When Russian tanks bombarded the nuclear core of the Zaporozhskaya power plant with live ammunition, not all the shells exploded because they were too old and decrepit. This story, told to me by Piotr Kotin, the boss of the company that owns the factory, is a metaphor for Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.
Today’s Russian army is a replica of Joseph Stalin’s Red Army, designed to saturate minefields with corpses. During World War II, while American generals parachuted into battlefields with their troops and shared their hardships, Soviet generals stayed away from the front lines and sent wave after wave of doomed conscripts against impregnable defenses. It is therefore not surprising that their successors asked the troops under their command to dig trenches in the highly radioactive soil of Chernobyl and sent units into the meat grinder of Chernobaivka.
The incompetent and corrupt Russian army has embarked on this war. The soldiers chose the wrong roads. Broken tanks litter the roads long before contact with the enemy: bogged down in mud, out of fuel and above all lost. In the 21st century, with satellites dotting the sky, the Russian military used outdated Soviet paper maps with cities that had changed names and roads that no longer existed.
Why didn’t Russian troops use the Global Positioning System or its Russian counterpart, Glonass? It seems, among other things, that the Russian army was the victim of its own propaganda. Before the war, Mr. Putin was fascinated by the acquisition of new weapons. Among the most important were electronic countermeasures, or ECMs. They were meant to be a game-changer and could be used to hide GPS, disrupt communications, and take control of drones or deliberately smash them to the ground.
ECM units indeed marched with all Russian columns when they entered Ukraine. But they didn’t work as expected. Instead of knocking the Turkish drones out of the sky, the ECM units cut off all communications, including those of the Russian military. “That’s the problem with the ECM. Either it doesn’t work, or when it does, it destroys your side much more than the enemy’s,” says Victor Kevluk, a military expert from the Ukrainian Center for Defense Strategies.
The Russian army blinded themselves in foreign lands, while the Ukrainians knew their way in the dark. So instead of relying on new technologies, the Russians turned to an old tactic: mass terror. Russian soldiers raped Ukrainian women and executed Ukrainian men. Mariupol is shaved. Former Ukrainian General Staff Colonel Oleg Zhdanov vividly described to me in an interview how in Berezovka “dug-in tanks made a firing range with fleeing civilian cars as targets.”
Mass terror was the direct result of mass lying, as it is easier to spend ammunition on a group of fleeing civilians than to engage a real military target. Even looting has been organised. Ruslan Leviev, founder of the open-source Conflict Intelligence Team, claimed in an interview that soldiers were driving stolen cars loaded with loot into Russia to sell them in makeshift markets, and were paying part of the profits to their officers.
It’s really unbelievable. A modern army does not loot. It is unlikely that the same army that left trophy dishwashers in Bucha can quickly regroup to fight in the Donbass.
How did Mr. Putin think he could win this war? The answer has to do with state illusion. It is easy to confuse Russia with a military state. This is not the case. It is true that the Russian state is run by siloviki (roughly translated as “the forces of order”), but these strongmen belong to the Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, and not to the army.
Mr. Putin, himself a former KGB officer, has long been very suspicious of a possible military coup. The Russian military’s incompetence is at least partly intentional – designed to reinforce the fact that the FSB, not the military, was in charge of running Russian society. The FSB and its political allies told Mr. Putin what he wanted to hear: that Russia had a vast network of sympathizers in Ukraine who would hand the country over to him. A state with this level of incompetence and delusion simply would not have survived the 19th century.
Things are different today. Sanctions are much preferred to direct fights. And while economic sanctions can isolate a rogue regime, they cannot crush it. Mr. Putin got a lot of things wrong in his current war, but he got one thing right. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will not go to war against Ukraine. And this is perhaps the main reason why it needs to be crushed. Otherwise, other Vladimir Putins will follow, including those with a much firmer grip on reality.
Ms. Latynina was a journalist at Echo of Moscow and Novaya Gazeta, Russian media outlets that were shut down during the Russia-Ukraine war.
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