“The Russian soldiers are having a terrible, terrible time in the field,” former U.S. Ambassador Kurt Volker, a one-time special envoy for the Ukraine crisis, observed to the Washington Examiner. “They’re freezing to death, some of them. They’re poorly organized. The least-trained are getting thrown up to the front lines as cannon fodder. It is absolutely abysmal for the Russian troops.”
That dismal account dovetails with the pro-Russian reports from the front lines, which have circulated on social media despite Putin’s attempt to censor negative coverage of the war. Putin felt obliged to acknowledge the potential war fatigue in a civil society dialogue this week, even though the civilian officials were warned “not to upset” him with unpleasant questions about the conflict, according to Russian media reports.
“Of course, it appears to be a long process, but the new territories are a significant result for Russia,” Putin told the Russian Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. “The Sea of Azov has become an inland sea.”
The Kremlin’s own polling data reportedly suggests that “fewer and fewer Russians believe Putin did the right thing by starting the conflict,” according to the Moscow Times. Calls purportedly intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence services leave an image of Russian conscripts turning to vodka to distract from the misery of their circumstances.
“You drink, and at least it gets a little bit easier,” one man tells a woman identified as his mother, according to an interpretation from the War Translated project. “You just can’t imagine the situation here.”
Ukrainian forces, by contrast, enjoy the benefits of fighting a defensive war with Western support.
“The Ukrainians have the advantage of much better gear, warm weather gear, that they’re getting from NATO,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor told the Washington Examiner. “They’ve got the support of the local population that gives them hot meals when they need it. The Ukrainians are rotating their units in and out, sending fresh units in.
Another prominent analyst described a “crisis of strategic planning” on the part of the Russian commanders tasked with prosecuting the “special military operation,” in Putin’s preferred euphemism for the war.
“In most parts of the RF Armed Forces, soldiers and officers do not understand: for what purposes they are fighting in general,” former Russian FSB officer Igor Girkin wrote on social media this week, per the War Translated project. “And the authorities of the Russian Federation are not able to explain this to them, since setting a clear goal for the [special military operation] means ‘limiting room for maneuver’ — that is, losing the opportunity to declare the goals of the SMO as achieved at any moment that the Kremlin leaders consider convenient.”
Putin, against that backdrop, touted the acquisition of territory along the Ukrainian coast of the Sea of Azov as a victory in the style of Russia’s most iconic emperor.
“Even Peter the Great fought for access to the Sea of Azov,” he said.
That statement, which marks at least the second time that Putin has invoked his imperial predecessor, played into Ukrainian appeals for Western countries to provide additional weapons rather than hope for a ceasefire.
“Masks are off,” an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mikhail Podolyak, tweeted Wednesday. “Putin confirmed the obvious: RF is waging a genocidal type of aggression war to conquer new territories, because Peter the Great commanded that. Anyone else wants a ‘settlement?’”
Putin has unleashed a persistent barrage of strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure in a bid to enervate the counteroffensive that Ukrainian forces have launched to reclaim the territory seized by Russian forces early in the war. Yet Girkin, the pro-war analyst, doubts even the efficacy of that maneuver.
“The so-called ‘Ukraine’ will NOT freeze in winter, will NOT rebel and will NOT fight worse,” he predicted. “It’s soldiers, who have already believed in their strength as a result of the autumn victories of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and fully supported by NATO, will only fight harder and harder against the ‘Muscovites,’ avenging the hardships that their relatives and friends in the rear are forced to bear.”