Russia is increasingly concerned about the war in Ukraine, and rightly so. Ukrainian forces have the initiative in battlefield momentum, morale, equipment, and training. So serious are Russia’s concerns that the Kremlin has now grudgingly accepted that the reality cannot be completely hidden from domestic social media and news reporting.
Three examples of this stood out on Wednesday.
First, there was the striking interview of a Russian army volunteer by Moscow’s Moskovskij Komsomolets newspaper. Edited by a close Putin ally, the newspaper normally treads the party line on sensitive matters. But what makes this interview notable is that the soldier involved, Alexander Leshkov, faces a court martial for striking an officer. Video of the Nov. 13 incident shows Leshkov blowing cigarette smoke in a lieutenant colonel’s face as surrounding conscripts laugh, highlighting the current crisis in Russian military professionalism. The officer then pushes Leshkov back, and Leshkov responds with his own aggressive punch. But in his Moskovskij Komsomolets interview, Leshkov explained how the situation developed.
Leshkov said he volunteered before being conscripted. But when it came to his military training, Leshkov said, “I and most of the servicemen were not satisfied with its quality. … In our free time, we had to prepare ourselves, beg the officers to conduct additional classes with us.” Leshkov added that he was given the wrong size of equipment. When none of these issues were resolved, Leshkov confronted officers, including the lieutenant colonel he struck.
This incident reflects a broader crisis of Russian regular and conscript forces being given grossly inadequate training and equipment before being sent to Ukraine. This is an issue that the coming winter will exacerbate. But the fact that a pro-Putin newspaper would publish Leshkov’s complaints so plainly shows just how concerned Russians are becoming about the state of the war.
The next evidence of Russian concern comes via a statement from Wagner Group chief and former street criminal-turned-chef Evgeny Prigozhin. Wagner serves as a mercenary force and as a semi-deniable unit for Russia’s GRU military intelligence service. Prigozhin, who reports suggest has criticized the war effort to Putin, observed that Ukraine “is putting up resistance on a level that may not have been seen in the history of the last century.” Again, this honesty reflects the significant challenges facing Russian forces in Ukraine. Prigozhin knows that further losses are coming.
Finally, there was the increasingly erratic behavior of Vladimir Putin’s Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.
Frustrated by the failure to maintain the offensive initiative, Kadyrov has been complaining about Russia’s war efforts since at least April. He has repeatedly lashed out at Russian military commanders. He is also likely concerned over heavy losses on the part of his own Kadyrovite fighters. But in a post to the Telegram social media channel on Wednesday, Kadyrov offered up a hyperbolic war poem he had written. The poem was juxtaposed with a video of Kadyrov running around in a valley in front of camouflaged suburbans while firing a light machine gun into the air. The music overlay appears inspired by the 1980s action movie genre. Humor aside, there’s a desperate quality to this post and to others Kadyrov has offered in recent days. They include a video apparently showing a Chechen sniper shooting two Ukrainian fighters. In the context of his recent laments about the war, it’s easy to see a desperate appeal for inspiration at play, which is to say Kadyrov is sending the opposite signal from what he intends.
In each of these incidents, we see a Russia that is beset by doubt over the trajectory of the war in Ukraine. As Ukraine conducts new counteroffensives, expect that doubt to grow in its political relevance for Putin.