February 20, 2023
The anniversary of Putin’s invasion looms on February 24, and today U.S. President Joe Biden paid a secret and courageous visit to Kyiv to demonstrate “unwavering support” for Ukraine’s fight against Russian brutality. Biden and President Volodymyr Zelensky met, then walked onto the streets of Kyiv just as an air-raid siren sounded. “One year later, Kyiv stands,” Biden declared. “And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands.” When asked what his goal concerning this trip was, Biden said he wanted to show the world that the United States is “here to stay,” adding, “we’re not leaving.” Biden’s visit was timed to occur the day before Vladimir Putin’s expected speech (February 21) about his war. But Biden’s trip into a war zone upstaged that and underscored the reality that Putin has no path to victory.
Russia may bomb civilians, but cannot win on the battlefield. For instance, the current focal point is Bakhmut, a small industrial city in eastern Ukraine, where Russians have been mired for half a year. Overall, Putin’s forces haven’t won a battle since July while Ukraine has clawed back more than half of the land Russia conquered in 2022. More than half of Putin’s initial invasion force of 190,000 has perished, tens of thousands more have been wounded, 60 per cent of Putin’s air force has been destroyed, and two-thirds of his fleet of tanks has been demolished or captured. Now Russian generals send “human waves” of untrained conscripts and mercenaries to break through Ukrainian forces without success. Instead of racking up trophy conquests, Putin’s army remains bogged down in muddy, and bloody, killing fields.
Putin’s military morass was captured on video recently by Ukrainian military drones along the southern front and another focal point called Vuhledar. Tanks are shown veering wildly, exploding or driving onto minefields, soldiers running, some on fire, and the bodies of soldiers caught in tank tracks. “They were shot like turkeys at a shooting range,” posted Igor Strelkov on Telegram, a former Russian intelligence officer involved in Russia’s 2014 takeover of Donetsk. In November, Strelkov was convicted in absentia in The Netherlands for masterminding the downing over Ukraine of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in August 2017 which killed all 283 passengers and 15 crew.
Now he trolls Putin to his 430,000 followers. “A lot of good T-72B3/T-80BVM tanks and the best paratroopers and marines were liquidated [in Vuhledar]. Only morons attack head-on in the same place, heavily fortified,” he posted. He also says outdated Russian tanks lack proper vision equipment for operators, causing collisions and casualties. “How are blind, deaf tanks, armored personnel carriers, with equally blind, deaf infantry supposed to fight? And then how to coordinate any actions if there is no communication and situational awareness? If the Russian Armed Forces try to disperse, they will shoot each other, because they do not understand who is in front of them.”
He’s even called out Putin and “Kremlin cretins”. This fall, he posted a devastating prediction, which is looking more and more likely: “The war in Ukraine will continue until the complete defeat of Russia. We have already lost, the rest is just a matter of time.”
Not surprisingly, a Kremlin shakeup is currently underway. Nearly half of all commanders are being swapped out and last week two important Kremlin defense officials committed “suicide” — indications of political infighting over losses. Failures are so widespread that U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and General Mark Milley unequivocally said “Russia is now a global pariah and the world remains inspired by Ukrainian bravery and resilience. In short, Russia has lost; they’ve lost strategically, operationally and tactically.”
Russia hoped to launch a spring offensive in Vuhledar, but reports by Strelkov and others are that two of Russia’s most elite brigades — the 155th and 40th Naval Infantry Brigades — were completely annihilated there along with 130 armored vehicles and 36 tanks. Russia’s war machine fails and that is why the authoritative Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington, D.C., concluded in its February 15 report, that Russia’s military capability has been so degraded that its planned large-scale offensive in eastern Ukraine won’t happen. “Russia’s costly military campaign has significantly depleted Russian equipment and manpower reserves necessary to sustain a successful large-scale offensive in eastern Ukraine.”
Britain’s Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said this week that Putin has committed 97 percent of his military to his war against Ukraine and is still incapable of winning. This will worsen, added the British Ministry, because Russia’s low industrial output (enfeebled by sanctions) is a “critical weakness” and won’t meet the country’s long-term weapons, ammunition, and equipment requirements.
The Institute of War also concluded that Russia, with Belarus, is unlikely to invade Ukraine from the north, and that the flood of Western tanks and armored vehicles en route to Ukraine will expedite its goal to expel all Russians. “Ukraine likely continues to have a window of opportunity to initiate large-scale counteroffensives over the next few months, but its ability to do so rests heavily on the speed and scale at which the West provides the necessary materiel, particularly tanks and armored vehicles,” concluded the ISW report.
Ukraine intends to retake all its eastern and southern regions, including Crimea, stolen in 2014. Recapture is essential to winning not just the war, but the peace. Without Crimea, Ukraine would be crippled, unable to access the Black Sea to ship its valuable exports and would be vulnerable to another invasion. To date, American officials have been skittish about Crimea, fearing escalation by Putin and the difficulty of overwhelming tens of thousands of troops and Russian military bases located there. But last week, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland stated support for Crimea’s liberation: “Those [Russia’s military installations in Crimea] are legitimate targets, Ukraine is hitting them, and we are supporting that,” the official said. At the same time, Nuland noted that Ukraine will not be safe unless Crimea is at a minimum demilitarized.
Biden’s gutsy trip to Kyiv today, along with Europe’s show of solidarity this week in Munich, totally undermine Putin, but so are critics inside Russia. News about military failures spreads
internally, telegraphed by word of mouth, expats, veterans, caskets, payments of death benefits to cannon fodder families, and a cadre of rabidly critical military bloggers such as terrorist Igor Strelkov.
Surely Putin realizes he cannot win. But unfortunately he also knows he cannot lose.