You may have noticed that the tone of Russian commentary on its war of aggression in Ukraine is subtly changing. A new note of pessimism with regards to its eventual outcome has crept in, and the assurance and swagger of inevitable victory has all but disappeared. Putin and his Russian regime may have come unstuck. It is still early days, of course, and predictions on how his military adventure will end tend to be notoriously unsound. Russia still has, despite grievous losses, a sizeable and powerful military presence in the theatre of operations and occupies roughly fifteen per cent of Ukrainian sovereign territory. To write them off would be foolish.
Nonetheless cracks are beginning to appear in the Russian political and military façade. The slimmed down May Day parade was perhaps an outward indication of internal problems. Only one tank, a Second World War era T-34, rumbled through Red Square where on previous occasions many hundreds of more modern vehicles have been seen.
Contrary to speculation in other publications, I don’t think the solitary tank driving solo across the tamac has anything to do with the scale of Russian tank losses in Ukraine, grievous though they may be. No, Russia still has many thousands of tanks, albeit many of them are obsolete or obsolescent. But they are still tanks.
I suspect this is more to do with a feeling that a full-blown parade might be somehow inappropriate while Russian troops are fighting and dying not so far away. It’s notable that elsewhere in Russia many other similar parades have been cancelled for similar reasons. It’s part of the tradition of these events that people carry photographs of family members lost in previous conflicts, and perhaps the authorities did not want to publicise the scale of losses in the current war.
Did the recent drone strikes on the Kremlin have anything to do with this dramatic scaling down in pomp and ceremony? Well, possibly, but we still don’t really know who was responsible for that. Perhaps the very thought of a similar strike on the May Day parade in Red Square was sufficient to give Putin the heeby-jeebies? We’ll probably never know.
There are other signs that all is not well with the Russian war machine. Their months-long assault to capture Bakhmut has stalled and descended into an ebb and flow battle, where a few hundred metres captured one day are lost somewhere else the next. US estimates suggest the Russian AF and their Wagner Group allies may have lost as many as 20,000 killed since December with many more wounded and missing. There is still no indication whether they will ever succeed in capturing the embattled city.
Elsewhere Russia seems to have gone on the defensive, on the ground at least. Fearful of the long-promised Ukrainian counter-offensive, they have been busy constructing multiple lines of defence in Kherson, on the route between Zaporizhzhia and Melitopol – where everybody now predicts the blow will fall – and in other places. The fact that Zelensky has openly stated that Ukraine cannot attack yet because western military aid is only arriving “in batches” and his armed forces aren’t strong enough gives scant comfort.
On top of all this, there has been a very public falling out between the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Putin over supplies of ammunition, with the former threatening to withdraw his fighters from Bakhmut if they don’t get their fair share. And then there’s the continuing reluctance of Putin to call for a full Russian military mobilisation, which would essentially sink his pretence of a “special military operation” and let the Russian people know, if they haven’t guessed already, that they’re actually involved in a full scale war.
It is against this background that the Russian state-controlled media, softly and subtly, has begun to change the message in its communications with its home audience. The prospect that the fight in Ukraine “might not be won” has been quietly mooted, and that the people should be prepared for their armies being defeated.
What we can say at this point is that Putin’s initial plans have been soundly defeated and there may be worse news for him to come. How will it end? As I have said more times than I care to remember now, Crimea is the strategic prize, the key terrain if you like, in all of this.
As long as Crimea remains occupied by Russia it is a dagger aimed at Zelensky and the Ukrainian people. Ukraine must take it back before bringing this war to a conclusion. It is also, however, symbolic to Putin and Russia. The majority of its inhabitants are Russian speakers, and notwithstanding the fact that most of them voted for independence from Russia in the past, Putin will not give Crimea up without a fight.
I get the feeling, though, that we are beginning to head towards the end game. We might see some significant developments by the end of next month, although I’m not holding my breath.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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