The Russians continue to murder both Ukrainians and their own young men for Putin’s mad scheme.
By Tom Nichols
Jan 3, 2023
Over the holiday weekend, the Russians fired a wave of missiles at Ukraine—all of which Ukraine claims to have stopped in the first complete defeat of such an attack in this war. Meanwhile, a Ukrainian strike killed scores of Russians at a makeshift military headquarters.
The Russians, according to the Ukrainian government, fired more than 80 weapons (mostly, it seems, Iranian-made drones) at Ukraine since the start of the new year, and the Ukrainians claim they intercepted every one of them. But the attack is more evidence that Russia’s war on Ukraine is, at this point, an attempt to murder civilians and torment the survivors enough to press their government to capitulate. The Russians, of course, have misjudged their enemy: The Ukrainians have no intention of surrendering and are fighting back with great effectiveness. The Russian high command learned this yet again over the holiday weekend, when the Ukrainians scored a direct hit on a makeshift Russian barracks, killing at least 89 soldiers.
I write “at least” 89 because that is the number the Russians admit were killed, and therefore it is almost certainly a lie meant to hide larger casualties. Igor Girkin, once a separatist commander in eastern Ukraine, has become a constant critic of Vladmir Putin’s war effort; he claims that the soldiers were bunked in the same building as ammunition, and that the ensuing conflagration killed and wounded “hundreds,” which is likely closer to the truth. Dara Massicot, an analyst at the Rand Corporation (and, I’m pleased to note, one of my students when I taught at the Naval War College), told me today that given the “nature of the destruction at that facility, the official Russian numbers are likely significantly undercounting casualties,” and that reports from Russian social-media channels (often more reliable than official communications) suggest that 200 to 300 men could have been lost.
The successful Ukrainian defense and the Russian losses are good news for Ukraine. Every bit of optimism, however, must be tempered by two realities. First, Ukraine remains outnumbered and potentially outgunned by a much larger Russian Federation. The Ukrainians have survived this far through a combination of excellent strategy, the resilience of its people and their leaders, an infusion of highly lethal Western weapons, the courage of the men and women on the front lines, and a mind-boggling amount of Russian incompetence and stupidity.
The second reality, however, is that the Russians don’t really care about losses. They are willing to sacrifice their own men by the truckload. We are all rightly appalled by the damage the Kremlin is willing to inflict on Ukraine and its people in its unprovoked aggression, but Putin’s cruelty extends to his fellow citizens: He is sending untrained, under-provisioned, and poorly
armed men to their death literally to try to plug the holes in his lines with human meat—which is what one of their own commanders has reportedly called them. The Russian president hates Ukrainians, but he and his senior officers seem to hate their own men nearly as much.
Meanwhile, on New Year’s Eve—with so many Russian soldiers only hours from being killed in their bunks—Putin’s minions hosted a televised party that defies description. Performers put on cheesy song-and-dance numbers seemingly lifted from 1970s Soviet pop culture while Russian officers (whose gaudy dress uniforms looked like they were stolen from the palace guards of a James Bond villain) looked on with forced smiles. Parts of the telecast looked as if they had been shot elsewhere and then chroma-keyed into the production, adding a shiny gloss of unreality to the whole mess. One of the hosts, decked out in a red velvet tux, even chortled a cartoonishly evil threat into the camera: “Like it or not, Russia is enlarging!”
That’s a pretty daring claim to make while Russian forces are on the defensive and men are being buried in the rubble of their base. The whole event, like so much of what’s broadcast on Russian television now, seemed like a mash-up of a Soviet variety show, the dystopian news and TV ads from Robocop, and the galas for the rich elites from The Hunger Games, with hosts as creepy as, if less polished than, Caesar Flickerman and Effie Trinket.
This tacky, over-the-top Russian decadence is all the more striking when we think back to Putin’s ostensible reasons for launching this war. He and his lieutenants promised to save the Ukrainians from Nazis, and then from the immoral West and its rich overlords and sexual deviants. He would gather his fellow Slavs under the protective wings of the Russian eagle. Instead, Putin and his Kremlin toadies are blowing those same Slavs to pieces while they themselves swan around wearing fantastically expensive designer clothes and jewelry, dancing and laughing it up while they send Russian boys to their doom.
I still do not know how this all ends. Putin’s barbarism means that it is impossible, even once the war is over, for Russia to reenter the ranks of the civilized world. As I said recently in a discussion with Ian Bremmer and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Russia is now a nuclear-armed rogue state with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. I disagreed with President Joe Biden’s gaffe back in March about how Putin “cannot remain in power,” but I understood the frustration that led to Biden’s outburst. Even if Putin is somehow removed, however, why would anyone give a new Russian regime the benefit of the doubt, at least without war-crimes trials of the “leaders” who launched this blood-soaked misadventure?
Ukraine will survive, recover, and be rebuilt with aid from around the world. But Russia, willing to watch its own men burn in their bunkers for the sake of a dictator’s ego, will have a long way to go before it can again lay claim to being part of a community of nations.