Ukraine war: Russian retreat exposes military weaknesses

Russia’s retreat from Kharkiv, north-eastern Ukraine, has exposed key weaknesses in the supplies and staffing of the nation’s armed forces, Russian veterans and military bloggers say.

“You have no idea how tired I am to say hello to someone in the morning and then have to identify his remains later the same day,” one Russian officer serving as a marine in Ukraine reportedly confided over the phone to a former colleague back home, who published it on his Telegram channel.

“Just yesterday two of my sniper groups were destroyed by a tank. Three men died instantly, the fourth one fought for his life for an hour and a half, another one in critical condition was taken to hospital. We have hardly any men left and we are holding a front line dozens of kilometres long.”

While Russian officials and state media are trying to play down the Russian forces’ retreat from Kharkiv, individual war reporters, veterans and influential military bloggers are acknowledging numerous challenges within closed messaging channels.

Blogs and Telegram channels are littered with stories of inadequate equipment and personnel, compounded by a rigid operational hierarchy.

One Telegram channel, sharing experiences of soldiers in the field in Ukraine shortly after the latest retreat, describes how even deploying a small surveillance drone needs to be approved by a senior officer or a general, considerably slowing down understanding of enemy positions.

Another channel on Telegram, reportedly run by a Russian special forces veteran, has posted a photo of a Russian soldier sporting an arm patch embroidered with the words: “There is no opponent worse than your own commander who is a…” using an expletive to describe him.

There is no way of knowing where and when the image was shot, but what is significant is that it has been widely shared by both veterans and forces in the field, suggesting it reflects popular opinion among the country’s rank and file.

Despite rumours of low morale, Russian war reporters and paramilitary soldiers serving in Ukraine are not suggesting that widespread desertion in the field contributed to the latest rout in eastern Ukraine. They say it is much more likely that units simply obeyed an order to retreat.

Some Russian fighters on another channel joke bitterly that the “special military operation” – as the Russian government publicly terms it – “has no goals, it only has a path”.

There are not only concerns about poor leadership. Basic equipment appears to be in such short supply that it is having to be crowdfunded. Dozens of public social media groups are collecting money for a whole range of kit – everything from drones to socks and underwear.

One of them, called “The People’s Front”, says it has raised about 1.5bn roubles (£15m, $17m) over the past three months, and has already spent it on uniforms, helmets and flak jackets, as well as first-aid kits, binoculars and thermal imagers.

Despite such fundraising, hundreds of pleas have been posted online from dozens of military units – including pilots of Russia’s most modern fighter jets – for specific items, such as fire-proof uniforms, torches and two-way radios.

But the issue is not just a lack of equipment, it is a lack of troops.

While there are no signs of imminent compulsory conscription, there has been a push for recruitment – described by the government as an “informal mobilisation” – since soon after the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian Ministry of Defence started posting adverts on popular job websites in early March, something which was rarely done before the war. On one website there are more than 7,000 military vacancies listed – for gunners, mortar crew and other combat-focused roles. None of the adverts mention the “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Recruitment flyers have also been posted through doors, and displayed on public transport and outside residential apartment blocks and even psychiatric hospitals.

Russian military recruitment advert
Image caption,

This advert inviting men to sign up was shared on the social media page of a nursery in St Petersburg

Drafting centres have also resorted to phoning soldiers who have left or retired to ask them to re-join, some of those contacted told the BBC. One soldier who fought in Chechnya in the 1990s says he and his friends were called three or four times. The man, who asked to remain anonymous, says he finally agreed but later refused to sign the contract, put off by what appeared to be poor conditions.

Possibly to make the proposition of serving more attractive, the minimum contract length has been slashed from three years to three months, and the upper age limit for a first contract raised from 40 to 60 years old.

Advertised monthly salaries range from 100,000-450,000 roubles (£1,000-£4,500, $1,139-$5,125) – a tempting proposition, despite the dangers of deployment, for those with poor job prospects in economically deprived areas of the country.

Russia is believed to be sending several of these scratch units to Ukraine every 10 days, following training of just a week or less.

Two separate sources on the front line told the BBC that such units, comprising short-term military contractors and fighters from the Wagner mercenary group – the head of which has been filmed recruiting in a central Russian prison – constitute the bulk of Russia’s current frontline force.

There are reports that those signing contracts may not all be doing so willingly. Russian human rights activists allege there have been cases of men in Chechnya being pressured into joining up by the authorities.

Russian independent journalists have reported that up to 500 convicts have also been enlisted. One prisoner, Konstantin Tulinov, was lauded in state media after he was killed during combat in July. Tulinov had served multiple sentences, the latest one for torturing inmates in Russian prisons.

Whilst these challenges are being discussed within closed groups, there has been no official acknowledgement of the retreat.

On his private Telegram channel, influential state war reporter Yevgeny Poddubny suggested that the latest rout exposed long-running issues.

“The situation is really hard for our troops. The problems which have been discussed both in the public space and during confidential meetings have become obvious.”

But there is no evidence that this message is making its way to the top. Poddubny and several other war reporters were seen speaking briefly with President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the St Petersburg economic forum in June.

While it is not clear exactly what they managed to explain to the president, lack of supplies remains a key issue for the Russian military.

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