OPINION - Vladimir Putin knows this is a numbers game — and that he is losing badly

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

Only last week, few of us could place Lyman and the village of Dudchany on a map of Ukraine. Today they mark two of the biggest defeats of Russian arms in the Ukraine war – and these may prove decisive.

Lyman, logistics hub for the two oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, fell the day after Vladimir Putin had declared the two districts, as well as Kherson and Zaporizhzhia as sovereign Russian territory “to be defended forever.”

The advance on Dudchany, if anything, is more ominous for the Kremlin. After weeks of bloody stalemate, Ukrainian columns have pushed south along the west bank of the Dnipro river towards Kherson, and now threaten to encircle up to 20,000 Russian troops.

The lightning sweeps by mixed arms battlegroups of the Ukrainian army has even taken British and American advisers and analysts by surprise. The Ukrainian commanders have built up at least four highly agile corps, mini armies in effect, with skill and acute cunning.

“The Ukrainians have broken into the Russians’ decision loop. They are throwing more problems at them faster than they can solve them,” a western official explained yesterday.

After a three day visit to Kyiv last week, a party of British military and intelligence advisers and commanders have concluded for the first time that the Ukrainian forces are in a winning position. Final victory is not assured, but Ukraine is assessed as having one of the most effective armies in Europe now. It is very much a hybrid effort, with some elements harking back to the clan and Cossack wars of the past. They can be a rough crowd.

The Ukrainian soldiers have shown a surprising ability to innovate, improvise and adapt – stripping Russian kit on the battlefield and putting it to use within days. “The British Army has a lot to learn here,” a British officer confided, “they are using the equipment we have sent in ways not intended, and making it more effective.”

The failure of the Russian forces is the sticking point for Vladimir Putin. It may account for his hysterical oratory about the ‘devil worshipping West,’ at the rally in Red Square last Friday. He has claimed the Donbas and the south of Ukraine, but hasn’t the means to hold it.

The two leaders of the global autocrats’ club, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, suddenly look severely challenged in their bids for even greater power.

They had looked for mutual assurance and support. For Xi, looking for confirmation for another ten years at the top -- life presidency in effect – at the Party Congress, Putin is now a liability.

Xi has enough problems with the sustained impact of Covid, disruption of supply chains, and an ageing and disrupted workforce, to have to handle the fallout from Putin’s threat of starting a nuclear war.

The threat of a wider war – hitting infrastructure, such as underwater communications cables as well as gas pipelines – or using non-conventional weaponry, gas and chemicals as well as nukes, is Putin’s best, and almost only, shot for scaring the pants of his enemies. It could be in Ukraine or in the High Arctic, where one of the big nuclear submarines, the Belgorod, is now on manoeuvres.

The strongest advocate for a tactical release of a tactical nuke, is Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord who seems himself as captain of the Putin Praetorian Guard. Kadyrov was immediately slapped down by official spokesman Dimitri Peskov. Besides the Chechen units haven’t been too successful in Donbas this summer.

Like an old-style Chicago mobster, Putin knows it’s a numbers game. And the numbers are looking very bad for him now, despite his thinly disguised general mobilization.

Loss and damage to life have been heavy on both sides, but Ukraine still has momentum. Losses analyzed by the respected Jamestown Organisation in America seem staggering. According to two Russian specialists, Oleg Itshoki of Princeton and Maxim Mironov of Madrid university, there have been between 35,000 and 40,000 Russian combatants killed in Ukraine since February, and three times as many wounded. With those missing and deserting, Russia’s combat losses are near 150,000, say the professors. This is more than the 120,000 of the Russian army invading Ukraine last February.

These need to be replaced from the new call up of 300,000 – but training troops and equipment are in short supply. According to the UK MoD, 300,000 young males, most highly qualified, have fled Russia to avoid the draft.

The recruiting cohort of 20 to 30 year olds is stretched because of a birth rate collapse in the 1990s; young men of military age are in short supply.

Putin still has a lot of military equipment, including nukes, but now he faces a shortage in the resource he needs most. This is the human resource of young and not so young men willing to fight for him in a foreign land called Ukraine.