicle in its images.

Further, many of the abandoned vehicles appear to have gotten stuck in the mud. Tanks and armored vehicles are naturally heavy, and although tracks help with mobility, they can still get stuck. Since it’s early spring in the Ukraine, the ground is unfreezing and getting muddy. The weather and terrain are forcing the Russian forces to stick to the roads, as seen in the “40-mile convoy” heading to Kyiv. Unfortunately, roads provide little cover or concealment and make the vehicles easy to target. Furthermore, obstacles in the roads or a destroyed bridge can result in backed-up traffic which further helps leaves the vehicles in a vulnerable position.

More from Slate: “General Mud” Has Usually Been on Russia’s Side in War. Not This Time. “[I]t is currently the time of rasputitsa or rasputitsia (распутица in Russian). One Russian dictionary defines rasputitsa as “a time [of year] when dirt roads are difficult to traverse or indeed impossible to do so; the condition of roads at this time [of year].”

The list of lost equipment also indicates the initial Ukrainian strategies for countering the Russian forces. At the start of the invasion, the Ukrainians targeted Russians tanks in an effort to stall the offensive. Once they succeeded in doing that, they shifted their focus to other Russian vehicles, including command vehicles and sustainment/support equipment. The Ukrainians seem to have specifically targeted engineering assets and recovery vehicles. By taking out these vehicles, the Ukrainian military is limiting Russian movements and further slowing their advance. By slowing the advance, the Ukrainian military additionally stresses the Russian supply lines, which must make sure that vehicles are fueled and soldiers fed.

If the Ukrainians can get in behind the Russian convoys and cut off their resupply lines from Russia, Putin’s Potemkin Army will grind to a halt and be left sitting ducks. It could collapse entirely when it runs out of everything, resulting in mass surrenders as occurred at the end of World War II.

While most of the reported equipment lost are ground systems, Oryx also tracks air and naval assets as well. The website reports that the Russians have lost 11 airplanes, 11 helicopters, and 2 unmanned aircraft.

Meanwhile, it also reports that the Ukrainians have lost 8 airplanes and 3 unmanned aircraft. The low number of air casualties indicate that neither side has achieved air superiority, especially given that both sides have an ample supply of surface-to-air missiles. This likely resulted in both sides being somewhat conservative with their air deployments.

It is also worth noting that Oryx indicates that the Russians Navy has not suffered any losses. While recent news articles indicate that this may not be true, the Russian Navy appears to be operating in the Black Sea with impunity. This would likely have played a role in the capture of Kherson, a port city on the Black Sea, and the only major urban area held by the Russians. With Russian ground forces approaching from the east and naval support from the west, it makes sense that the Ukrainian forces would withdraw from the town to avoid being enveloped.

This Potemkin Russian Army suffering heavy losses and a high rate of attrition has led some retired military to prognosticate Russia’s imminent defeat (in a conventional war) in Ukraine. One should never predict the unpredictable.

Huffington Post reports, Retired Lt. General: Russia May Face Trouble In Ukraine ‘Within The Next 10 Days’:

A former U.S. Army general predicted Monday that the Russian military could soon run out of the manpower and weaponry needed to continue its invasion of Ukraine.

Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said recent moves by Russia to extend its campaign to western Ukraine and reports that the country had asked China for military supplies may mean the Kremlin is running out of steam.

“Russia’s decision to transition to a war of attrition, where they’re smashing cities, putting civilians on the road for fear of being murdered, they need three things to do this, and they don’t have those three things,” Hodges said on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They don’t have the time, they don’t have the manpower and I don’t think they have the ammunition.”

Hodges’ comments were buoyed by evidence that Russia was running low on weaponry as Ukraine continued to mount a fiercer-than-expected resistance, notably around the capital of Kyiv. He said that if the West continued to support Ukrainians, it could be less than two weeks before the Russian military reached what he referred to as its culmination point.

“Assuming that we, the West, not only continue but accelerate the delivery of the capabilities the Ukrainians need, I think within the next 10 days that Russia is going to culminate, which means they will not be able to continue the attack any further,” Hodges said. “So, it’s kind of a race, actually, if we give the Ukrainians enough so they can outlast Russia.”

Wait for it … “Hodges added that there was a big caveat to his prediction, a nod to Putin’s unpredictability during the invasion.”

Newsweek similarly reports, Russian Army Days Away From Running Out of Resources, Military Experts Say:

Military experts and former commanders have said that Russia’s army is days away from running out of resources, with what was intended to be a swift seizure of key Ukrainian cities turning into a drawn-out war.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, told Fox News on Monday that Russia is running out of time, ammunition and manpower.

“The Russians went after his [Fmr. Amb. to NATO Kurt Volker’s] training center in Yavoriv, outside the city of Lviv, partly to demonstrate that they could reach the lines of communication that bring supplies and support from Poland into Ukraine. But also, I think, to maybe go after the logistics buildup that’s happening there,” Hodges said.

“I don’t think we should overreact to this. The Russians, I think, are about ten days away from what is called the culminating point, when they just no longer have the ammunition nor the manpower to keep up their assault. I think we keep pouring it on, and the Russians culminate,” he added.

Another column written by Ivan F. Ingraham, who served 24 years as a Special Operations Officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, published by Task & Purpose on March 10, said that Russia’s stalled advance in Ukraine does not come as a surprise.

In the column, he wrote: “Many Russian units are running short on fuel and ammunition. A forty-mile convoy on single-lane roads is a combined arms engagement dream. I can only imagine artillery instructors at Fort Sill, where the U.S. military trains its artillery forces rolling their sleeves with glee to set up sand table training, never mind free and open engagement areas for aerial-delivered munitions from platforms like the A-10 Warthog, which would be well-suited to striking a long-sprawling convoy.”

[On] Monday, Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff, said that the war is likely to be over by early May when Russia runs out of resources to attack its neighbor,

Author and political scientist Francis Fukuyama said the Russian military is now facing the possibility of “outright defeat” in Ukraine. Preparing for Defeat:

I’ll stick my neck out and make several prognostications:

    1. Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine. Russian planning was incompetent, based on a flawed assumption that Ukrainians were favorable to Russia and that their military would collapse immediately following an invasion. Russian soldiers were evidently carrying dress uniforms for their victory parade in Kyiv rather than extra ammo and rations. Putin at this point has committed the bulk of his entire military to this operation—there are no vast reserves of forces he can call up to add to the battle. [UPDATE: Russia has enlisted over 40,000 Syrian military personnel to fight against Ukraine, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR)—a Syrian non-governmental group—said on Monday. Syrian media reported that Russia has offered military personnel monthly salaries from $200 to $300 for six months, including other “privileges.” They have not yet left Syria.] Russian troops are stuck outside various Ukrainian cities where they face huge supply problems and constant Ukrainian attacks.
    2. The collapse of their position could be sudden and catastrophic, rather than happening slowly through a war of attrition. The army in the field will reach a [culmination] point where it can neither be supplied nor withdrawn, and morale will vaporize. This is at least true in the north; the Russians are doing better in the south, but those positions would be hard to maintain if the north collapses.
    3. There is no diplomatic solution to the war possible prior to this happening. There is no conceivable compromise that would be acceptable to both Russia and Ukraine given the losses they have taken at this point.
    4. The United Nations Security Council has proven once again to be useless. The only helpful thing was the General Assembly vote, which helps to identify the world’s bad or prevaricating actors.
    5. The Biden administration’s decisions not to declare a no-fly zone or help transfer Polish MiGs were both good ones; they’ve kept their heads during a very emotional time. It is much better to have the Ukrainians defeat the Russians on their own, depriving Moscow of the excuse that NATO attacked them, as well as avoiding all the obvious escalatory possibilities. The Polish MiGs in particular would not add much to Ukrainian capabilities. Much more important is a continuing supply of Javelins, Stingers, TB2s, medical supplies, comms equipment, and intel sharing. I assume that Ukrainian forces are already being vectored by NATO intelligence operating from outside Ukraine.
    6. The cost that Ukraine is paying is enormous, of course. But the greatest damage is being done by rockets and artillery, which neither MiGs nor a no-fly zone can do much about. The only thing that will stop the slaughter is defeat of the Russian army on the ground.
    7. Putin will not survive the defeat of his army. He gets support because he is perceived to be a strongman; what does he have to offer once he demonstrates incompetence and is stripped of his coercive power?
    8. The invasion has already done huge damage to populists all over the world, who prior to the attack uniformly expressed sympathy for Putin. That includes Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro, Éric Zemmour, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, and of course Donald Trump. The politics of the war has exposed their openly authoritarian leanings.
    9. The war to this point has been a good lesson for China. Like Russia, China has built up seemingly high-tech military forces in the past decade, but they have no combat experience. The miserable performance of the Russian air force would likely be replicated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, which similarly has no experience managing complex air operations. We may hope that the Chinese leadership will not delude itself as to its own capabilities the way the Russians did when contemplating a future move against Taiwan.
    10. Hopefully Taiwan itself will wake up as to the need to prepare to fight as the Ukrainians have done, and restore conscription. Let’s not be prematurely defeatist.
    11. Turkish drones will become bestsellers.
    12. A Russian defeat will make possible a “new birth of freedom,” and get us out of our funk about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians.

2 thoughts on “If Ukraine Can Hold Out Long Enough With Western Assistance, Putin’s Potemkin Army Can Be Defeated”

  1. Paul Krugman wrote back in February, “Russia Is a Potemkin Superpower”, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/28/opinion/putin-military-sanctions-weakness.html

    Beware, Vladimir Putin: Spring is coming. And when it does, you’ll lose much of whatever leverage you had left.

    Before Putin invaded Ukraine, I might have described the Russian Federation as a medium-size power punching above its weight in part by exploiting Western divisions and corruption, in part by maintaining a powerful military. Since then, however, two things have become clear. First, Putin has delusions of grandeur. Second, Russia is even weaker than most people, myself included, seem to have realized.

    It has long been obvious that Putin desperately wants to restore Russia’s status as a Great Power. His already infamous “there is no such thing as Ukraine” speech, in which he condemned Lenin (!) for giving his neighbor what Putin considers a false sense of national identity, made it clear that his aims go beyond recreating the Soviet Union — he apparently wants to recreate the czarist empire. And he apparently thought that he could take a big step toward that goal with a short, victorious war.

    So far, it hasn’t worked out as planned. Ukrainian resistance has been fierce; Russia’s military has been less effective than advertised. I’ve been especially struck by reports that the early days of the invasion were hampered by severe logistical problems — that is, the invaders had a hard time providing their forces with the essentials of modern war, above all fuel. It’s true that supply problems are common in war; still, logistics is one thing advanced nations are supposed to be really good at.

    But Russia is looking less and less like an advanced nation.

    The truth is that I was being generous in describing Russia as even a medium-size power. Britain and France are medium-size powers; Russia’s gross domestic product is only a bit more than half as large as either’s. It seemed remarkable that such an economically underweight state could support a world-class, highly sophisticated military — and maybe it couldn’t.

    That’s not to deny that the force ravaging Ukraine has immense firepower, and it may well take Kyiv. But I wouldn’t be surprised if post-mortems on the Ukraine war eventually show that there was a lot more rot at the heart of Putin’s military than anyone realized.

    And Russia is starting to look even weaker economically than it did before it went to war.

    Putin’s Russia isn’t a hermetic tyranny like North Korea or, for that matter, the old Soviet Union. Its standard of living is sustained by large imports of manufactured goods, mostly paid for via exports of oil and natural gas.

    This leaves Russia’s economy highly vulnerable to sanctions that might disrupt this trade, a reality reflected in Monday’s sharp plunge in the value of the ruble despite a huge increase in domestic interest rates and draconian attempts to limit capital flight.

    Before the invasion it was common to talk about how Putin had created “fortress Russia,” an economy immune to economic sanctions, by accumulating a huge war chest of foreign currency reserves. Now, however, such talk seems naïve. What, after all, are foreign reserves? They aren’t bags of cash. For the most part they consist of deposits in overseas banks and holdings of other governments’ debt — that is, assets that can be frozen if most of the world is united in revulsion against a rogue government’s military aggression.

    True, Russia also has a substantial amount of physical gold held within the country. But how useful is this gold as a way to pay for things the Putin regime needs? Can you really conduct large-scale modern business with ingots? [So 1930s thinking.]

    Finally, as I noted last week, Russia’s oligarchs have stashed most of their assets overseas, making them subject to freezing or seizure if democratic governments can muster the will. You might say that Russia doesn’t need those assets, which is true. But everything Putin has done in office suggests that he considers it necessary to buy oligarchs’ support, so their vulnerability is his vulnerability.

    Incidentally, one puzzle about Russia’s pre-Ukraine image of strength was how a kleptocratic regime managed to have an efficient, effective military. Maybe it didn’t?

    [E]urope mainly burns gas for heat; gas consumption is 2.5 times higher in the winter than it is in the summer. Well, winter will soon be over — and the European Union has time to prepare for another winter without Russian gas if it’s willing to make some hard choices.

    As I said, Putin may well take Kyiv. But even if he does, he will have made himself weaker, not stronger. Russia now stands revealed as a Potemkin superpower, with far less real strength than meets the eye.

    -John McCain in 2014 said “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.” Others have expanded on this to say “Russia is a gas station with nukes.” And don’t ever forget it. A sociopath like Putin will use his nukes if he knows he is losing. The real question is whether or not Russian military comanders in charge of the nukes will disobey his orders. This is unknowable.

    Twice the past Russia’s nuclear commanders have disregarded launch orders. See, “The Man Who Saved the World”, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/the-man-who-saved-the-world-about-this-episode/871/ “The unsung story of Soviet naval officer Vasili Arkhipov, the Brigade Chief of Staff on submarine B-59, who refused to fire a nuclear missile and saved the world from World War III and nuclear disaster.”

    And, “Stanislav Petrov, the Russian Officer Who Averted a Nuclear War, Feared History Repeating Itself”, https://time.com/4947879/stanislav-petrov-russia-nuclear-war-obituary/

    “Petrov was at the controls on the night of Sept. 26, 1983, when the sirens inside the bunker began to wail … The Oko system’s satellites spotted the launch of an American ballistic missile, followed in quick succession by four others. “We built the system to rule out the possibility of false alarms,” Petrov told TIME in 2015. “And that day the satellites told us with the highest degree of certainty that these rockets were on the way.” It was up to Petrov to confirm the incoming attack to the Soviet leaders, who would then launch a retaliatory strike while the U.S. missiles were still in the air. “I thought the chances were 50-50 that the warnings were real,” he recalls. “But I didn’t want to be the one responsible for starting a third world war.” So he told his commanders that the alarm was false. After a six-month investigation, Petrov and his colleagues discovered the reason for the mix-up: Soviet satellites had mistaken the sun’s reflection in some clouds for the start of an American missile salvo.”

  2. CNN reports, “Biden signs massive spending bill into law that dedicates billions to Ukraine aid”, https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/15/politics/biden-ukraine-aid-omnibus/index.html

    President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed a massive spending bill into law that includes $13.6 billion in new aid to Ukraine [more than double Ukraine’s entire defense budget], saying during a signing ceremony that the new assistance shows the United States is “moving urgently to further augment the support to the brave people of Ukraine as they defend their country.”

    “Today we’re again showing the American people that as a country we can come together, as Democrats and Republicans and independents, and do big things; that our democracy can deliver … and outperform autocracies, and that there’s nothing we can’t do when we do it together as the United States of America,” Biden told an audience of lawmakers at the White House.

    [On] Wednesday, Biden is expected to detail the US’ assistance to Ukraine in remarks.

    Speaking on CNN on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said Biden would talk “about the security assistance that we have provided, that we are providing. It’s just unparalleled in amounts. Anti-tank, anti-aircraft, anti-armor, all kinds of support that the Ukrainians have asked for.”

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