The cat is out of the bag. The Russian citizenry can now be quite sure there’s a real war on, with real people dying.
Something about a 300,000-man military draft — more likely a million — serves to focus the mind. It was only a matter of time before even the most brainwashed of parents would figure out that their sons were highly likely to be blown to pieces sometime soon.
Who would have thought Putin’s hermetically-sealed information bubble would be pierced, not by liberals or intellectuals or human rights activists, but by the militant right?
I suppose it does make a certain weird sense. The left has either fled the country, gone to jail, or — in most cases — opted to shut up and lay low for a decade or so.
So it’s the far right that, curiously, is giving Putin the most heartburn. Specifically, it’s the ultra-militarist bloggers on Telegram — boasting millions of followers — who are reporting from the front lines of the war. And they’re telling it like it is.
These unofficial military reports, which openly second-guess the conduct of the war, are making it through the bubble. They’re being posted by allies of the regime, by people Putin can’t afford to alienate — the Christian nationalists, white supremacists, and true believers who buy his bullshit about making Russia great again.
And they’re angry. They see very well that Russia is getting its ass kicked all over Ukraine. They’re telling their followers about the realities of life on the battlefield, and the embarrassment of seeing Russian soldiers running from enraged Ukrainians who keep digging up the graves of civilians tortured and murdered by those same Russian soldiers.
The bloggers, most of them ex-military, are hyper-critical of the war’s progress — the strategy, the tactics, the logistics, the army generally, and Putin particularly. They’re demanding the complete obliteration of Ukraine, and they want all the resources of the Motherland dedicated to that end, including mass mobilization of the citizenry.
And it seems they’ve hit a nerve in the Kremlin. Because the big mobilization Putin so desperately wanted to avoid is now underway. This is being seen as a victory for the right, but as victories go it leaves much to be desired.
For one thing, the realities of the war are now out there and available for anyone to see. Yes, the reports from the front have a right-wing slant, but senseless death transcends ideologies.
Add to that the phone calls that are already coming in from the kids at the front — scared calls to seething moms — and we can see why Putin was so reluctant to call for a draft.
For a while this summer, I feared that the collective attention span of the West was slipping away from Ukraine, that we were all failing to appreciate the huge hit Ukraine was taking for every other Western country.
But then the Ukrainians delivered some staggering blows against the empire. A head fake to the south. A haymaker to the north. And there was Russia, down on the mat.
Suddenly, Russian soldiers, scattered all over eastern Ukraine, were dropping their weapons, peeling off their uniforms, stealing cars, and hightailing it back home any way they could.
Not that their prospects back home were any better. Many will get fifteen years in the gulag for desertion. But many more will likely be turned right around and sent back to the front, now as conscripts.
Russian military doctrine has, for centuries, emphasized a brute force approach to war. Leveraging the country’s enormous population, it calls for the total obliteration of enemy positions with overwhelming artillery, followed by total assault with overwhelming numbers. If, in the process, there are overwhelming casualties, that’s totally acceptable.
It was true under the tsars, under Stalin, and now under Putin — being in the front line of a Russian infantry assault has almost always been seen as a death sentence. Not coincidentally, Russian women have always outnumbered their men by an unusually wide margin.
The latest crop of Russian cannon fodder is being reaped as we speak. Reluctant recruits are being yanked out of offices, schools, factories, and farms, and shipped directly to an army facility where they can be badly trained, armed with weapons that are obsolete by several decades, and sent to the worst hell on Earth.
The press has spoken of “morale problems” in the Russian army, but that grotesquely understates the case. The troops don't know what they're doing in Ukraine. They're underfed and poorly clothed, even as a bad winter approaches. They’re low on ammunition, low on medical supplies, and their trucks and tanks are breaking down in alarming numbers. Their planes are being stripped for spare parts. Their command centers, ammo dumps, and warships are being destroyed by Western technology they can’t hope to replicate.
And they’re being shot at by the best-equipped, most highly-motivated army in recent history.
Meanwhile, back home, Putin has dusted off the entire totalitarian playbook. He has brutally put down all dissent, and the whole country has slipped back into that paranoid silence, so familiar to the older generation from the Soviet era, of life in a police state.
Except now people are starting to understand what’s going on. Between the pissed-off bloggers who want a bigger and better war, and the pissed-off parents who aren’t ready to sacrifice their sons, the one thing they all have in common is their disgust with Putin.
And they’re not the only ones. At the recent “dictators’ club” summit in Uzbekistan, Putin was ignored by Xi of China and openly dissed by Modi of India. Yet there he was, hat in hand, desperate to sell them gas at fire-sale prices. Even his so-called friends are deserting him.
This just makes him more dangerous than ever. Certainly to Ukraine, but also to his own people, whose capacity for bleakness, privation, and institutional cruelty is historically boundless.
So it's hard to say where this is all going. The drafting of a million recruits into a military that’s clearly incapable of absorbing them is no small matter. Their training, equipment, weaponry, logistics, and leadership are all guaranteed to be atrocious. And their attitude couldn’t be worse.
All of which Putin could tolerate, if only they could deliver something he could spin as a victory. But even that seems beyond his reach. He’s losing, he’s humiliated, he’s under pressure from all sides. And everybody knows it.
His situation might just be hopeless. Or not.