The latest strategic advances by Ukraine—and the exposure of serious vulnerabilities by the Russian military—has some U.S. military experts voicing the words “collapse” and “breaking point” in speculating about what’s ahead for Russia in Ukraine.
U.S. Generals: Russian Military May Be Set for “Collapse”
On Sunday, two retired U.S. Generals with U.S. Intelligence credentials used the word “collapse” when characterizing their outlook for the Russian military.
Former Trump Administration National Security Adviser, retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said, “What we might be at here is really at the precipice of really the collapse of the Russian army in Ukraine, a moral collapse,” adding, “I think they must really be at a breaking point.”
At the same time, former CIA Director, retired Gen. David Petraeus pointed out that in just seven months, Russia has lost “multiples” of the numbers of casualties it lost “in nearly a decade in Afghanistan—many, many multiples.”
Predicting those losses will only continue, he added, “The only question really is when do you start to see not just individual soldiers or small units surrender but when do you start to see larger units crumble, crack and perhaps actually collapse?”
Ukrainians Capture Supposedly “Annexed” City
The Generals’ speculation was sparked by the Ukrainian soldiers capturing the crucial city of Lyman in the Donetsk region—one of four provinces illegally annexed by Moscow last month.
Raphael S. Cohen, Senior Political Scientist and Director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program of Project Air Force at the RAND Corporation, says Ukraine’s retaking of Lyman has a two-pronged significance.
“First is the military importance, that it’s the major logistical hub for supporting northern supplies. And I think that’s a significant blow,” he tells Political IQ.
But further, he says, “There’s value here in capturing it after Putin held his sham referendum to re-annex the four provinces, it’s a statement over and above what its military significance is.”
“It’s the symbolic value undercutting Putin’s narrative of capturing ‘Greater Russia,'” Cohen adds. “He has egg on his face.”
Adding insult to injury, on Monday Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov openly admitted Moscow doesn’t even know where the borders of these annexed regions lie.
“Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, in terms of the borders, we’re going to continue to consult with the population of these regions,” he told reporters. “We’re going to continue to consult with the people who live in these regions.”
Russian Military Exposing Deficiencies
Following reports by the Pentagon that up to 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded, on September 21 Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced 300,000 new conscripts would be drafted—Russia’s first mobilization since World War II.
The first of these conscripts began arriving in Ukraine eight days later—hardly much time for training.
Cohen is skeptical. “One, it’s not clear that they’re going to get 300,000 able-bodied soldiers,” he says. “Even if they are, it’s not clear that they’re going to actually want to be there and are willing to fight, and it’s not clear what that would do to the leadership.”
Further, he says, pumping up manpower doesn’t fix all of Russia’s problems. Very quickly reports leaked that the recruits had been told to bring their own first aid kits—including hydrogen peroxide as well as feminine sanitary napkins or tampons to patch up any potential bullet wounds sustained in the field.
The conscripts were also told to bring their own helmets, flashlights and bullet proof vests. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, video also surfaced of a Russian’s helmet being easily pierced by a Ukrainian’s knife.
And international volunteers in the Ukrainian military have told reporters they’ve seen “malnourished” Russian soldiers wearing flip-flops.
“The fact that you have to bring your own helmet and bring your own medical supply kit begs the serious question of just how effective an extra 300,000 bodies—should they ever make it to the front—would actually be once they face combat,” says Cohen.
Russians “Voting With Their Feet”
Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Monday that Putin is now taking criticism from both sides.
There are the bloggers on the right, he said, “increasingly now openly criticizing the conduct of the war.”
Further, he said, “You see people on the left voting with their feet or however you want to describe it, the normal Russians not wanting to become cannon fodder.”
According to reports, an estimated 200,000 military-age Russian men had escaped to Kazakhstan, Georgia or Turkey before the end of September.
Cohen can’t confirm those exact numbers but says, “The fact that you have Russian men in that proportion fleeing the country rather than go to serve in Ukraine undercuts the narrative that this is indeed as popular a move by Putin as Putin would like to portray it as.”
Putin Is “Running Out of Cards”
And as Ukraine is pushing forward in the eastern Donetsk region, the Pentagon said it’s also putting Russia in a “defensive crouch” in Kherson in the south.
To lose Kherson would be a “major defeat” for Russia, according to Assistant Defense Secretary Celeste Wallander, who said Monday, “It [would give] Ukraine another defensive position to ride out what probably will be hot fighting over the winter.”
“If you look at the Russian side, they’re running out of cards,” says Cohen.
Best case scenario, he says, those 300,000 conscripts are able to hold off the Ukrainian advances and keep their lines “relatively finite.”
Worst case, the advances continue. At which point, “Putin will have some choices to make.” Either “strategically retreat and hopefully get a more defensible line,” or he has to “escalate in the hopes that Ukraine backs down.”
Will NATO Be Drawn In?
The escalation question, of course, is a big one.
On Sunday the leading Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Marco Rubio (R-FL), said he’s concerned Putin might strike a supply distribution point within a NATO nation, like a Polish airport.
That, he believes, would trigger Article 5 of the NATO charter, which says an attack on one NATO nation is an attack on all, and would mandate a response. Rubio said NATO’s response to such a scenario “would depend on the nature of [Russia’s] attack and the scale and the scope of it.”
Cohen says NATO has a number of options, should a member nation be attacked by Russia.
“The strength of NATO’s division comes from the fact that we are not locked into one course of action here,” he notes. “There’s more we can do in terms of sanctions on the low end. We really haven’t touched secondary sanctions yet.”
And militarily there are a variety of retaliatory measures, from giving more weapons of longer range to the Ukrainians to potentially allow them to strike deeper into Russian territory, all the way on up to “a direct conventional NATO response.”
Is the Nuclear Threat Growing More Likely?
Rubio remarked that the nuclear risk is “probably higher today than it was a month ago,” but he downplayed its likelihood.
“It would be extraordinarily counterproductive for Putin for a host of reasons,” says Cohen. He points to the Blitz, the strategic bombing of World War II and the strategic bombing of Vietnam as historic examples of “all of these cases that used massive amounts of fire power, and people doubled down rather than backed off.”
Back in September, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul echoed that sentiment, saying, “The Ukrainians, in my view, if Putin used a nuclear weapon against them, you would see terrorist attacks in downtown Moscow because they are motivated to take back their country.”
On Sunday Gen. Petraeus said if Putin did fire off a nuke, “It cannot go unanswered. But it doesn’t expand, it’s not nuclear for nuclear. You don’t want to get into a nuclear escalation here. But you have to show that this cannot be accepted in any way.”