Putin’s Killing Machine That Isn’t Working

Low morale, corruption and bad leadership define Russia's military

Putin’s Killing Machine That Isn’t Working
Last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to his left, inspects a joint military drill of Russian and Belarusian forces at an army base about 200 miles east of Moscow / Alexey Druzhinin / Sputnik / AFP via Getty Images

The Russian army is 13 miles from my rather fancy Airbnb flat on Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main thoroughfare, where I am typing this. The hot tub doesn’t work, but there is a war on. Every now and then the air raid sirens howl and artillery crumps sound; however, the last time I felt incoming through my boots was three days ago. The electricity is still on, the internet is still on, and I still wear my neon-orange, lucky beanie around the city. I am not a complete idiot: The hat gets me through Ukrainian National Guard checkpoints quickly. But more significantly, 22 days into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war, there are no Russian tanks on Khreshchatyk or anything like it. And that means the Kremlin’s blitzkrieg on Kyiv has gone to hell in a handbasket.

I know the Russians are out there, a long day’s walk from here. Last week my pal and fellow New Lines contributor Oz Katerji chanced his arm beyond the last Ukrainian checkpoint and came close to being nabbed by the Russian army at Irpin, a small satellite town northwest of Kyiv. He reversed and got back to safety. Four days ago, the Russians killed a U.S. reporter, Brent Renaud. Three days ago, a mortar round killed Irish videographer Pierre Zakrzewski and his Ukrainian producer, Oleksandra “Sasha” Kuvshynova, and injured reporter Ben Hall. All three worked for Fox News. The network initially downplayed Sasha’s death until a roar of disgust from the war-reporting community pushed Fox to get its act together. Deputy heads will roll.

The constant traffic jams, as cars packed with anxious parents and traumatized kids roll into Kyiv from occupied territory, are another clear sign that the Russians are still out there.

But for now at least, the Russian army is not moving any closer, and that makes me suspect that the fighting may have reached a tipping point, faster than people can imagine, against Putin’s killing machine. Fundamentally, the Russian army has turned out to be lacking, frankly, and there are three major reasons for this: poor morale, corruption and bad leadership.

Let’s start with the dead. A former British army special forces officer passing through Kyiv this week offered his analysis: “They’re not looking after their dead, and an army that does that tends to lose.” Morale of the Russian soldiers is low, poor, rotten — pick an adjective. The proof of that is the litter of corpses in Russian uniform after any major battle. A British man who has been serving in the Ukrainian army for some years said that five years ago, when the Russians attacked in the east, near Donetsk, one of the Ukrainians was killed and his body was in no man’s land. An officer insisted on a raiding party going in to get the body. “After that, our morale was very strong. We knew that even if we were going to die, our mates would look after us.”

The Russian army doesn’t look after its own. What goes for the dead goes for the injured too. Five years before the 2022 invasion, U.S. Army Capt. Nic Fiore wrote in a study of the Russian-Ukrainian war from 2014: “Medically, BTGs [Russian Battalion Tactical Groups] have very limited professional medical-evacuation (medevac) and field-treatment resources. Their inability to quickly get wounded soldiers advanced care increased deaths due to wounds, which had a large psychological effect, made their commanders more adverse to dismounted risk and reduced a BTG’s ability to regenerate combat power.”

In war, quantity is quality. The Russians hit Ukraine with 200,000 troops. But the Ukrainians have 200,000 in their armed forces and a further 100,000 in the police and other trained militia, even before you start counting the tractor drivers among the many willing volunteers. Invaders need a 3:1 ratio to defenders, so the Russians needed close to 1 million troops to have a good chance of winning. Which is why they are losing.

The Ukrainians say that 13,700 Russians have died. These numbers are impossible to verify, but pictures of the dead and the battles the Russians have lost suggest this number is not absurd. Out of caution, let’s assume the number of Russian dead to be 10,000. There is a rule of thumb that for every corpse, there are three injured soldiers. That would point to 30,000 injured or running away, so it’s likely that the Russians have lost 40,000 of their fighting force in the first three weeks of the war. That’s a fifth of the force they started with: not good for the collective spirit.

The Ukrainian website Euromaidan Press got hold of letters from Russian soldiers who have fought in the war refusing, point-blank, to go back. Sgt. Sapar M. Mirapov wrote to the commander of Military Unit #61899: “I consider it impossible to redeploy due to the unit’s poor organization, lack of communications and technical capability. [On my original tour], I arrived without understanding what I was doing there, without any explanation. I don’t want to be ‘cannon fodder.’ ”

Military Unit #61899 is the 27th Separate Guards Sevastopol Red Banner Motor Rifle Brigade, shock troops who fought in the Chechen and Syrian wars.

Sgt. Alexander A. Pugachev of the 9th Motor Rifle Division told his commander that he “refuses to participate again in the military hostilities in Ukraine due to the lack of logistical support, absence of coordination of actions, absence of any communication within the unit and with the command.”

Lt. A. Yegorov, a commander of the 9th Motor Rifle Division, wrote: “From the very beginning we were faced with [the command’s] deception and concealment of the true goals and tasks of the military deployment. Incomprehensible ‘military exercise tasks’ meant a dramatically different thing. … After crossing the border into Ukraine, we became an occupation army. We could tell that because of the reaction of the civilian population.”

Low morale stems from the second big reason for failure: Russia’s high command doesn’t give a damn about its people. It cares only about money. It is corrupt.

Let’s move on to the dog food. Russian soldiers eat the best possible nutritious rations of any military, so long as it’s dog food. You can get a flavor of what’s going wrong on the ground in Ukraine from a story Reuters ran 11 years ago. The news agency reported ex-Maj. Igor Matveyev saying: “It’s embarrassing to say, but soldiers here were fed dog food. It was fed to them as stew.” The tins of dog food were covered up with labels reading “premium quality beef.”

The Ukrainians have found abandoned Russian army vehicles with food rations with “eat by” dates from seven years ago. What is so gloriously ironic is that the man responsible is one of the Kremlin’s favorite gangster cronies, Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s Chef.” With close ties to Russian military intelligence, the GRU, Prigozhin, an ex-convict in Soviet times, has run troll farms and the murderous mercenary unit, the Wagner Group, named after Hitler’s favorite composer. His empire has taken over 90% of the business of supplying food to the Russian army. The Ukrainians have released several videos of starving Russian soldiers scavenging for food. And that’s down to Prigozhin and his boss.

Investigative journalist Christo Grozev has tweeted, “While Russian soldiers are starving and breaking into Ukrainians’ homes begging for bread, Prigozhin’s ‘not for sale’ military food rations have flooded Russia’s ebay-like sites at $3 a can.”

Corruption is killing Russia’s killing machine.

And then there is bad leadership. Putin launched a war without intelligence. He didn’t look over on the other side of the wall, and he didn’t ask somebody what’s on the other side. Or if he did, that person was afraid to tell him the truth: that Ukraine was going to fight. Bad leadership is the focus of Norman F. Dixon’s classic, “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence.” Putin is incompetent to lead his military, big time. He has a weak authoritarian personality, and he is afraid of his own death — hence the long table for the sit-down with French President Emmanuel Macron. He is supremely paranoid.

Paranoia is destroying the Russian army from within. Putin is a prisoner in his own high castle, just like Stalin. Shortly before he died, Stalin wrote, “I trust no one, not even myself.” The same is true of Putin. His terror of revealing his hand too early and it being leaked to the Americans was so great that there could be no planning with the army about the invasion. With only a day’s notice, the Russian general staff have been on the backfoot from the start, reacting and making things up as they went along — with disastrous results. Generals have been appointed on the basis of their fealty to the Kremlin — not their courage, not their competence. Servility is fine when an army is not fighting a difficult opponent. But the Ukrainian army has proved resilient beyond expectations.

Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov, both investigative journalists and experts on Russia’s security services, suggest that Putin’s paranoia is corroding trust inside the holy of holies, the Russian secret state. They report that the head of the FSB’s foreign intelligence service and its deputy are “being held after allegations of misusing operational funds earmarked for subversive activities and for providing poor intelligence ahead of Russia’s now-stuttering invasion.”

All three go straight back to the boss. Morale is poor because Putin doesn’t care about his people or his soldiers; corruption is rife in his army because, as Alexei Navalny told me, “He is the tsar of corruption”; and paranoia is what ex-KGB spies do instead of playing golf. Russia’s war is not going well, and there is only one person to blame. No wonder the gossip in Moscow is that the FSB chiefs are selling their dachas in Crimea.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy