Certain events are significant not because of their intrinsic meaning but rather in the reactions and repercussions they produce. Such was the October 8 explosion of the Crimean Bridge linking the peninsula to Russia, much celebrated in Ukraine and equally lamented in Russia. The blast caused temporary damage to the “construction of the century,” as the bridge was dubbed in Moscow, and surely had a short-term impact on the supply of the Russian army in southern Ukraine. Yet, much more telling was the reaction of Moscow: Rocket and drone attacks all over Ukraine, with a special emphasis on Kyiv.
The Russian barrage had no effect on Ukraine’s conduct of the war, and once again, Putin’s regime was exposed as a colossus with feet of clay. The slow but persistent tilt of the pendulum to the Ukrainian side makes it plausible to ask: How long can a lost war last? The predictions of military experts vary from several months to about a year. In my opinion, the duration of hostilities largely depends on three major factors: the ability to deploy effective reserves, the intensity of tensions inside Russia, and the Western partners’ commitment to Ukraine, especially in matters of weaponry. Let’s start from the last one.
Western support for Ukraine looks stronger than ever. In mid-October, leaders of the G7 pledged to provide Ukraine with military, legal, diplomatic, and financial support “as long as it takes,” and stated that they will hold Putin “to account.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “if Putin wins, that is not only a big defeat for Ukrainians, but it will be a defeat and dangerous for all of us.” Reacting to Russia’s implicit nuclear threats, both NATO officials and the US promised tough responses. Even the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell Fontelles stated plainly that “any nuclear attack against Ukraine will create such a powerful answer that the Russian army will be annihilated.”
The Biden administration’s military aid has already exceeded 16 billion dollars and keeps growing. The United Kingdom trains Ukrainian infantry. Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia all send weaponry, and even France and Germany, initially reluctant “to provoke” Putin, are changing their attitudes.
Another matter of profound concern is the danger of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles. President Volodymir Zelenskyy warned that Tehran has already delivered to Moscow approximately 2,400 Shahed-136 kamikaze-drones. According to the Washington Post, more advanced models and short range ballistic missiles are being negotiated. Moscow uses the drones to hit civilians and critical infrastructure, causing Ukraine to use its interceptor missiles, which are needed to counter more hazardous projectiles like the Iskander, Kalibr, or Kh-101.
The issue was already addressed in the last Ramstein summit of defense ministers from countries supporting Ukraine. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley led a discussion of ways to create a multi-level system of protection against air threats “as soon as possible.” NATO’s secretary general conveyed the same message the same day. The involvement of Tehran in the drones’ warfare on the Russian side might provide Kyiv with one more albeit covert ally: Israel. Earlier this month, the ambassador of Ukraine in Tel Aviv told Israel Hayom that Russian–Iranian cooperation will bring Israel and his homeland closer. A senior Ukrainian official told the New York Times that a private Israeli team is already supplying Ukraine with satellite imagery of Russian troop positions.
Winter is coming. Initially, low temperatures, coupled with cuts in gas supply, were a serious weapon in Putin’s hands. Yet, since August, the EU has taken measures to save energy and prepare for winter: 91.6% of gas storage in the EU is filled. Moreover, according to Copernicus Climate Change Service—the European long-range forecaster—the upcoming winter is supposed to be warmer than average. These factors together diminish the already small chance of public pressure in Europe to lift sanctions and negotiate a deal with Russia.
Mobilization of Reserves
After Russia’s loss of the occupied territories in the Kharkiv region on the first day of September, Putin ordered conscription. Since then, the town of Lyman, the stronghold of the Russian army in the Donetsk region, was encircled and fell, and the northern section of the Kherson region collapsed. To date, Russia has officially mobilized approximately 222,000 men—74% of the declared need. Many more can be snatched from their civilian routines, and according to some accounts, already are. Among those mobilized, at least 16,000 are already in the front.
Numbers do count on the battlefield, but to mobilize doesn’t mean to prepare, arm, and equip. Unsurprisingly for any observer of Russia, plenty of problems are emerging.
First, scores of mobilized soldiers were sent to the front with basic training or no training at all, just to replenish the decimated regular units. Some are now dead or prisoners of war. Second, the mobilization exposed a horrific shortage of basic infantry equipment: Many rifles were broken, some lacked magazines, while helmets and bulletproof vests were frequently considered luxury items. Third, according to some reports, medical support and supplies are simply absent (a viral video shows a Russian officer instructing conscripts “to ask girlfriends, wives, sisters to send hygienic pads and tampons, you will need them to stop bleeding, if wounded”). Finally, ethno-religious tensions, lack of training or equipment, and low motivation have already brought about cases of conscripts refusing to leave bases and committing sabotage.
As of May, Kyiv has mobilized a total of 700,000 men and is able to recruit many more. Thanks to Western aid, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are being constantly supplied with weapons and their soldiers are by now far better equipped. It enjoys another crucial advantage: The morale is as high as can be in a defensive and prolonged war. Yet, reclaiming ground means vast offensives, which, in turn, demand trained infantry, quantitative advantage over the defending side in the given theater, and enough artillery and armored transport to carry out the task. As of mid-October, Ukraine was mostly focused on the Kherson and Luhansk regions, either because they lacked the power for another offensive or because they were waiting for the right moment. There is also the “Belarussian problem”: Lukashenko’s regime in Minsk is Putin’s ally, and although reluctant to invade, its belligerent stance forces Ukraine to keep detachments on the northern border to forestall any calamities.
Internal Tensions in Russia
Along with total mobilization (popularly referred to in Russia as “mogilization”—from “mogila,” a grave), the collapse in northeastern Ukraine triggered unprecedented criticism of the ministry of defense and the general staff even among “patriotic” bloggers and propagandists. After the loss of strategically vital Lyman, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov grilled the commander of the Central Military District, Colonel-General Alexander Lapin. “If I had my way I would have demoted Lapin to private, would have deprived him of his awards and would have sent him to the front line to wash off his shame with a rifle in his hands,” menaced Kadyrov. Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the man behind recruiting the Wagner mercenaries and prisoners, followed suit. The reaction of the Kremlin? The Chechen leader was promoted from colonel to colonel-general, indicating that the Kremlin is making Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and his subordinates to be the scapegoats.
In addition, Russia lacks one integrated army fighting in Ukraine. Instead, there are four or five different loosely coordinated forces: the corps from the “Republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk, the Russian regular army, Wagner mercenaries, the National Guard, and Kadyrov’s combatants (who, formally, are subject to the National Guard). To address the chaos, on October 8, Putin installed General Surovikin as the supreme commander of the “special military operation,” but little has changed so far.
Meanwhile, Russian extensive missile and UAV attacks on Ukrainian cities and energy infrastructure in October achieved none of the military goals (if there were any) but have already backfired. Germany rushed to send the first of four promised IRIS-T SLM air defense systems, the US is about to send two NASAMS (networked short-to-medium range air defense systems), and the UK, France, the Netherlands, and other countries pledged more military aid.
All of this is not good news for Putin himself. Although playing off the different interests of power groups around him, he becomes ever more dependent on his current internal allies. The more he pays for being seen as untainted, the weaker he becomes. Abbas Gallyamov, Putin’s former speechwriter and currently an independent political adviser, suggested recently that the referenda in occupied Ukrainian territories were publicly forced upon Putin by separatists, while he himself wanted to postpone them in order to negotiate. Putin had to yield, suggested Gallyamov.
The war has already put Russia in a rather precarious situation. The non-military budget is dwindling. Social and health spending is about to be cut by 10%. IMF projects -3.4% decrease in GDP. Gas revenues, which skyrocketed during the summer, have plunged because there is no compensation for the loss of the European market. Oil sanctions are due in December. As the mobilization continues and losses mount, with many households left without their main income earner, social tensions brew. Finally, with the myth of “the second army of the world” shut down and Russia’s international prestige lowered, the prospects for the current regime in Moscow are as bad as they look.
Russia is losing the war. The question is when and at what price will it come to an end.