As of this morning, four days into its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has not achieved any of what we in the West assumed were his objectives. Taking Kyiv, for instance. Taking ANY Ukrainian city for that matter. As of right now, all Russia can claim to occupy is Ukrainian farmland. Whatever’s planted in those fields – in winter – the Russian Army now rules them with a rusting iron fist. We’re learning also that Russian tanks and vehicles are running out of fuel – with no resupply in sight. Ukrainians have shot down 14 warplanes, eight helicopters, destroyed 102 tanks, 536 armored vehicles, and killed more than 3,500 Russian soldiers. What Russia assumed – and what the rest of the world assumed right along with him – was that Ukraine’s fate was sealed the moment Vlad went to war.
Not only has that NOT been the case, but Vlad’s war machine looks suspect – like it’s been living on its reputation more than it’s actual accomplishments. Eight years ago – in the Russian military’s defense, they swept into and through Crimea – pretty much over a weekend. The Crimea was a much smaller operation – and the Russians had been allowed by treaty to “flood the zone” (and the military bases they owned in Crimea) with “thousands of extra soldiers” before attacking.
The battleground in the rest of Ukraine was nothing like the battleground in Crimea. If not for the subterfuge that launched the military campaign, the campaign could easily have failed for the very same reasons Putin’s Ukraine campaign is failing and – even if it found a way to compete here – would ultimate fail regardless. For starters, Crimeans didn’t oppose Russia’s invasion the way the rest of Ukraine is opposing Russia. As Afghanistan proved, few if any modern armies – including ours – can successfully combat a growing insurgency. First of all, occupiers (or people perceived as occupiers) can never win over enough hearts and minds. One can “conquer” a place without ever conquering the people who live there. If they’re like the French Resistance or the Viet Cong or the Ukrainians, their bond is stronger than their occupier’s could ever be. That bond cost their occupier money, manpower and prestige.
On paper, Russia’s military is justly terrifying. They’re terrifying on the battlefield – but not because they’re great soldiers who’ve been well-trained and are crystal clear on their objectives. It’s numbers, really, that Putin’s counting on. But then, that’s not actually a new thing. As vaunted as we imagine the Russian military is now – just as the Soviet military was vaunted in our minds during the Cold War – that vaunting might never have been warranted or justified.
Back in 1985, political journalist and writer Alexander Cockburn wrote a book called “The Threat” about how the “vaunted” Soviet military didn’t come close to earning its “vaunted” status. Cockburn reported on every single system in the Soviet military – from its conscripted foot soldiers to its nuclear attack force. The foot soldiers weren’t the heartless, soulless automatons we insisted they were. Almost none of them wanted to be in the army. The moment their one year conscription was up, they were out of there. If they weren’t dead or wounded.
Rather than being focused on how best to kill Westerners and capitalists, these soldiers focused on getting drunk and filling endless hours of boredom and homesickness. Since alcohol was forbidden, soldiers had to find other ways to get the alcohol buzz they craved. Some resorted to drinking anti-freeze – there’s alcohol in it. Airmen and air crews learned how to distill the brake fluid from fighter jets into something that though unpalatable got you plenty drunk.
Cockburn looked at the tanks that Western governments feared would over-run NATO’s borders en masse. During WWII and immediately afterwards, Russia produced massive quantities of T-34 tanks (with variations and “improvements” through the years). But a crap tank is a crap tank is a crap tank. And though T-34’s could overwhelm a battleground with sheer numbers, any army relying on the T-34’s superiority as a fighting machine was going to lose because in pure mechanical terms, the T-34 sucked in myriad ways. For every good quality the T-34 had, there were a dozen awful qualities that made the good qualities insignificant.
T-34’s, for instance, were great on roads – capable of some pretty high speeds for an armored vehicle. But, the second a T-34 went off-road – you know, where most actual combat is going to happen? The T-34’s Christie transmission took up a lot of internal space and it had poor stability in rough terrain. On the plus side, T-34’s had dense, hard armor that could withstand a fair amount of battleground fire. But that armor was susceptible to “spalling” if hit certain ways. While the armor would hold – and not be penetrated – parts of its interior side would break off because of the violent fire and ricochet around the tank’s cabin. That never ended well for the crew.
The T-34 was cramped, uncomfortable and, frankly, dangerous to be inside of. Cockburn wrote about how the crewmen responsible for loading shells into the tank’s gun often had their hands or limbs crushed or pulled off because the loading mechanism was terrible. In the cabin’s cramped quarters, it was nearly impossible for the gunners to avoid the danger. So, while one battle raged outside a T-34, a completely different battle could also rage inside the tank.
From system to system to system, the T-34 tank was far less than the Russians said it was and far less than we told ourselves it was. If you’re of a mind, this blog post has excellent receipts and analysis of the topic. The writer “Christos” (he describes himself as “a simple economist with an unhealthy interest in military and intelligence history” concludes “the T-34 is the victim of Soviet and German wartime propaganda. The Russians had every reason to build it up as the best tank of WWII. The Germans also overstated its performance in order to explain their defeats.”
To Cockburn, the T-34 is the poster child for the entire Soviet – and now Russian – military stance. It looks domineering and dangerous on the surface. It’s dangerous of course – because it’s armed (with nuclear weapons!) It’s because they’re dangerous that they dominate. If one stares the danger in the face – as Ukraine is doing today?
“The threat” posed by Putin becomes something entirely different. It’s not the threat of some Napoleonic Grand Armee. It’s the threat of a megalomaniacal schoolyard bully, trained as an espionage professional, rattling his sword. Had Putin been any kind of a leader or a Russian patriot, he would have used his power to transform Russia’s economy from one based almost entirely on oil to one based on a few things (including oil for the time being). But, such thoughts never occurred to Putin since all that oil flow was making him richer than rich.
Someone on Twitter proposed a GoFundMe backed campaign to pay off Russian soldiers in the battlefield – or offer them instant Ukrainian citizenship (so they never have to return to Russia). Missiles can’t win wars. They don’t. If anything, they make the people being bombed more resistant.
This is going to end badly for Russia and every Russian soldier in Ukraine. Perhaps it might not end so badly if they reconsidered their thinking about Ukraine. Maybe the real threat here is Ukraine – and the thing that’s being threatened is Vladimir Putin’s version of Russia.