The Ukraine will be an extremely painful problem. But we must realize that the feelings of the whole people are now at white heat.” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
If Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn acted as Russia’s moral conscience during his own lifetime, crying out against the cruelty of the gulag in his literature, and shaking the rotten totalitarian system to its very core, he seems to have been something of a prophet regarding Ukraine. As a Russian nationalist, he had complicated feelings about what was for him “a painful subject.”
“Russia and the Ukraine are united in my blood, my heart, my thoughts.”
And yet he spent enough time in the godforsaken labor camps with enough Ukrainians to understand their unquenchable desire for freedom, for independence from Moscow’s suffocating authoritarian grip. It was clear to him that, “We must leave the decision to the Ukrainians themselves.”
If nothing else, Ukrainians have made their wishes abundantly clear in this war, after 15 months of brutal combat, fighting what was once considered the second most powerful army on earth to a standstill outside Kyiv, before retaking Kharkiv, Kherson, and Lyman, and finally settling in for the winter along a largely static 600-mile frontline.
Quickly dispensing with Russia’s muddling springtime offensive, Kyiv is preparing to go back on its own offensive, in a campaign fueled by sophisticated heavy weapons from the United States, Britain, Germany, France, and a host of other countries, in a push designed to throw the Russians onto their backs, and out of Ukraine for good.
The stakes are high.
However, Ukrainian forces have already begun making inroads on the outskirts of Bakhmut, the shattered city that’s taken on the mythical significance of Stalingrad, swallowing tens of thousands of soldiers into its fiery maw. These recent advances have caused significant anxiety among pro-war Russian bloggers, afraid they’re witnessing the beginning of Ukraine’s offensive, something Kyiv denies.
Meanwhile, the fractures in Vladimir Putin’s forces continue to widen.
The supply shortages and catastrophic troop losses continue to poison morale, as young Russian men continue to fight and die and kill for what seems to be an utterly lost cause. And yet, Putin clearly hasn’t relinquished his desire to subdue Ukraine, at nearly any insane cost, despite having suffered an estimated 200,000 casualties in his battered military machine, and inestimable damage to Russia’s global prestige.
Incredibly, drones recently appeared to bomb the Kremlin. Four Russian aircraft, two Mi-8 helicopters and two Sukhoi fighter jets, crashed and burned just inside of Ukrainian airspace in a single day near Bryansk. Putin’s mercenary chief is savagely belittling Russian generals, blaming the Ministry of Defense for the deaths of his soldiers, even as he’s consumed by his own treasonous intrigues, apparently offering to sell Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate information on Russian troop positions.
None of this bodes well for Putin.
Still, he seems to be tolerating Yevgeny Prigozhin’s outbursts for now, being unwilling or unable to do anything to silence the man fielding what is perhaps Russia’s most effective battlefield formation in the Wagner Group. However, the problems continue to pile up and fester, and a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive can be expected to further debilitate the battered Russian ranks.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky was on a whirlwind European tour last week, extracting promises of additional weapon systems and political support from governments in Berlin, Rome, London, and Paris. He finally secured critical long-range Storm Shadow missiles and drones from the British, armored vehicles and training from the French, and nearly three billion dollars in military aid from the Germans, a doubling of their commitment.
The Kremlin has already threatened “retaliation” for the long-range missiles, which are presumably causing significant anxiety in Moscow.
However, Zelensky continues to agitate for F-16 fighter jets from his most important backers in the Biden administration, who continue to resist sending them. Still, he’s gotten nearly everything else on his wish list, and analysts believe Ukraine is sufficiently armed to begin its next offensive.
“They all reek of expensive perfume”
Meanwhile, the world has been watching the war of words between Yevgeny Prigozhin and the upper echelons of Russia’s Ministry of Defense with a kind of horrified fascination. Prigozhin has posted scathing videos on social media, walking amid the bodies of his fallen fighters, calling out the Russian generals who “all reek of expensive perfume,” and who “think they will go down in history as victors while shaking their fat bellies.”
Rather, “They already went down in history as cowards,” according to him.
It’s the kind of fighting language usually reserved for one’s mortal enemies. However, as we’ve recently learned, Prigozhin has actually been consorting with Ukrainian military intelligence officers, meeting HUR agents in Africa, and offering to sell them Russian troop positions in exchange for a withdrawal from Bakhmut.
The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed those allegations as a “hoax,” which surfaced in Air National Guard Jack Teixeira’s leaks of classified documents on Discord. Prigozhin called the Washington Post a prostitute, said the newspaper was trying to smear him, and suggested the information came from Russian elites attempting to sabotage him.
Nonetheless, there’s no denying his feud with Russia’s Ministry of Defense and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, which has become a fixture online, as new videos of Prigozhin hurling slurs at them and other Russian generals make the rounds on social media daily. However, the Discord documents also suggest there’s some validity to Prigozhin’s complaints about ammunition shortages, what he aptly calls “shell hunger,” as his fighters die by the thousands in Bakhmut.
At a bare minimum, all this noise is a humiliating distraction, particularly as Ukraine prepares to mount its next offensive operations. At worst, it’s the kind of growing political power struggle that could make one believe that Vladimir Putin is no longer capable of controlling his subordinates.
For his part, Putin’s stayed at a remove from the bickering between his military leaders, appearing to rise above the turmoil, projecting an air of calm confidence. As has been frequently noted, Putin allows factions underneath him to duke it out for political reasons, a tactic that’s worked well for him, keeping him at the apex of Russian power for decades.
But disunity of command is an entirely different animal on the battlefield, especially when the war is going so dismally, and factions are openly attacking each other. Still, all these theatrics may not matter as much as Putin’s ability to: field fresh troops, supply weapons and ammunition, and keep the Russian economy hobbling along.
At this point, it’s likely the Kremlin would merely like to maintain the status quo: a mostly static war of attrition, while awaiting a more favorable geopolitical situation , and a fracture in the Western alliance backing Kyiv. This requires time, something Putin believes is on his side, particularly with elections looming in the United States next year, a contest that could deliver the White House to a Republican Party skeptical of America’s commitment to Kyiv, and friendly to Moscow.
Still more important is the capacity of Ukraine to disrupt the Russian military on the battlefield, to demonstrate forward progress, and deny Putin a war of attrition. At this point, there’s every reason to believe that Kyiv’s coming offensive is going to cause significant problems for the Russians, both on the battlefield and back in the Kremlin.