Support 110 years of independent journalism.

The Putin backlash

Russia is stuck with a form of warfare that depends on artillery barrages and indifference to casualties.

By Lawrence Freedman

“It is better to be killed fighting for the fatherland than to drink vodka to death.” 

– Vladimir Putin

“You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you’re at war and might get your head blown off any second.”

“I more than resent it, sir. I’m absolutely incensed.”

–  Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

On New Year’s Eve Russians could listen to a message from Vladimir Putin in which he praised them for fighting to protect “our people in our historical territories in the new regions of the Russian Federation” and reminded them that “Russia’s future is what matters the most. Defending our Motherland is the sacred duty we owe to our ancestors and descendants.” If they needed more reminders that their armed forces were engaged in a war of conquest they could watch a Moscow New Year party on state TV where the toast was to the country’s enlargement and Ukrainians were mocked.

Death at Makiivka

And then, just as 2023 began, a Vocational College in Makiivka, close to the city of Donetsk and 12.5 km from the front line, was hit by Ukrainian artillery. The building housed hundreds of recently conscripted Russian soldiers, largely from the district of Saratov in southwest Russia. Vehicles and equipment were parked beside the building. The soldiers shared the building with ammunition, which was the main reason that so much was obliterated in the blast. Soon this was the talk of the Telegram channels favoured by Russian military bloggers. The Ministry of Defence, rarely forthcoming on its losses in war, had no choice but to acknowledge the disaster. At first it confirmed 69 deaths. This number later crept up to 89. The unofficial number is closer to 300 killed.

The response from the Russian high command was to blame the victims. According to Lieutenant General Sergei Sevryukov, “the main reason for the incident was the activation and mass use – contrary to a prohibition – of mobile phones by personnel in the enemy’s range”. This enabled “the enemy to track and determine the coordinates of the soldiers’ locations for a missile strike”.

This proposition, that this was the result solely of a lapse in operational security, is hard to take seriously. Such lapses do occur,  although relatives deny that this was the case with their men. The main problem with this explanation is that the deployment of men and equipment at this site was hardly a secret. The troops arrived at Makiivka on 18 December. Their presence could easily have been picked up by drones or local agents. The unit’s deputy commander, who was killed in the strike, was reportedly aware of the risk and urgently looking for a new location for his men. As a Ukrainian military spokesman, Serhii Cherevatyi, observed: “Of course, using phones with geolocation is a mistake. But it is clear that this version looks a bit ridiculous. It is clear that this was not the main reason. The main reason was that they were unable to covertly deploy these personnel. And we took advantage of that, having detected the target powerfully and destroyed it.”

Furthermore, the effects of the strike were magnified because of the stored ammunition. This turned what would otherwise have been a serious loss into a catastrophe. The UK’s Ministry of Defence cited this when highlighting how “unprofessional practices contribute to Russia’s high casualty rate”. This point was echoed by Russian military bloggers, including Igor Girkin (“Our generals are untrainable in principle”). At any rate, the official explanation was found to be sufficiently unconvincing for the Kremlin to promise a full inquiry and the punishment of “guilty” officials. Some pro-war lawmakers demanded an investigation. One, Sergei Mironov, called for the prosecution of all officials responsible, “whether they wear epaulets or not.”

Another reason to doubt the official version of events is that this was not an isolated incident. On 11 December Ukraine claimed to have struck a church in Melitopol being used as a base by Russian soldiers. It has also claimed that up to 500 Russian troops were either killed or wounded in another hit on a troop and ammunition concentration near Chulakivka, in the Kherson region in the south, on New Year’s Eve. The Russian authorities have said nothing on this, although at least one military blogger has referred to it. We do have confirmation of an attack on a hospital wing occupied by the Wagner Group at Pervomaisk, 25km east of Bakhmut in Donetsk, which left 70 dead, because the organisation’s head Yevgeny Prigozhin, visited the site and viewed the body bags.

The problem illuminated by the Makiivka attack, therefore, is far more fundamental than command ineptitude or lax security. The problem for Russia is that all troop concentrations are vulnerable relatively close to the front. The accuracy of Himars along with other Ukrainian systems means that in principle any fixed target relatively close to the front can be attacked as soon as its coordinates are known. To prevent losses of ammunition dumps or whole military units they need to be dispersed and if possible kept to the rear. But this leads to major inefficiencies, aggravated by the winter weather, when it comes to bringing them together for combat purposes. There are not many places that can accommodate large numbers of troops with some provision for food, sleep and hygiene, so it is not surprising that they end up in public buildings such as schools. Emphasising these vulnerabilities has become an important part of Ukraine’s current communications strategy, because of the dilemmas this sets for Russian commanders.

[See also: Vladimir Putin is under pressure]

The battle for Bakhmut

Ukraine also needs to target concentrations of Russian soldiers to reduce the benefits Russia has gained from the extra troops generated through mobilisation. Although their training and kit is poor, they have been used to strengthen defensive positions along the extensive front line and hamper Ukraine’s efforts to concentrate its own forces to mount attacks. While seeking to hold back Ukrainian advances, Russian forces have also persevered with their one serious offensive operation, which is to take Bakhmut in Donetsk. This has become one of a series of epic encounters, along with Mariupol and Severodonetsk, in which the Russians spend months and heavy casualties trying to take cities which they consider strategic, which are then reduced to rubble. When the battle for Bakhmut began five months ago, it was relevant to Putin’s objective to take all of the Donbas. Since the summer, however, Russian forces have been pushed back in the neighbouring provinces of Kharkiv and Kherson and are now defending positions in Luhansk.

So far, and at a high cost, Ukraine has thwarted the Russian offensive. A vivid and candid piece of reporting on the battle by Ukrainian correspondent Illia Ponomarenko brings home the remorseless nature of the fight. The city is now at least 60 per cent destroyed and some 90 per cent of its population has fled. This remains an artillery war, because Russia has found that only relentless pounding of Ukrainian positions can force retreats. Despite the regular bombardment, the Russians, with Wagner mercenaries to the fore, have struggled to make progress. The rate of fire has slowed down to about a third of previous levels – perhaps reflecting developing shortages of munitions or just Ukrainian successes in making the storage and movement of ammunition more hazardous.

Ponomarenko describes the Ukrainian infantry as being “sick, tired, full of bitter resentment”, and straining under its own losses, yet still regularly repelling Russian attacks. Ukraine has problems with supplies, especially for its Soviet-era systems, but it does not want to give Russia the satisfaction of any victory. This was underlined when President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the city on 20 December, at a time when it appeared in peril. The day after Ukrainian forces mounted a counterattack and forced Russian forces to withdraw from some areas they had taken. But this remains a back and forth battle. On Friday there were reports of a Russian move into the adjacent town of Soledar, adding to the pressure on the Ukrainian side.

The Ukrainians claim that the Russian losses have been huge. US sources are more cautious but still assess that out of a force of nearly 50,000 mercenaries, Wagner has lost over 4,100 killed and 10,000 wounded, including over 1,000 killed between late November and early December near Bakhmut. Because of this the mercenaries have struggled to mount mass infantry attacks, often moving forward in quite small groups, who would be unable to exploit any breakthrough even if one was achieved.

“And Russians roll on, and on, and on, and on. They never stop throwing their scum at us. Sometimes we can hear Wagner commanders talk on communications: ‘Run to the Ukrainian trenches, and whoever makes it – you know what to do.’”

In another report a deputy commander of a Ukrainian battalion observed: “We know how they are trying to attack. The losses are not even detachments, not combat formations of the Wagnerites, but simply the crowds with which they are trying to storm, such small groups of eight, 10 or 20 people each reach 80 per cent.”

He added that the wounded were often left to freeze and die from either the weather or their injuries.

Manpower and equipment shortages have undermined the assault without stopping it. Everything has just become more attritional. This was Prigozhin’s assessment: “In Artemovsk [the Russian name for Bakhmut], every house has become a fortress. Our guys sometimes fight for more than a day over one house. Sometimes they fight for weeks over one house. And behind this house, there is still a new line of defence, and not one. And how many such lines of defence are there in Artemovsk? Five hundred would probably not be an exaggeration.”

Both Ukrainian and Russian forces face the problem that they have sufficient power to mount occasional attacks and gain ground, but not quite enough to achieve a commanding position.

[See also: Letter from Ukraine: new year, same war]

Prigozhin’s propaganda push

Prigozhin’s explanation for such limited gains after many months is a lack of equipment and shells, and his explanation for the lack is an unresponsive Ministry of Defence. In one video he speaks sympathetically to a soldier lamenting the shortages. This reinforced a message he endorsed when two of his fighters accused Russia’s chief of general staff, Valeriy Gerasimov, of denying them ammunition. With their faces covered by scarves they made their protest: “We are fighting the entire Ukrainian army, and where are you?”

One can understand why elements in the regular army find Prigozhin and his Wagner group irritating, but I have seen no evidence that he has been denied supplies deliberately. Gerasimov has described Bakhmut as a priority. On 21 December, when Russian hopes that the city could fall imminently were high, he said: “The situation on the front line has stabilised, with the main efforts of the Russian troops concentrated on completing the liberation of the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic.”

So what is going on? The simplest explanation is that the Russian military does not have enough to go round and that Prigozhin is making an extremely unsubtle bid for a larger share of what is available. The Economist has noted that, after shaky relations earlier in the war, Prigozhin had appeared to find a way to work with the regular army, especially after his candidate, General Sergei Surovikin, was put in charge of the overall operation. But the more Russian forces suffer shortages the more Prigozhin objects that he is not getting his fair allocation. From Surovikin’s perspective, questions of priorities will be getting more difficult and he may wonder how much he can favour the Bakhmut front when he has units elsewhere that need support.

As always when we look at battlefield developments we also have to keep an eye on Moscow politics. Leaving aside claims that his main interest is in getting control of the salt and gypsum mines near Bakhmut, which would not be wholly out of character, Prigozhin’s most vital interest in the battle for now is that his reputation and claims for influence in the higher direction of the war depends on the city’s capture. So in addition to wanting to ensure that he gets resources, he wants to be sure of being able to share the blame if this battle does not go Wagner’s way.

Prigozhin has been on something of a public relations offensive in recent days. His most recent video shows him granting freedom to a group of former convicts who had survived six months at the front, albeit in some cases without all their limbs.  His advice for effective integration back into Russian society: “Don’t drink too much, don’t use drugs, and don’t rape any broads.” One can only speculate about the impact of a load of war-hardened and weapons-trained convicts being released back into Russian society.

[See also: Why Vladimir Putin is beholden to Stalin’s legacy]

Although Prigozhin has avoided any criticism of the president, others have noted his high visibility, and readiness to go to the front lines, compared with Putin’s isolation and staged public appearances. Thus in November, when he wanted to calm public anger with the botched nature of the mobilisation, Putin met a hand-picked collection of mothers who could be guaranteed not to raise any awkward questions while ignoring representatives of more activist groups such as the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia. After telling the women he appreciated the void left by the loss of a loved one, he added: “But you know what comes to my mind: in our country, about 30,000 people die in road accidents, nearly the same number die from alcohol. Unfortunately, it happens. This is how life works. Life is complex and multifaceted, more complicated than can be written somewhere on paper.

“We are all under the Lord, under Allah, under Christ, I don’t know, everyone who believes in higher powers, it doesn’t matter what religion a person adheres to: we are all mortal, we are all under the Lord. And someday we will all leave this world. It is inevitable. The question is how we lived.”

Sacrifice and futility

These themes of sacrifice and martyrdom have become part of the death cult surrounding the war. What the young and not-so-young men who are being sent to the front feel about old men talking about the inevitability of death and the nobility of dying for one’s country is hard to know. Attitudes to the war within Russia and among the troops are complex. The grumbles appear to be about the competence with which the war is being waged more than the purposes for which it was launched, which have expanded during its course from a limited military operation to an existential struggle for survival with the West. Those below Putin are regularly attacked by critics but the president himself seems off bounds. Many of the most likely dissidents are either imprisoned or have fled. For now the mood appears to be one of stoical acceptance of the situation rather than resistance.

The New York Times had an interview with a drafted soldier called Aleksandr, who was “enraged at the way he and his comrades were dropped into Ukraine with few bullets for their aging rifles and forced to live in a cowshed with only a few meal packets to share”. His commanders told them they were going for training when they were being sent to the front lines, where most were killed or grievously wounded. He was in hospital after suffering a concussion. Yet when discharged he expected to return to Ukraine. “This is how we are raised,” Aleksandr said. “We grew up in our country understanding that it doesn’t matter how our country treats us. Maybe this is bad. Maybe this is good. Maybe there are things we do not like about our government.” But, “when a situation like this arises, we get up and go.”

The biggest risk for Putin therefore remains less dissatisfaction with the death toll but that the military effort put into this war continues to yield little that the sacrifices become sullied by a sense of futility rather than being uplifted by a great patriotic cause. The loss of so many men may not bother the Russian high command if they accept them as an unavoidable part of war, though they may be embarrassed by acts of gross carelessness as with Makiivka. But they will be bothered if they are insufficient to cover basic military tasks. It was because Russian forces were getting close to this position that Putin agreed to mass mobilisation in September.

Regular losses of troops makes military failure more likely, which is why it is not surprising to see reports, emanating from Ukraine, that Russia is ready to mobilise another 500,000 conscripts in addition to the 300,000 already called up. For the moment this may be premature, in that only half of the 300,000 have yet to be sent to the front while the others are being prepared for offensive operations later in the year and presumably could be rushed in to shore up flagging defences. The Ukrainian view is that the Russians need success and only expect to be able to achieve it through overwhelming numbers.  Whether or not any new offensives are likely to prosper it is evident that the mood in the Kremlin would be even more gloomy if nothing could be planned and the prospect was only of a grinding, defensive war, being forced into progressive retreats.

[See also: Ukraine’s problematic nationalist heroes]

Meanwhile Ukraine is looking forward to getting more capabilities to support its offensives. In recent days, France has agreed to send its AMX-10 RC armoured reconnaissance vehicles to Ukraine, and the US and Germany have both agreed to send Infantry Fighting Vehicles (the Bradley and Marder), which are a step down from main battle tanks but a step up from armoured personnel carriers. The Bradley is part of a massive new $28.5bn commitment of weapons to Ukraine, including Patriot air defence systems. Taken together all the recent announcements of new support to Ukraine speak to a readiness to support a major offensive in a few months time, after delivery and training.

Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, said in a recent interview that Kyiv was planning a “major push” in the spring. Another Ukrainian military spokesman has predicted that: “If the Ukrainian defence forces break through the defensive lines of the Russian occupation forces on the Svatove-Kreminna line and, accordingly, the transfer of hostilities closer to the city of Luhansk, a significant part of the military units of the 2nd Army Corps, especially from among those mobilised in the temporarily occupied territories, plans to surrender.”

Ukrainian forces have been improving their positions on the Svatove-Kreminna line, on the edge of the Donbas, but it remains to be seen if they can make a major breakthrough which leads to a further retreat and even a rout of Russian forces. As I have noted before, just because there has been little change in the front lines one should not assume that the two sides are locked in a perpetual stalemate, just as one should not assume that rapid advances can continue without a need to stop and consolidate in the face of resistance.

Ukraine has the advantage, which should grow, in its ability to hit vital targets with accuracy and to manoeuvre, which it wishes to use to avoid gruelling attritional battles such as Bakhmut. Those are the only sort of battles Russia seems able to fight. It is stuck with a form of warfare that depends on artillery barrages and indifference to casualties which limits its options and requires continuing supplies of shells and men.

When we step back from the daily news the underlying trends of this war favour Ukraine. It is learning to cope with the repeated Russian attacks on its critical infrastructure, and once spring comes the impact will decline, while it has been getting bolder in its attacks on facilities on Russian territory. The energy shock has not turned the West away from supporting Ukraine and instead countries are offering support for future land offensives. Here lies the biggest danger for Putin – more retreats rather than more casualties – and a developing aura of futility. The question of what it takes to get Russia to abandon its war of conquest remains unanswered but that does not mean that no answer will ever be found.

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article : ,