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War in Ukraine: Can the Russian army turn the tide?

Between the strike on Makiivka, which decimated Russian troops on New Year’s Eve, and the announcement of the shipment of light tanks to Ukraine by the West last week, the new year has not started auspiciously for Vladimir Putin. While he has faced a series of setbacks since launching his invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the question now arises of the next blow for the head of the Kremlin. In this unfavorable context, the scenario of a new wave of mobilization decreed by the Russian authorities has continued to strengthen in recent weeks. The objective: to regain control in 2023 on a conflict that has eluded him for almost eleven months.

Within the Ukrainian general staff, the hypothesis already seems to have been confirmed. Outlining the plan that the Russian president may have in mind, the Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman said on January 7 that “no less than 500,000 Russians” could be enrolled in the armed forces as of January 15. Including, this time, in big cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg, less affected by the previous wave in September. “Russia will not be able to ignore its preparations for a new wave of aggression against Ukraine and all of Europe,” Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video message two days earlier.

Fears had grown in intensity in recent weeks after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on December 21 his intention to increase the Russian army’s strength to 1.5 million soldiers. “The men who had been mobilized in September and sent for training are now beginning to be ready, notes Yohann Michel, researcher on defense issues at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Russian power could therefore be tempted to take advantage of this to train new segments of the population and further strengthen their capacities.” And ultimately, be able to turn the tide?

Large pool of men

“The Russians have experienced many defeats and disappointments, but they still have significant military capabilities, points out General (2S) Jérôme Pellistrandi, editor-in-chief of the National Defense Review. Even if the Ukrainian fighters are better equipped and more seasoned, the human reservoir of Russia remains superior to that of Ukraine.” Last September, the Russian Minister of Defense had estimated at 25 million his pool of men who could be A new influx of 500,000 soldiers, after an initial wave of 300,000 in September, would pose a major challenge for kyiv’s forces estimated at 700,000 soldiers.

Beyond the figures put forward, however, there are still several unknowns. Already, Russia’s ability to properly train such a flood of new recruits, its army long lacking managers and trainers (which explains part of its setbacks in this war). “In the event of a new wave of mobilization, Putin would have two options: the first would be to form a more or less effective military force, but that would take time and would require at least six months of training, estimates Tomas Ries, professor at the National Defense Academy in Stockholm. The second option would be to use its men as cannon fodder, which would make them available more quickly, but would greatly reduce their combat effectiveness.”

This last scenario would only further aggravate the tally of losses in the Russian ranks, already estimated at more than 100,000 to date (dead and wounded). And could pose a political risk for Putin. “If the mobilized suffer very heavy losses, this could start to create strong discontent in Russian society, continues Tomas Ries. For the moment, the criticisms are focused above all on the staff, but this could end up targeting directly Putin.” Following the strike on Makiivka, which killed 400 Russian soldiers according to Ukrainian figures (89 according to the Russians), some military bloggers in Russia had already denounced the “criminal negligence” of the Russian command…

A Ukrainian gunner fires towards Russian positions on the outskirts of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine on December 30, 2022.

© / AFP

“Putin’s army returns to a dominant use of the soldier as a physical body, whose skills count for little, which is above all a volume of human mass opposed to the enemy, summarizes on Twitter Anna Colin Lebedev, lecturer at Paris-Nanterre University. For this specialist in post-Soviet societies, the current discourse evokes that of 1941, when glory was measured “by the intensity of sacrifice.” During the Second World War, the Red Army recorded, according to official figures, more than 8.6 million dead. However, there is a major difference: Russian demography, at half mast, has nothing to do with what it was in the Soviet era.

“An animal wounded, but not yet defeated”

The fact remains that despite heavy losses, the mercenaries of the Wagner militia have claimed in recent days to have captured territories in Soledar, in eastern Ukraine. “The whole territory of Soledar is covered with the corpses of the invaders and bears the scars of the explosions. This is what madness looks like,” Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday, January 9. The fear: that they will soon be able to encircle Bakhmout, the epicenter of Russian efforts in Ukraine for more than six months.

In any case, Vladimir Putin seems to have given up on his ambition for a quick victory. In early December, the head of the Kremlin admitted that the war in Ukraine was “a long process”, adding that “the appearance of new territories” nevertheless constituted a “significant result for Russia”. “The Russian army is a wounded animal, but it has not yet been defeated, underlines Yohann Michel. A large mass of new soldiers could at least make it difficult for Ukraine to reconquer its territories occupied by the Russians. D From a political point of view, this could be presented by Vladimir Putin as the start of a victory.”

The Russian president is in any case not willing to make concessions. After a telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on January 5, he, according to the Kremlin, “repeated that Russia is open to a serious dialogue – provided that the authorities in kyiv comply with the well-known and repeatedly expressed requirements and take into account new territorial realities.”

Similarly, Moscow pretended, on Monday, January 9, not to worry about the announcement of new armored deliveries to Ukraine by the West – including among others 50 American Bradley infantry armored vehicles, 40 German armored vehicles Marder and an unspecified number of French AMX-10 RC light battle tanks – believing that they “are not going to change anything” in the balance of power. “The Ukrainians have a very efficient use of their means, but they remain in limited quantity, gauge General Pellistrandi. And at some point, even the best equipment can find its limits in the face of the weight of numbers.” It remains to be seen whether Putin will be ready to send thousands of new soldiers to the death.


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