February 28, 2022 4.03 pm

Barry Turner: Putin is all dressed up, but has nowhere to go

Russia has spent a fortune on rebuilding its military under its current belligerent president. It does not look like money well spent. 

We are five days in and so far the overwhelmingly large forces of Vladimir Putin’s Russia have failed to consolidate their hold over the Ukraine. The last several years have seen Putin constantly harping on about the superiority of Russia’s forces over those of NATO, let alone of a largely peaceful and much smaller neighbour, so what is going wrong?   

It is correct that the last couple of decades have seen the Russian Federation shift from a largely World War 2 style mass conscript army to one more resembling those that Putin regards as the enemy.  Nevertheless, the modernisation seems to be lacking somewhere. There are some very interesting theories circulating in the military and security circles.

Russia, in its attempt to change from a largely mass conscript army to a professional high-tech outfit has largely failed due to internal competition. In particular logistics are poor and transport has been sacrificed in order to focus on high-tech kit. This was evident in the satellite images in the weeks running up to the invasion. Lots of sharp-end weaponry but proportionately surprisingly few transport vehicles.

As in many armed forces, inter-service rivalry diverts resources one way or the other, giving advantage to some at the expense of disadvantage often to many. The Russian military has some impressive hardware that its president loves to brag about. Huge amounts of funding have in recent years been diverted to developing hypersonic missiles, but this largely vanity project is of no use in urban warfare of the type they are now engaged in.   

In 2015 the EU conducted a detailed survey of the Russian military capability and concluded it could fight short wars but not protracted ones. It had virtually no equipment or strategy to maintain a sustained invasion of the type that had been envisioned in the Cold War when mass tank armies were suggested to be paused for an attack through the Fulda Gap in Germany. It still does not have sufficient troops or logistical support to occupy the whole of a country the size of Ukraine.

It is clear that the Russian military had suggested to the President Putin that the attack on Ukraine would bring about rapid capitulation by Zelensky’s government, probably in time to destabilise the West’s imposition of severe sanctions. That, it is now clear has failed. While Russian troops are now in the process of surrounding Kyiv, they have no clear strategy for taking the city by force. Taking a major city is incredibly difficult without causing mass destruction and high casualties, including casualties to one’s own forces.

Of all people, the Russian Military know this from their history. In the Battle for Berlin at the very end of World War 2 close to 90,000 Soviet soldiers were killed and 280,000 wounded taking the city. Soviet tanks were devastated by single infantry soldiers with little more than crude bazooka type weapons. Ukrainian soldiers have anti-tanks weapons of far more sophistication and they know their way around the streets.

Tanks are particularly vulnerable in urban areas as has been frequently demonstrated since World War 2. The Ukrainians have lots of highly effective anti-tank weapons and even a Molotov cocktail can disable a tank in street fighting. During the Gulf War insurgents disabled a US Abrams tank, supposedly the best armoured fighting vehicle in the world, with an overcoat shoved down the barrel.

So far the Russians have avoided mass casualties among the civilian population and their own forces. Putin’s intention was to turn the people of Ukraine into a puppet state so killing very large numbers of them couldn’t be countenanced. At home in Russia very high casualties among the Ukrainian civilian population would cause mass unrest, as will very high casualties among the Russian armed forces.

The biggest indicator yet of the invasion’s failings are the absurd threats of putting the nuclear forces on ‘alert’. This posturing fools no one, since both NATO and Russian nuclear forces are always on ‘alert’. The Russian president knows very well that an attack with nuclear weapons on a NATO target would end in total destruction for the Russian state and more frighteningly for the majority of the Russian population. NATO has 22 ballistic missile submarines in total — if the French Force de dissuasion is included and 18 if not. Any one of them is capable of delivering at least 80 independently targeted warheads and there can be as many as six or seven on station at any one time.

So, nuclear threats are if anything a little pathetic. The Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) is still with us and neither side could possibly hope to ‘win’ a nuclear war. Threatening one is an act of desperation not one of bravado.

It is now possible that Russia will lose this war, or at the very least not win it. With every day that passes Putin’s hope that the Ukraine would quickly capitulate against ‘overwhelming’ forces diminishes. The West needs to consider in more detail what the consequences of that might be. While it is very unlikely to be World War 3 a dramatic reshaping of the geo-political and economic world is now inevitable.

On a final note, Mr Putin has lamented the dissolution of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest tragedies in human history. He seems to have forgotten why that dissolution happened.  NATO won the Cold War, not with bombs and bullets but with the invincible force of economics.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.