After the Russian military failed to take Kyiv in the opening weeks of their full-scale invasion of Ukraine and refocused, at least for now, on eastern Ukraine, they have made modest gains, while reports of Ukrainian casualties and alleged poor morale proliferated. Some even concluded that the Russians finally had momentum. Ten weeks later, it is again obvious that momentum favors the Ukrainians—and the Russians’ desperate attempts to mitigate the problem will only exacerbate it.
Case in point: British intelligence believes that Russia has lost over 50,000 men, more than a quarter of its original invading force, and the Russian military (or, more precisely, its mercenaries, the Wagner Group) is reportedly enlisting prisoners for reinforcement. This is not an original gambit, which is why the Russian high command should know that it will backfire.
Nazi Germany experimented with penal units starting in 1941. At the time, the war was not looking bad for Germany from the outside, but this desperate move suggested internal problems. Indeed, it was an early indicator of the momentum the Allies were going to gain within months. Second, one thing felons have in common is a disregard for rules, authority, and discipline—a cardinal military vice. One’s intuition might suggest that prisoners are free and expendable soldiers. But they became an additional burden, a net negative, for the Wehrmacht. Instead of fighting to earn their freedom, they disobeyed orders and tried to flee. Instead of focusing on employing their forces against the enemy, the units’ commanders had their hands full trying to prevent mass desertion (often unsuccessfully). The Dirty Dozen is a great movie, but, in the real world, odds are that a unit of felons will fail because you get many more Archer Maggots than Joseph Wladislaws.
Russia will likely face similar problems—and their commanders are less skilled than the Germans’ were. So far, the Wagner Group has consisted of expendable losers, but effective ones nonetheless. With the new additions, the group will remain just as expendable but less effective, which doesn’t bode well for the life expectancy of their soldiers. Further, lawless felons who would commit atrocities against Ukrainian civilians will inspire resistance and insurgency. These are not secrets, and the Russian military is aware of them. So taking this risk suggests desperation, and we can only conclude that Russia’s manpower problems are much worse than they appear.
The increase in the quality of Ukrainian weapons is also coinciding with the decrease in the quality of the Russian weapons. The Ukrainian military has operationalized its new HIMARS—and the trajectory (pun intended) of the conversation in the United States suggests that more will arrive soon. The Pentagon’s announced the shipment of four more earlier this week. Congress is about to approve a program to train Ukrainian pilots on F-15 and F-16 jets. Though the appropriation of this money will likely not come until next year, it will give the administration Congressional purchase—and push—for the transfer of military aircraft to Ukraine, which the administration could do at any time.
On the other side of the front lines, the American and allied export controls on the transfer of military and dual-use goods prevent Russia from producing more advanced weapons, and the Ukrainian are proving adept at blowing up the ones the Russians are currently operating. As a consequence of the Ukrainian’s facility at blowing up high-tech Russian weapons, the Russian military is recycling old weapons like T-62 tanks, which were introduced before the Cuban Missile Crisis and deployed with embarrassing results by Iraq during the Persian Gulf War and Russia during the Russo-Georgian War.
Ukraine’s greatest worry, under the current circumstances, is not strictly military but economic. Projections suggest that it might lose up to 45 percent of its $198 billion GDP this year. In contrast, the highest estimate is that Russia might lose 15 percent of its $1.4 trillion GDP. But unlike Russia, Ukraine has received commitments from the free world totaling more than $65 billion in aid. Much of Ukraine’s drop in GDP has resulted from the 20 percent decline in population (which is horrifying to imagine) due to casualties, abductions, and emigration, whereas Russia’s GDP is declining while its population is stable, a short-term advantage for Ukraine. Furthermore, Vladimir Putin has not mobilized the Russian economy fully and the Russian people psychologically, which means his population is unprepared for the hardships it will endure. President Zelensky can afford, politically speaking, a sharp drop in Ukraine’s standard of living as long as he keeps fighting. Simply put, Ukrainians have a higher threshold for pain than the Russians because, for Ukrainians, this is a war for survival, while, for Russians, it’s a war of choice. Yet there remains a need for foreign commitments to rebuild the Ukrainian economy simultaneously as the country is fighting and assuring both Volodymyr and Vladimir that aid will keep coming as long as it is needed.
If Putin were willing to mobilize the Russian economy fully, Russia could conquer Ukraine, at least on paper. But to do so would require acknowledging that he has started a “war,” a word he continues to imprison people for using, instead of “special military operation,” which is a polite little euphemism for something going on a very long way away and don’t you worry about it. But this technical euphemism has real world effects. A declaration of war, under Russian law, would unleash enormous resources, from people (non-convicts) subject to conscription to industrial mobilization. Those resources could be sufficient to win the war. But unlocking those assets would require the government to come clean about the scale of the war. A legal declaration of war would also give extraordinary wartime power to the security ministries in Russia, which could be used against Putin in a coup. Unlike Volodymyr, Vladimir is not too confident about where he stands domestically. He’s signaling that, if he doesn’t end this war soon, the war will end him. So, at least politically speaking, time is not on his side.
Which brings us to the last Ukrainian advantage: judgment. Rushed and panicked leaders, like anyone else, make mistakes. Out of fear, desperation, or impatience, they make bad decisions. After the disaster in Russia, a desperate Napoleon made every wrong decision, violating his own military maxims. In a crunch and fearing he’d lose his moment, Adolf Hitler invaded the Soviet Union too early. Even cruel tyrants are still human, made of flesh and blood, susceptible to all human flaws like the rest of us, prone to bad judgment under duress and stress. If it is true that Putin is under treatment for cancer and has survived an assassination attempt, then how much energy and focus must he have to focus on turning around a military calamity? Even if he is healthy, Putin turns 70 this October and lacks the physical stamina of his 44-year-old Ukrainian counterpart to be a wartime leader the Russian military needs.
President Zelensky has pledged that his country will fight until the full territorial integrity of Ukraine is restored. Getting Crimea back might be too ambitious. But as for the rest, why not? Everything is in his favor.