Ticktock goes the Kremlin clock. May 9th is looming, the militaristic highlight of Russia’s official calendar. The armed forces will goosestep across Red Square, while fearsome weapons systems, some of them usable, will trundle over the cobblestones.
The bombast celebrates the epoch-defining victory over Nazi Germany 78 years ago. More recent triumphs are harder to find; in the Ukraine war, Russia’s most serious military engagement since 1991, they are wholly absent. The sole bright spot lately has been the growth of Russian influence in Africa, spearheaded by the guns-for-hire Wagner Group. But that motley crew of mercenaries is unlikely to prompt a full-throated “Ura!” echoing off the Kremlin’s rose-red walls.
Nor is the Wagner Group’s boss cheering the Russian armed forces and their leaders. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s latest assessment of their performance in Ukraine is scathing. “We’ve turned the Russian army – the second army in the world – into what? Who the hell knows… What kind of army are we if we couldn’t even manage with teensy-weensy Ukraine?”
“It’s a complete mess everywhere, there’s no discipline. The army has everything, but there is absolutely no control, while there is an absolute paranoid gap between what is happening in the trenches, and what they know and think about in headquarters.”
The result: “Russia is on the brink of catastrophe… We need to stop deceiving the population and telling them that everything is fine.”
True, Prigozhin has his own agenda. He wants more ammunition for his men, embroiled in the lengthy and so far fruitless assault on the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut. He may harbor greater ambitions: he describes fears that Wagner Group, if better supplied, might turn its guns on the Russian leadership as “interesting” — hardly a clarion call of loyalty.
But his outburst highlights an important point. Western attention over-focuses on Ukrainian decision-making. When will the offensive start? What will it prioritize? Are the stocks and training sufficient? Has the cost of defending Bakhmut been disproportionate? What is the definition of success? What will be the consequences of failure, real or perceived? These are all good questions, and it is true that Russian military setbacks will be the best boost for Western resolve. It is also true that answers to these questions should take account of the broader picture. If the West had done more, earlier, the strategic calculus would be different. Providing fighter aircraft would change it now.
The much harder question, though, concerns the Kremlin’s decision-making. Has Vladimir Putin lost his grip? Have demands for victory by May 9th made Russian generals reckless? Is Prigozhin right about Russian morale? What is the effect of the recent attacks (presumably by Ukrainian drones) on the fuel storage tanks in Sevastopol? Remember: Ukraine does not need to reconquer Crimea, at least at this stage. It just needs to make life there unattractive for the civilian Russian population. The great peninsular trophy of 2014 then becomes a hostage.
Reporting on these issues is hard; Russia is an increasingly closed society. Western journalists inside Russia risk imprisonment, and so do their sources. It is much easier to write about Ukraine.
But headlines are not deadlines. Ukraine’s forces are becoming ever-stronger, better trained, and equipped. Russia is experiencing (to put it mildly) some disagreements over strategy. If Prigozhin is right, their plight is worse than that.
Kyiv and Moscow are not just in different time zones; their decision-makers operate at a different tempo. Putin, a prisoner of his own propaganda, is in a hurry. Ukrainians, confident of victory, are not. So, set your watches according to the clocks in Kyiv. They tell the time right.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.