The Ukrainian war has not turned out the way Russia expected. News is rife that Putin was not apprised of deficiencies within the military including the now controversial deployment of conscripts outside Russia that is against Russian law.
Putin’s umbrage over Russia’s war strategy’s shortcomings became evident in sidelining defense minister General Sergei Shoigu who was one of masterminds in the early days of the invasion but has since disappeared. During the first month of the war, analysts were unable to determine the top commander responsible for leading the war in Ukraine, a factor which could have contributed to the apparent disorganization of the Russian assault especially in the first month. Without a theater-wide commander, units from different Russian military battalions operating in different parts of Ukraine appeared to be competing for resources rather than coordinating their efforts.
Russia did enter the war overestimating their own military capabilities and underestimating the resolve of the Ukrainians along with their military and logistical preparedness.
Apart from incorrect assumptions and oversight, systemic corruption in Russia’s defense and security sectors has apparently contributed to Russia’s incorrect assessments. This point has been slowly coming to fore. However, a corrupt defense sector does not mean that Russia has exhausted its resources and logistics. On the contrary, it still has extensive capabilities and numerous troops to be used in combat along with the real possibility of deploying tactical nukes. But whatever gains the military might make, they will have to do so while co-opting the challenges caused by rampant military corruption from erroneous risk assessment at almost all levels of Russian military and political establishment.
The logistical deficiencies like inadequate ration and fuel shortages may be traced from years of fund embezzlements in Russia. It is intriguing that Russia’s advancement in Ukraine has suffered setbacks by a lack of fuel for troop carriers and tanks. Fuel is often called Russia’s second currency. Military fuel contracts have been susceptible for embezzlement and analysts have argued that many technological innovations, including those that could increase the precision of Russian strikes, have never materialized due to gaft, embezzlement and fraud.
A 2020 report by the Transparency International’s Government Defence Integrity Index showed Russia’s defence sector to have high corruption risk. Corruption in Russian defense is not limited to the military-industrial complex but descends into the political class as well. To give a few examples, Putin detained Antoly Tikhonov, deputy energy minister on allegations of funds embezzlement in September 2020. Top investor Michael Calvey was found guilty of embezzlement in 2021. A long criminal case is also underway against long serving ex- deputy PM Arkady Dvorkovich.
From the beginning of the century, the class that Putin created to rule Russia with a firm hand evolved into a kleptocracy with the rich getting richer by appropriating the resources of the state.
Putin’s Military strategy:
Certain patterns emerge when we look at the way the war in Ukraine has unfolded.
Putin’s initial strategy was to achieve a quick military victory over Ukraine that could not be accomplished and forced Russia to recalibrate its strategy.
The recalibrated strategy saw Russia get a new theater commander Genereal Alexander Dvornikov for the Ukrainian war and launching of multiple fronts in a bid to ramp up pressure on Ukraine to give in to Russia’s demands. Intensifying Russian offensive saw the use of thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles, along with hypersonic missiles like Kinzhal and Iskander M. Even with intensified offensive, the political objectives could not be achieved as Ukraine kept launching counter offensives riding the wave of almost uninterrupted Western aid and ammunitions and specially the thousands of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) like the Javelins and Stingers. The most recent Ukrainian counter offensive saw the destruction of Russia’s Moskva Cruiser allegedly by two Neptune anti-ship missiles.
Russia then has been forced to further intensify its attacks and now seems to be focusing on key axes. The main focus is on eastern Ukraine specially Luhansk and Donesk. This focus is supported by an axis focusing on Kharkiev and Izyum. Another crucial axis is focusing on Mariupol which the Russian forces are keen on taking as it will release resources and troops to focus on other axes on attacks. The fourth supporting axis seems to be Kyiv and north eastern Ukraine. Apart from these, attacks on Lviv have also been witnessed because that is where the West’s arms and ammunitions are coming from.
Vladimir Putin might have to deliver a favorable outcome by 9th May because that will be victory day in Russia. Occupation authorities of Mariupol announced on 20 April 2022 that Russian and DNR forces will hold a “Victory Day” parade on May 9. Russian forces may undertake hastily organised offensive actions to clear Azvostal before this date.
In all of the above the key variable of logistics is going to be decisive. The war in Ukraine is costing Russia a whopping $10-20 bn every day from the war chest that Putin had been preparing for years. With no decisive end in sight, no known contingency plan in case the Eastern offensive doesn’t fetch favorable outcomes and May 9 deadline nearing , Putin will be under more pressure to achieve the political and military objectives by resorting to nuclear or chemical weapons citing an existential threat to Russia. Clearly then, the war is set to enter a harder phase which will be as difficult for Ukraine to fight.
Logistics also impacts the Ukrainians. For the east, they are likely to require larger amounts of artillery ammunition, fuel and other items whether they are on the offensive or operating defensively. For increasing the cost of the war for Russia the West needs to send Ukraine more and better weapons.
Conclusion: NATO’s eastward expansion is often cited as the most convincing argument for Russia launching a military operation against Ukraine. But closer scrutiny of the Russian state after the collapse of the Soviet Union presents an alternate explanation. Government propaganda in Russia has successfully promoted the narrative that the West led by United States weakened Russia during the 1990s and ensured that the Soviet Union ceased to exist, for ever — even on the map.
With NATO as the principal aggressor, erstwhile Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine were deemed as traitors and potential enemies of Russia. Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 made his popularity soar to a level that only Joseph Stalin had enjoyed.
But the above mentioned narrative does not account for how the opaque financial flows and an entangled network of ex-KGB officers, with its roots in the 1990s, came together in a distinctive system of corruption. The systemic corruption serves as a tool of Russian influence in other post-Soviet states, many of them democracies. But the caveat is that it also creates vulnerabilities that can make Russia prone to reckless and extreme measures. The Russian military vulnerabilities in the Ukrainian war is one of the products of its systemic corruption that has thrived under Putin. The direction of the war will now depend on how far Putin is planning to ramp up the Russian offensive to claim victory.