Russia’s military experts, even those wholly loyal to the Kremlin, are getting tetchy and are increasingly sounding the alarm that the prolongation of hostilities will rebound against Russia.
Those doubts about the course of events are increasingly shared by the public. In mid-July, independent sociologists from the Chronicles research project noted that during a period of about six weeks, the number of Russians declaring support for the so-called special military operation decreased by 9%, from 64% to 55%. This is the lowest level since the beginning of the war and, according to the researchers, this decline is expected to continue.
Interestingly, about a month ago pro-Kremlin Telegram channels also recognized that even with the high level of patriotic sentiment and a popular readiness “to confront the entire West,” Russian society is expressing a clear desire to end the special operation as soon as possible.
The doubts of Russian military experts are new, specifically their calls for an early end to the active phase of the war. Their arguments are clothed in acceptable regime propaganda (that a protracted war is beneficial to the West and “Kyiv nationalists”) but the key message is that Russia must not allow this to happen.
The head of the Center for the Study of Public Applied Problems of National Security, former GRU Colonel Alexander Zhilin, a hardliner and regular performer on state propaganda channels, recently argued in faintly apocalyptic terms that a protracted war would lead to, “the destruction of economies, the bleeding of armies, the inflicting of large losses on the potential of two warring countries,” and that it risked Russia’s relegation “to the sidelines” of world politics. He compared calls to increase the intensity of hostilities with US actions in Vietnam, acknowledged the fact that innocent unarmed people have died, and called for a non-military solution so that Russia can live next to Ukraine “and have any prospects of normalizing relations.”
At the end of July, several articles with a similar theme appeared on the Military Review website, which is close to the Russian Ministry of Defense. In one of them, author Alexander Odintsov pointed out that the Russian “strategy of limited and remote strikes against the Ukrainian Armed Forces” has reached its limit, while the Ukrainian army has displayed unexpected resilience and is ready to die for its ideas.
Accordingly, if the Russian army plans to cut off Ukrainian formations from the rear in order to completely deprive them of supplies, it needs to at least double its forces. If the Kremlin is planning an even broader attack in the direction of Nikolaev and Odesa “with the aim of completely encircling them and opening the road to Transnistria”, its forces will have to be at least tripled. According to the military expert, in order to launch a decisive offensive, as described by propagandists, Russia will have to “increase the number of [deployed troops] by at least 1.5 times and restore parity in the field of UAVs [drones] and counter-battery defense in short order.”
Russia’s military operation faces real risks, Odintsov said. Its prolongation may start working against Russia, as Ukraine continues to increase its potential thanks to foreign weapons and a much wider call-up of manpower. Critically, Russian military experts fear that “with the first major failure, society’s attitude to power will change,” and that the Kremlin may simply not have enough resources for a long war (on August 1, it was recorded that Russia has now lost more than 5,000 armored vehicles in five months of the war.)
Similar warnings were voiced by another writer for the Military Review, Alexander Staver. He criticized the propaganda myth of “Slavic brotherhood”, emphasized that the main task should be the seizure of Donbas, and predicted possible strikes by Ukraine on the Crimean bridge, Simferopol, and Sevastopol (where a Russian Navy headquarters was struck for the first time by a Ukrainian drone on July 31.)
Data from independent analysts confirm the concerns of the Russian military experts. It is obvious that Russia lacks the resources to transition to a decisive offensive, one said. Another said that the majority of Russian society tends to passively support the war and is not ready to personally participate. That is why the Kremlin prefers the tactics of “hidden” mobilization.
As noted by the American Institute for the Study of War, the Kremlin likely ordered Russian regions to form volunteer battalions to participate in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, instead of declaring partial or full mobilization. According to researchers, such battalions could generate around 34,000 new servicemen by the end of August if each federal area produces at least one military unit of 400 men.
Another non-traditional method of attracting new soldiers is the recruitment of convicted criminals, conducted mainly through the Wagner mercenary group. According to independent media, at least three prisoners recruited in this way have died in Donbas. For six months of service, these “volunteers” are promised 200,000 rubles (about $3,200) plus an amnesty for those returning alive. According to prisoners’ relatives, these promises are not being officially recorded in any way, and the army will take anyone who wishes to go, regardless of previous military experience.
The prominent Russian human rights activist Olga Romanova also confirmed the recruitment of prisoners for the war. According to her, recruitment is conducted in all regions of Russia, and several hundred people can be recruited from each region. At the same time, there are no legal grounds for sending these people to the combat zone. These recruitment schemes were confirmed by the American Paul Whelan, imprisoned in a Russian colony on charges of espionage. In a press release sent by his brother David, it was said that about 10 prisoners from IK-17, where he is jailed, have gone to the front line.
Such measures may indicate the Kremlin’s lack of resources to wage without a general mobilization that it seems desperate to avoid. At the same time, Putin and his aides have rejected any idea of negotiating with Ukraine at this juncture.
That’s because he has allowed his propaganda narrative to paint him into a corner. The allegation that “Ukrainian Nazis will destroy the pro-Russian population of the south-east” does not allow the Kremlin much room to retreat from the occupied territories. In the eyes of propaganda consumers, such a retreat would look like a “betrayal of the Russian people, who have been waiting for liberation for eight years,” as the propagandists describe it. Meanwhile, the leadership of Russia’s puppet so-called Donetsk People’s Republic calls for the “further liberation of Russian cities, including Kyiv.”
For now, the Kremlin appears to believe that the neatest way to escape this impasse is to rapidly incorporate the occupied territories into Russia. The occupation authorities of the Russian-controlled part of the Zaporozhye region announced on July 14 that a referendum on joining the Russian Federation will be held in the early fall. Plans to annex all of the Zaporozhye and Kherson regions, as well as the entire Donbas, were also confirmed by American intelligence.
The Kremlin may hope that the annexation of new territories will lead to a new patriotic groundswell, as happened in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. If that is indeed Putin’s plan, it seems a flimsy basis for optimism. All the while, Ukraine’s counter-attacks are increasing and new units are being formed behind the front lines. Unless something radical changes, Russia’s military has plenty to worry about.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.