If you listen closely while assessing Russia’s performance in Ukraine 15 months after invading the country, you may hear lyrics from Jim Croce’s 1973 hit “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” Like “tough guy” Brown, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army, along with his mercenary force known as the Wagner Group – recruited out of prisons whose volunteers are promised pardons if they survive six months on the battlefield – had reputations as bad boys in a fight. However, both have proven to be tactically and operationally incompetent, although Moscow did, after a lengthy 10-month assault, finally just capture the city of Bakhmut. But, in invading Ukraine, as Brown experienced in the song, he bit off more than he could chew, having started a bar fight with someone tougher. Croce’s description of Brown at fight’s end is not too dissimilar to that of Putin’s military today – looking “like a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone.” At least Brown’s fight is over; Putin’s is still ongoing.
Several examples reflect just some of the “pieces gone” Russia has suffered as it continues taking on a tough Ukrainian army – some representing acts of desperation by Russia:
- One example of pieces gone was obvious in Russia’s annual Victory Day celebration commemorating the Soviet Union’s 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. This has always been a big celebration for Russia, with all kinds of military equipment rolled out and paraded through city streets across the nation. While normally row upon row of tanks noisily rumble through these cities, this year few were seen. Additionally, the least number of soldiers since 2008 participated, and 24 cities were unable even to hold parades. Incredibly, in this year’s showcase parade through Moscow’s Red Square, only one lone antique T-34 tank was involved, giving Russia all the prestige of a Third World country. While Russian officials claim this was for security reasons, a much more likely reason is equipment shortages. Estimates are Russia has probably lost over 2,000 tanks – a number exceeding more than half its operational fleet – so a shortage of these war machines to parade around is unsurprising.
- Another example is, despite Moscow’s far superior air force to Ukraine, it has been unable to establish air superiority.
- Russia was credited with having an effective cyberwarfare capability that would wreak havoc on the battlefield for an enemy. That has not happened to the Ukrainians who have effectively been able to work around such problems.
- Russia had boasted that its hypersonic missiles – with a capability of flying 10 times the speed of sound making them extremely difficult to shoot down – were the best in the world. It also boasted any defensive missile system, such as the U.S. Patriot missile, was outdated and would be unable to intercept hypersonic missiles. However, Ukraine received a number of Patriots just in time to be able to demonstrate they could shoot down the vast majority of incoming hypersonics.
- Civilian Ukrainian targets, less protected than military assets, are being targeted more by the Russians, such as two warehouses filled with humanitarian supplies owned by Project Hope that were recently hit. In November 2022, more than 6 million Ukrainian homes went without power as infrastructure targets were hit.
- Perhaps the best example of how badly things are going for Putin comes from his own people. The fact Russians are losing five of their own soldiers for every Ukrainian, with such losses possibly as high as 100,000 now, has not endeared Putin to Russian mothers. Nor does that ratio have military-aged males rushing to enlist. Moscow already has had to turn to its reserve forces for replacements, resulting last September in its experiencing a mass evacuation of able bodied men. Their immediate preference was to catch the first available flight outbound to anywhere. Flights became jam packed and ticket prices quickly escalated, leaving many draft dodgers to head for the nearest border crossing. These included crossings into Georgia, Kazakhstan and Moscow’s ally Belarus where queues, miles long, developed. Some were so eager to leave they left their cars behind in line and walked to the border crossing. Other countries, not bordering Russia, such as Germany, opened their doors to draft dodgers who could make it there.
- Not until months later, however, did members of Russia’s legislative branch (Duma) discover a ploy some draft dodgers, perhaps preferring to remain in Russia or simply unable to get out, were using to avoid the draft. In 1997, the Duma had passed a law authorizing transgenders to change their gender identity simply by modifying it on their passport with a medical permission slip. In an ultimate slap in the face to Putin’s war, at least 3,000 Russian males have recently changed their gender identity under that law. Finally recognizing this loophole, the Duma is working on legislation to mandate more than just a gender identity declaration and medical note by requiring body-altering surgery as well.
Putin, who came to power in 2000 as a democratically elected president, has manipulated the government machinery to basically establish an autocracy. In 2020, the country’s constitution was manipulated to keep him in power until 2036. There is no way the Russian people will tolerate this should the war in Ukraine not end soon.
The conflict now boils down to an unbending Ukrainian resolve and a tyrant’s ego. Absent a major battlefield change – such as Putin pressuring Belarus to open a new front in Ukraine – or Ukraine’s weapons suppliers withdrawing, a gambling man would bet Putin’s days are numbered. Similar to Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, who violently learned the hard way over a century earlier, not listening to your people comes at a very high price.
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