Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has now entered its seven month. I refer to it as that because it is not, nor has it ever been, Ukraine’s War. This conflict was unwelcomed and unprovoked. It is the ferocious project of an ailing dictator, yearning for a return to the imperial greatness of yesteryear.
Vladimir Putin and his cronies were not prepared to play the long game. In their sights was a swift and certain conquest of Kyiv, that would have rendered Ukraine a puppet state of the Kremlin.
Instead, Russia is involved in the greatest military conflict in Europe since the Second World War. Tens of thousands have been killed, among them thousands of civilians. Russia stands accused of war crimes after its troops raped, tortured and massacred the residents of Bucha – a suburb of Kyiv. Millions have been displaced and many will cease to see their homeland again.
I recall the front page of The Times on 4th April. The headline read: ‘Civilians shot in the streets’ and it was supported by a graphic image of bodies littering a residential street in outer Kyiv. A few days later, The Telegraph published the heart-rending image of a six-year-old boy, kneeling at his mother’s grave and placing a can of food, after she’d starved to death in Bucha.
And yet, after untold torment and tragedy, the war is in a stalemate with front lines barely budging in recent weeks. In February, Putin envisaged an emboldened Russia that, fresh from victory, would send shockwaves through NATO. In its place Putin presides over the degrading spectacle of recruiters visiting prisons, promising inmates liberty and prosperity, to serve in the Russian army.
Therefore, it is altogether predictable that Putin has signed a decree to increase Russia’s armed forces’ personnel to 1.15 million – a prospective increase of a less foreboding 137,000. This act alone is a tacit expression of defeat. Despite Russia’s army dwarfing Ukraine’s, Putin misjudged the moment and underestimated the military strength and resilience of his neighbour.
Even if Putin claims success in enlarging his army, the UK Ministry of Defence argues any troop expansion is unlikely to have an impact. Western intelligence estimates some 70-80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded since the launch of the invasion in February. Putin’s decree is more of a troop replenishment than an expansion.
It is also the case that Russia has failed to recruit a significant number of contract troops. In other words, Russians are not volunteering to serve in the numbers that they once did. This leaves Putin with the option to conscript. Yet many young Russians avoid this method through medical exemption or enrolment in higher education. And conscripts are not technically bound to serve beyond Russian territory.
Increased conscription also comes with potential domestic fallout. Though Putin had hoped to keep the war concealed from the Russian people, claiming it was only a ‘special military operation’, conscription involves the Russian people in the direct fight.
Perhaps the Russian people, ignorant or indoctrinated, were willing to accept their president’s claim that this ‘operation’ was necessary, to liberate Ukraine from Nazism. But when their sons, or brothers, or fathers fail to come home after being conscripted and killed in a conflict they didn’t seek, will Putin be able to withstand the fallout that will likely emerge from their grief?
This war is far from over; in truth, it may only be emerging from the beginning. Whatever the outcome, Putin has failed in his effort to comprehensively conquer Ukraine and his embarrassing recruitment of additional troops, only supports this.
Years after British victory in the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher commented: “Those dictators were stupid, they misjudged us.” And so, history repeats itself: a stupid dictator, misjudging the iron will of a free people.