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A Rat, Cornered
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A Rat, Cornered

Russia’s war machine might be breaking down.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech during the Victory Day military parade at Red Square in central Moscow on May 9, 2023. (Photo by GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin once told a story about his childhood. There were many rats in his apartment building in St. Petersburg, so he passed the time as any budding psychopath might, tormenting them by chasing them around with a stick.

Once, he remembered, he chased an especially large rat down a hallway until it had nowhere to run. It was cornered. So it made the only move it had left, turning around and lunging at Putin. 

We might now be reaching the “cornered rat” phase of the war in Ukraine.

What this particular rat will do once it recognizes that it’s cornered is anyone’s guess. But we should start thinking about it now that there’s every reason to believe the best days of the war for Russia are behind it.

Earlier this month I wrote about the mysterious appearance of two drones over the Kremlin, an event that feels in hindsight like a metaphor for this stage of the conflict writ large.

The Russian government has lost control over events, so much so that it may no longer be able to defend its own place of business, let alone the nation. And enough locals are aware of it to have begun canceling mass gatherings lest they provide a target for the enemy across the border.

From the top to the bottom of Russian society, anxiety about Ukrainian capabilities and internal treachery looks to be spiking. “I’ve never seen the Kremlin so rattled,” declared Russian journalist Anna Nemtsova in a piece for the Washington Post on Wednesday, alluding to the growing dysfunction of the war effort. The evidence of incompetence and helplessness to do anything about it coming from Moscow is arresting for a blogger of a certain age who grew up fearing Russia’s military.

The most efficient way to communicate how chaotic it’s become is to have you watch the recent clip of Yevgeny Prigozhin embedded below. There’s no proper analog to Prigozhin in the U.S. government, thank God: He’s a Putin-backed warlord, essentially, the head of the paramilitary Wagner Group that seems to have done most of the hardest fighting in Ukraine as the regular army has flailed. Think of him in this conflict as the Russian equivalent of George Patton if Patton were completely unbound by any sense of law, honor, or morals.

Now imagine Patton delivering this rant, on camera, in front of the bodies of dead American soldiers about George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower.

Not the hallmark of a disciplined, effective operation, I think you’ll agree.

Prigozhin wasn’t done. Lately he’s accused Russian soldiers of running from the fight, threatened to tell “the truth about the deplorable situation at the front,” and warned that his Wagner forces would abandon the battlefield around Bakhmut on Victory Day if his demand for more ammunition wasn’t met. (Ultimately he didn’t.) Again, all of this was recorded for the enjoyment of the masses, to maximize the humiliation for Putin’s two top military men, Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov.

One might assume that this was all done with Putin’s quiet consent, as Prigozhin wouldn’t dare embarrass the Kremlin without the approval of the czar. But we should be careful about assumptions, especially after the Washington Post published this scoop over the weekend.

In late January, with his mercenary forces dying by the thousands in a fight for the ruined city of Bakhmut, Wagner Group owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin made Ukraine an extraordinary offer.

Prigozhin said that if Ukraine’s commanders withdrew their soldiers from the area around Bakhmut, he would give Kyiv information on Russian troop positions, which Ukraine could use to attack them. Prigozhin conveyed the proposal to his contacts in Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate, with whom he has maintained secret communications during the course of the war, according to previously unreported U.S. intelligence documents leaked on the group-chat platform Discord.

According to one document, Prigozhin told a Ukrainian intelligence officer that the Russian military was struggling with ammunition supplies. He advised Ukrainian forces to push forward with an assault on the border of Crimea, which Russia has illegally annexed, while Russian troop morale was low. The report also referred to other intelligence noting that Prigozhin was aware of plummeting morale among Wagner forces and that some of his fighters had balked at orders to deploy in the Bakhmut area under heavy fire, for fear of suffering more casualties.

Two Ukrainian sources confirmed to the Post that they’ve had contact with Prigozhin, although they declined his offer regarding Bakhmut since they view him, correctly, as untrustworthy.

Perhaps the offer was a ruse masterminded by Putin or perhaps the Post’s Ukrainian sources were lying for propaganda purposes, but there’s a meaningful chance that Prigozhin has gone rogue and is willing to sell out his country’s regular army to Ukraine in exchange for victories for Wagner. Nemtsova notes that another prominent warlord backed by Putin, the Chechen Ramzan Kadyrov, “harshly criticized” Prigozhin for threatening to withdraw from Bakhmut in yet another video recorded for social media, suggesting that at least one of them is operating contrary to Putin’s wishes—or that both have gone rogue, deepening the sense of chaos.

The Kremlin has grown nervous over time about Prigozhin’s rising public profile as Russian media has celebrated Wagner’s exploits. (“Spewing vulgarities, disregarding the law and displaying loyalty to no one but Mr. Putin, Mr. Prigozhin is becoming a symbol of wartime Russia.”) If it’s true that Wagner is the last somewhat effective Russian fighting force in Ukraine, Putin might be loath to eliminate his new rival for power lest he undermine what’s left of the war effort by doing so. Prigozhin might, in other words, now be operating semi-autonomously under the auspices of Kremlin support with his own private army and an independent and growing base of support among the Russian public.

Which, again, is not redolent of a well-run government that has things firmly under control.

For Putin, the worst part of Prigozhin’s antics is that they’re happening when Russia looks as impotent on the battlefield as it ever has in modern history.

It’s one thing for a leader to indulge a brash commander at a moment when the country’s forces are advancing. (See, again, George Patton.) To indulge him at a moment when those forces look overmatched stinks of weakness, something no strongman would tolerate unless he’d lost the power to demonstrate his strength.

Increasingly, Russia does look overmatched.

In 15 months of war, not only have Russia’s forces failed to adapt tactically on the battlefield, they seem to have capitulated to their inability to do so by reverting to primitive tactics. Their approach to Bakhmut, the centerpiece of their winter counteroffensive, has been to shell relentlessly and to send “human-wave attacks” of Russian troops toward Ukrainian positions with instructions to “keep going until you’re killed.” Some of those troops were reportedly recruited out of Russian prisoners with promises that they’d receive medication to treat their HIV if they went to the front and survived.

The battle for Bakhmut is now in its 10th month, such is the depth of Moscow’s commitment to it, yet lately Ukraine appears to be regaining ground there. The Pentagon estimates that Russia has absorbed 100,000 casualties in the last five months alone, 20,000 of whom are dead. Apart from killing many, many Ukrainians and depleting their stockpiles of ammunition in the process, Russia has nothing to show strategically for its enormous sacrifice. 

Meanwhile, sophisticated new Western aerial weapons are coming online for Ukraine. The Russian military seems to have no answer for them.

The White House won’t supply long-range missiles to Kyiv, worrying that Ukraine will use them to strike targets inside Russia itself, but the U.K. has been bolder. It recently armed the Ukrainians with the Storm Shadow missile; at a range of 150 miles, it can reach three times as far as the HIMARS munitions the U.S. has provided. Ukraine is already putting it to use by targeting Russian fuel and ammunition depots many miles behind the front, stretching and disrupting the enemy’s supply line as the Ukrainian infantry prepares for its spring counteroffensive. Russian positions in Crimea are now in the crosshairs.

Notably, and unlike the HIMARS, the Storm Shadow is fired from the air rather than the ground. Fifteen months after an invasion which they thought would overrun the country in three days, Russia still hasn’t established air superiority over Ukraine.

Another type of Western missile is also succeeding spectacularly: the Patriot, a defensive system that came courtesy of the Pentagon and is designed to take down enemy missiles inbound toward targets like Kyiv. On Monday evening 18 Russian missiles fired at the capital were all reportedly intercepted, including six state-of-the-art hypersonic “Kinzhal” weapons. The Ukrainians have built their very own Iron Dome with American help.

They’re also waging psychological warfare quite effectively.

The hype about the coming counteroffensive has clearly spooked the Russian command, which remembers what happened the last time Ukraine tricked them by touting a major operation. Mysterious explosions keep happening on Russian soil, sometimes right in the faces of prominent Russian propagandists. Just in the last few days there’s been chatter about Volodymyr Zelensky wanting to … seize Russian territory.

In a meeting in late January, Zelensky suggested Ukraine “conduct strikes in Russia” while moving Ukrainian ground troops into enemy territory to “occupy unspecified Russian border cities,” according to one document labeled “top secret.” The goal would be “to give Kyiv leverage in talks with Moscow,” the document said.

In a separate meeting in late February with Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top military commander, Zelensky “expressed concern” that “Ukraine does not have long-range missiles capable of reaching Russian troop deployments in Russia nor anything with which to attack them.” Zelensky then “suggested that Ukraine attack unspecified deployment locations in Rostov,” a region in western Russia, using drones instead, according to another classified document.

That smells like nonsense to me, as a Ukrainian infantry incursion into Russia might veer too close to the “existential threat” red line Russia has drawn to justify using nuclear weapons. It would also fly in the face of the White House’s warnings to Kyiv about not attacking outside its own borders.

But it’s a terrific way to exploit fears inside Russia that the country is suddenly vulnerable in a way it hasn’t been in 80 years. 

Apart from the West withholding weapons from Ukraine or China deciding to provide them to Putin, there’s zero reason to believe conditions on the battlefield or at home will improve for Russia rather than deteriorate further. The rat is cornered.

And it seems to be realizing it. What now?

Tom Nichols, an expert on Russia since the Cold War, says there’s only one thing to do: Hand Ukraine the biggest stick we’re responsibly able to supply and hope for the best.

I think that’s correct. But I’m nervous about it.

There’s no sense holding back anymore, Nichols argues. The West is already heavily invested in the Ukrainian cause; Russia long ago abandoned any pretense of restraint in its own actions; and the threat of the Kremlin escalating by dragging NATO into the war has passed. “Putin is still who he was a year ago: vain, emotional, and a terrible strategist,” he writes. “But I am convinced that in the early days of the war, when the very best Russian forces were suffering one defeat after another, he and his toadies in the Kremlin were gripped by panic.” That panic phase has now passed.

To which I say: Has it?

Fear (and alcohol, I suppose) is the only thing left in Russia that’s abundant. As the war has dragged on, making its costs and futility harder to obscure, demoralized Russian citizens have reverted to Soviet form by eagerly informing on each other for expressing politically disfavored sentiments. Putin invaded Ukraine because he wanted a taste of Stalinist glory abroad; instead he rebuilt a Stalinist culture at home without any of the heroic military exploits to justify it.

The public is paranoid, the czar is paranoid, the military command is paranoid, the conscripts are paranoid. “Never, in more than two decades of covering Vladimir Putin’s regime, have I seen it in such an obvious state of chaos and disarray,” Nemtsova writes. It seems to me that we might not yet have experienced the Kremlin at maximum panic. In some ways, I’m very much looking forward to that experience.

And in other ways, not.

Arming Ukraine to the teeth in pursuit of rapid victory is the least bad strategy available, Nichols goes on to say, since “the longer this war drags on, the greater the chance of a black-swan event or another delusional miscalculation inside the Kremlin.” Okay, but threatening Russia’s positions in Crimea by supplying Ukraine with the Storm Shadow sounds like it might bring about exactly the sort of black-swan event he worries about. If Kyiv were to devastate the naval base at Sevastopol, say, proving in a momentous way that Russia has lost more than it’s gained from its expansionist folly, how might Putin respond?

On the other hand, keeping Ukraine supplied with just enough munitions to hold the enemy at bay but not enough to advance means fighting the war at Putin’s pace, inviting Russia to attack, regroup, and attack again for as long as the Kremlin can muster the will to do so. And since they’ve invested every bit of their national prestige at this point in securing something they can call a victory, there’s no reason to think they’ll lose their will. As such, the “stalemate” strategy leaves a Russian coup or a new Russian revolution as the only plausible ways to end the war on terms favorable to Ukraine, and neither one of those is particularly plausible.

If you can’t degrade the enemy’s will to fight then you have to degrade its ability—or you give up, and no one wants to see Ukraine throw in the towel when Russia looks more vulnerable militarily than it ever has. Nichols’ approach of whacking the rat is the only one left that might feasibly produce a Ukrainian victory.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.