RIGA, Latvia — Battlefield setbacks in Ukraine are prompting mounting criticisms of the Russian military among Russians who support the war but are increasingly frustrated with the way it is being fought.
Military analysts, veterans, mercenaries and journalists are among those who have begun speaking out on social media and state-run television against the blunders and shortcomings that continue to plague Russia’s efforts in Ukraine, even after the Russian military narrowed its goals to the capture of territory in the eastern Donbas region.
Thousands of Russians have been detained or harassed because they oppose President Vladimir Putin’s decision to go to war. The pro-war critics are different — they support the war but are frustrated with the pace of progress and in many instances want Putin to get tougher.
“Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich, please decide, are we fighting a war or are we jacking off?” Alexander Arutyunov, a military veteran who blogs under the name Razvedos, asked on his Telegram account. “If we are fighting we need to fight! And we need to hit everything. There is no other way to win in a war.”
Others bluntly question whether Russia can win the war without radical adjustments to its tactics or the mass mobilization of Russian reservists. A British intelligence report earlier this week estimated that Russia has lost up to a third of the 190,000-strong force originally deployed. Russia has also steadily been sending reinforcements, including regular contract forces alongside reservists, conscripts and mercenaries, for a current total of around 167,000, according to a Ukrainian estimate on Wednesday.
“There must be mobilization or we will lose the war. It needs 600,000-800,000 men to defeat Ukraine,” wrote Vladlen Tatarsky, a former fighter with the separatist Donbas militia who comments on his Telegram account to over 270,000 followers.
The criticisms mirror those of U.S. officials and Western military experts who have expressed astonishment at the dismal performance of the Russian military, assumed on the eve of the war to be the second-most powerful in the world. Poor planning, tactical mistakes, substandard equipment and weaponry, as well as tough resistance by Ukrainian armed forces, thwarted Russia’s original plan to seize Kyiv and are now blunting its efforts to capture Donbas.
Russian troops are making gains, but at a slower pace than envisaged by Russian military planners, U.S. officials say. Meanwhile, Russia continues to suffer heavy losses of men and equipment, prompting Western military experts to question how much longer the Russians will be able to sustain offensive operations.
The Russian critics are asking the same question. A retired colonel and prominent military analyst stunned television audiences on Monday with a candid assessment of the challenges facing Russia. With the United States and its allies rushing large quantities of sophisticated weaponry to Ukrainian forces, the situation for Russian troops “will frankly get worse,” Mikhail Khodaryonok told the “60 Minutes” talk show on the state-run Rossiya-1 channel. “We are in total geopolitical isolation and the whole world is against us, even if we don’t want to admit it.”
In an appearance earlier this month, he suggested that even mass mobilization wouldn’t help Russia given the superiority of the NATO weapons being supplied to Ukraine. Calling up more untrained men isn’t a solution, he said, “because we don’t have modern weapons and equipment in our reserves.”
“Sending people armed with weapons of yesteryear into a 21st-century war to fight against world-class NATO weapons would not be the right thing to do,” he added, proposing a radical restructuring of Russia’s military industrial complex as a solution.
Harsh condemnations are also being circulated on Telegram, the social media channel that has emerged as the dominant forum for news and discussion of the war, among Russians and Ukrainians alike.
Russia’s battle for Donbas will only be won with “courage and political will … not with chatter and half-measures, but decisive, lightning-fast actions,” wrote Yury Kotyonok, a journalist and military analyst with over 290,000 followers on his Telegram account. He added that both appear to be lacking.
Meanwhile, he noted, “the West speaks and acts, pumping up Ukraine for war [with weapons]. Russia is waiting for this fetid pile to be blown by the wind in our direction.”
A failed attempt by Russian forces last week to cross the Siversky Donets river that stands in the way of their westward advance drew ridicule. Commentators expressed contempt for the tactical and leadership failings that contributed to what may have been the single biggest Russian setback in the ground war so far.
As many as 485 soldiers died and 80 armored vehicles were lost when Russian troops with the 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade of the 41st Combined Arms Army raised a pontoon bridge across the river, only to be obliterated by Ukrainian artillery, according to Ukrainian reports quoted by the Institute for the Study of War and a forensic study by the Atlantic Council.
The Russians then attempted at least one other identical maneuver at the exact same point, only for that force to be destroyed, too, the ISW said. According to the head of the Luhansk administration, Serhiy Haidai, the Russians made a total of five failed attempts at the same point in the river.
“How much of an idiot could you be?” German Kulikovsky, a Russian journalist, asked on his Telegram account. “Maybe it is not idiocy but sabotage?”
“Honestly, it is much easier to explain this situation by sabotage,” he added sarcastically.
Tatarsky, the former Donbas fighter, called for the “military genius” who ordered the operation to be publicly named and held accountable. The Donbas offensive has slowed in part because of the actions of such commanders, he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on April 12 that Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine would undoubtedly achieve its objectives. (Video: Reuters)
The criticisms reflect a wider dissatisfaction with the way the war is going within the Russian military and security services, Russian journalists and analysts say. And greater leeway to speak out is given to pro-war Russians who have demonstrated unquestionably patriotic credentials, said a Russian journalist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he opposes the war and fears the consequences of being publicly quoted.
Many in the military establishment believe that limiting the war’s initial goals, downsized after the Russian failure to seize Kyiv, was a mistake, wrote Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, prominent Russian investigative journalists and nonresident fellows at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
“They now argue that Russia is not fighting Ukraine, but NATO. Senior officers have therefore concluded that the Western alliance is fighting all out (through the supply of increasingly sophisticated weaponry) while its own forces operate under peacetime constraints like a bar on airstrikes against some key areas of Ukraine’s infrastructure,” Soldatov and Borogan wrote. “In short, the military now demands all-out war, including mobilization.”
Whether the criticisms are reaching Putin and his inner circle is in question. Putin has boasted in the past that he doesn’t have time for social media and the Kremlin has said that he doesn’t own a cellphone.