As War Hits the Homefront, Russia’s Defeat Inches Closer

Battlefield losses, military corruption, and a disastrous mobilization drive have broken the social contract.

By , an investigative editor at Meduza.
Police officers detain a woman during a protest against military mobilization in Moscow on Sept. 21.
Police officers detain a woman during a protest against military mobilization in Moscow on Sept. 21.
Police officers detain a woman during a protest against military mobilization in Moscow on Sept. 21. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

By many accounts, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is already a colossal failure. The confirmed losses of destroyed and abandoned tanks and other armor alone exceed the entire army of a decent-sized Central or Eastern European country, and the rate of loss doesn’t look likely to be reversed anytime soon. Citing sources close to the Kremlin, Russian independent media has reported 90,000 irrecoverably lost soldiers, including battlefield and hospital deaths plus injuries severe enough to prevent them from ever fighting again. These losses now exceed those incurred during Russia’s wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, politically devastating conflicts that left deep scars on Russian society that have still not healed today. What’s more, it took Russia 10 years to accumulate its losses in Afghanistan, whereas it has only been fighting in Ukraine for eight months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization,” which he recently promised will be over in two weeks just before the regular annual military draft begins, has also been a failure on all levels. Russian social media is full of clips of fresh conscripts facing squalor in hastily thrown up tents and cold abandoned barracks without food, uniforms, sanitation, equipment, or commanders, left to fend for themselves or survive on parcels brought by their relatives. As men are grabbed from the streets and sent right to the front with only a cursory training course at best, their relatives are expected to cough up money for basic items that are supposed to be provided by the army, such as first-aid kits or winter clothes.

For hundreds of thousands of Russian families, the war is not only an immediate threat to their livelihoods, as sole breadwinners are thrown into battles without regard for their dependents, but also a massive economic burden. On Telegram, chat groups with hundreds of members are popping up where wives and fiancés exchange tips on where to buy armor and helmets on the cheap while sharing their growing desperation about the chaotic nature of mobilization.

By many accounts, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is already a colossal failure. The confirmed losses of destroyed and abandoned tanks and other armor alone exceed the entire army of a decent-sized Central or Eastern European country, and the rate of loss doesn’t look likely to be reversed anytime soon. Citing sources close to the Kremlin, Russian independent media has reported 90,000 irrecoverably lost soldiers, including battlefield and hospital deaths plus injuries severe enough to prevent them from ever fighting again. These losses now exceed those incurred during Russia’s wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, politically devastating conflicts that left deep scars on Russian society that have still not healed today. What’s more, it took Russia 10 years to accumulate its losses in Afghanistan, whereas it has only been fighting in Ukraine for eight months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “partial mobilization,” which he recently promised will be over in two weeks just before the regular annual military draft begins, has also been a failure on all levels. Russian social media is full of clips of fresh conscripts facing squalor in hastily thrown up tents and cold abandoned barracks without food, uniforms, sanitation, equipment, or commanders, left to fend for themselves or survive on parcels brought by their relatives. As men are grabbed from the streets and sent right to the front with only a cursory training course at best, their relatives are expected to cough up money for basic items that are supposed to be provided by the army, such as first-aid kits or winter clothes.

For hundreds of thousands of Russian families, the war is not only an immediate threat to their livelihoods, as sole breadwinners are thrown into battles without regard for their dependents, but also a massive economic burden. On Telegram, chat groups with hundreds of members are popping up where wives and fiancés exchange tips on where to buy armor and helmets on the cheap while sharing their growing desperation about the chaotic nature of mobilization.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who’s been watching Russia. Generals have always treated their military districts as personal fiefdoms and conscripts like serfs existing for the sole purpose of their higher-ups’ enrichment. Ironically, one of the loudest pro-war critics of the Russian Defense Ministry for mismanagement of resources is former Army Gen. Andrey Gurulyov, now a member of the Russian Duma under U.S. sanctions. During his time as a military commander, Gurulyov was himself charged with “labor slavery” involving conscripts. The charges were dismissed, and he went on several tours in Syria. It’s far from an isolated case.

Putin’s final and irreversible retreat from Ukraine wouldn’t be the first time post-Soviet Russia has admitted a humiliating military defeat.

Corruption lies at the heart of the Russian military’s dysfunction on and off the battlefield. BBC News Russian found at least 559 documentable cases of criminal loss of property in the army since 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine. Quartermasters have pilfered uniforms, boots, winter gear, and sleeping bags by the truckload. Hundreds of thousands of uniforms that were supposed to go to the newly mobilized have suddenly been reported as missing. Corruption goes all the way down the chain of command. The scale of extortion by local commanders of the newly mobilized appears to be so large that even popular pro-war bloggers are complaining about it.

Investigative reporters and anti-corruption activists have documented the extravagant palaces owned by Russia’s military elite, only to be jailed or driven to exile for their work. Now, some pro-Kremlin bloggers are adopting the same rhetoric, but it’s too little and too late to salvage Russia’s war in Ukraine. Even if their pleas are taken seriously in the Kremlin, a country cannot launch a complete top-to-bottom overhaul of its military, including replacement of the leadership and the sacking of thousands of officers, while in the middle of an all-out war.

Russia’s military disaster will therefore continue to unfold. And it’s getting much closer to many Russians at home, for whom the war has been something between television entertainment and a distant rumble. Until the start of Putin’s mobilization on Sept. 21, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and their surrounding regions were largely spared from providing soldiers for the war, which was crucial for upholding the optics of life carrying on as “normal” for middle-class Russians. Meanwhile, ethnically non-Russian regions provided the cannon fodder, not least because the military was long one of the few dependable sources of income there. As a result, men from Dagestan, Buryatia, and Russia’s Far East have dominated the casualty lists, especially when one compares the number of deaths in relation to the total population.

No matter what they tell pollsters—and whether they support Putin’s imperial war or not—it’s clear that the majority of Russian men don’t want to go anywhere near the front. If they did, they’d have joined the “volunteer” battalions set up since the Ukrainians first beat back the Russians in March, battalions that mostly failed to materialize. And the Russian Defense Ministry wouldn’t be having such a hard time reaching even the initially announced target of 300,000 new conscripts.

What’s more, mobilization has irrevocably broken the social contract wedding Russians to their regime, a modicum of stability and prosperity in exchange for complete disengagement from politics. Even the most loyal servants of the regime do not appear to be safe now, as demonstrated by the mobilization of one of the department heads at the Moscow mayor’s office. Russian social media is brimming with videos of police rounding up men for mobilization at offices, markets, and metro stations. The scale of it is impossible to ignore, and belies initial attempts by the regime’s propagandists on television and elsewhere to dismiss it as isolated cases of a few overzealous draft officers.

Now, it’s glaringly obvious that the indiscriminate rounding up is a feature, not a bug, of Putin’s attempt to plug in the holes on the front in Ukraine. Body bags containing the remains of the freshly mobilized—often inexperienced and untrained—are already returning to Russia. Meanwhile, military installations and infrastructure in Belgorod, a Russian city some 40 kilometers from the Ukrainian border where many of the mobilized are being assembled, is now under daily shelling by Ukraine. The entire myth of Putin’s infallibility is coming apart: Russia’s much vaunted military prowess, the “stability” he promised in his first terms as president, the supposedly omnipotent propaganda which is now forced to make U-turns and admit previously unthinkable retreats, the “power vertical” now torn apart by infighting among Putin’s associates, and a population lined up behind its president.

What does this mean going forward? Putin’s final and irreversible retreat from Ukraine seems like a fantastical notion. But it wouldn’t be the first time post-Soviet Russia has admitted a humiliating military defeat. In the mid-1990s, Russia was beaten by a much smaller force in the First Chechen War, after launching an ill-thought out assault on Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, based on poor intelligence and sheer hubris. As hard a hit as it was to their imperial pride, leading politicians and media figures found it in themselves to say to the Russian public: The war is over and we lost. Many of those people are still around today, including top military commanders like Anatoly Kulikov, who managed the ceasefires and retreats.

If that precedent offers some hope that reason and reality could again prevail, it also serves as a warning. Defeat in Chechnya set off a wave of ultranationalist resentment, the same obsession with humiliation and revenge that infuses Putin’s speeches about Ukraine and defines so much of the Russian debate today. Unless Russia faces a national reckoning after losing the war in Ukraine—something akin to Germany’s reinvention after World War II—the cycle of imperial resentment and revanchism will only repeat itself.

Alexey Kovalev is an investigative editor at Meduza. Twitter: @Alexey__Kovalev

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