Putin’s Wood Chipper

Photo: Sefa Karacan/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
May 17, 2022

Next week will mark three months since Russian forces invaded Ukraine—and stalled almost immediately. It didn’t take a military expert to understand that the Russian “special military operation,” as Vladimir Putin called it, was not going according to plan. Whole columns of Russian tanks and armored vehicles sat burned out on Ukrainian roads. Ukrainian civilians, whom Putin expected to greet his soldiers as liberators, threw Molotov cocktails at Russian tanks and tried to stop them with their bare hands. The Ukrainian military fought so skillfully and bravely that Moscow soon had to abandon its hopes of taking Kyiv. And when Russia pulled back, regrouped, and launched what it called the second phase of its special military operation to “liberate” the Donbas, it was obvious to anyone with eyes that Russia, in fact, had suffered a major defeat. 

Now, this second phase has also run aground. Russia has completed its brutal conquest of Mariupol, the Ukrainian city that broke the collective Western heart, but that is the only major achievement that Russia can point to in the last month. It has gained some territory, but lost territory elsewhere, including around the major cities of Chernihiv and Kharkiv. In the case of Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces have pushed the Russians back to the border, from which Russian artillery can no longer reach the city, Ukraine’s second largest. 

And even as Russian shelling continues elsewhere, Ukrainians are periodically bombing cities across the border in Russia. Even Igor Strelkov, the former minister of defense of the Donetsk People’s Republic (if that tells you anything about the man’s ideological leanings), proclaimed the “highly advertised campaign to destroy the Donetsk formations of the enemy HAS FAILED.” He added that, “after two weeks of vicious fighting (in which both sides suffered many casualties), only tactical successes have been achieved.” And Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary General, declared that “Ukraine can win this war.”

So what, really, is going on? As the war has entered what Russia scholar and former George W. Bush advisor Angela Stent wisely called a “dynamic stalemate,” the attention of the American public has drifted. There is, after all, much to demand it these days. The people who have continued to follow the war, on the other hand, have descended ever deeper into the weeds, and it can be difficult to parse the competing, detailed claims circulating everywhere, especially on social media. This week, I thought I’d give you an assessment of where things stand militarily—and what direction they’re trending.

“This Current Offensive is Going to Be Russia’s Last”: The Case for Optimism

For those rooting for Russia’s defeat in Ukraine, there are many reasons for optimism. “Russia’s prospects aren’t very good,” says Michael Kofman, a military expert and the director of Russia studies at the Center for Naval Analysis. Kofman, who has become a mini-celebrity because of his detailed and prescient analysis of this war, believes that Russia’s military failures are adding up in a significant way. 

First, there’s the loss of men, which Kofman estimates to be somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000, a staggering figure given the time frame. With the necessary caveat that it is notoriously difficult to count enemy losses during a war, the British government has placed the estimate even higher, and this week, their defense attaché in the U.S. announced that “Russia has now likely suffered losses of one third of the ground combat force it committed in February.” And as Kofman points out, many of the losses—including the high mortality rate for officers and even generals in this war—are very problematic for the Russian war effort. “The longer they try to fight this war, the more they’re eating away at the very officers and personnel they need to train and equip new personnel,” he explained.

Yet, on May 9, despite many Western predictions, Putin did not announce a general mobilization in Russia, though there have been reports that regional enlistment offices are quietly calling up men of military age for medical evaluations. Nor has Putin rescinded his order that bans conscripts from being sent to the front, though conscripts are finding themselves thrown into battle. 

Kofman and other military experts don’t believe a full call-up is necessary, but he believes Russia won’t be able to keep getting by with these work-arounds. This is because Russia is still fighting a war with peace-time numbers. And the longer the Russian government postpones calling up reservists and conscripts, the more “they’re digging themselves into a hole,” Kofman says. “Over time, this is all going to get worse. If Putin finally decides to do it, his ability to take in new personnel will be degraded. The more he kicks the can down the road, the worse the situation gets. And there’s no way Russia can win without it.” 

Putin, meanwhile, has told the Russian people that their army is fighting a limited “special military operation,” not a war—and that they’re winning. Of course, he has a vast propaganda machine at his disposal that will quickly pivot and repackage the reality on the ground, but enlisting the reservists would be yet another embarrassing concession to that reality. 

Then there’s the loss of materiel, which has also been colossal. “Russia has lost more tanks than the total amount either the U.K. or France or Germany have in their militaries,” one European diplomat told me. It takes a long time to make a new Russian tank. According to the Wall Street Journal, Russia lost two years’ worth of tank production during the first two months of the war. Moreover, Western sanctions now ban exporting the necessary microchips and machinery that Russia needs to make more tanks and other materiel, further delaying and disrupting the process of replacing those charred carcasses now littering Ukraine.

Russia is replenishing its front lines, but that’s not going as well as Moscow would hope, either. “They’re bringing in materiel and people who are not as good as what they had before,” the European diplomat continued. “There’s no way they’re going to be better in the short term, and it’s hard to see how they get better in the medium term.” 

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army has an advantage in the sense that defending territory is easier than seizing it. Western military aid has shown no signs of tapering off and Ukraine continues to be armed with weapons that are technologically superior to the Russians’. There is no looming shortage of manpower, either. Ukraine has fully mobilized and, according to Michael Schwirtz who has been reporting from the war for the New York Times, there are still lots of people hoping to join the fight who have been told that there’s no room. And unlike Russian soldiers, Ukrainian soldiers are extremely motivated. 

That’s why, for all of Russia’s talk of taking Ukraine’s entire Black Sea coast and linking up to the Russian peacekeepers in Transnistria, outside observers remain highly skeptical. “On nearly every objective they’ve set forth, on every timeline, in every military maneuver, they’ve failed,” one U.S. government source told me. Even a Russian military expert recently said as much on Russian state TV, an unprecedented moment of honesty. Pointing to the military aid from the U.S. and Europe, as well as the high morale of the Ukrainian military, Mikhail Khodoryonok, himself a Russian military veteran, said, “the situation for us will, honestly speaking, continue to get worse.” 

“The offensive hasn’t run out of steam yet, but it does look like it’s on the verge of culminating,” says Kofman. And unless Russia makes some massive changes to how it’s running this “special military operation,” “this current offensive is going to be Russia’s last.”

“The Ukrainian Army Will Be Destroyed”: The Case for Caution

When I spoke to Igor Korotchenko, a Russian military expert who frequently appears on Russian state TV and is the editor-in-chief of National Defense Magazine, he was careful to make sure that I understood that everything was going according to plan. And the plan, as it stood now, was to “liberate” the Donbas and to destroy the Ukrainian army. “This is a planned grinding down of Ukrainian military potential, but this takes some time. Maybe two-three or even four-five weeks, and then we’ll see how it goes,” he said, adding that, in his personal, expert opinion the next, third phase of the military operation should focus on “liberating” Odessa and Mykolayiv and linking this land to Transnistria. “Whether the Kremlin will make that political decision, I don’t know,” he demurred. 

He admitted that “we also have made mistakes, but I will not speak about them, for obvious reasons.” 

“Why not?” I asked. 

“So as not to give the opposite side the insight that would help them harm Russia,” he explained. “As a citizen of the Russian Federation, as a person who supports Putin and wishes success to the Russian army, I will not comment on our mistakes. Of course, they exist, but we’re working on overcoming them and converting them into successes.”

But he returned again to what he had led with: the goal was to “grind down” the Ukrainian military. The word he used, though, was peremolot’, which translates closer to what a wood chipper or a garbage disposal does. Sure, it was taking a while, Korotchenko admitted unprompted, but this was because the Russian military was taking great care to both minimize their own casualties as well as those among Ukrainian civilians. “We have certain limitations connected to minimizing losses to civilians and civilian infrastructure,” he explained, as if we hadn’t all seen the photos. “We have to restore this all ourselves so we have no reason to raze it down to the foundations.” 

This was why, Korotchenko explained, “this [operation] has a more stretched out character” and hasn’t produced the grand Russian victories that Putin had initially promised. “The main goal is grinding down [the Ukrainian military], every day, every day, every day, ten, 20, 30, 50 tanks, four, five planes, six, seven helicopters, 10, 15 drones,” Korotchenko intoned. “We just have to do it, do it, do it, ev-er-y-day.” 

Despite the setbacks, Korotchenko went on, “we are sure that we will be successful. The political-military leadership of Russia will not back down. The Ukrainian army will be destroyed. Either [Volodymyr] Zelensky signs a peace deal on Russia’s terms, or he will flee, or his fate will be a sad one. But all of this takes time. You can’t do all this in three days, or even in a week. But the goals set out by Putin on February 24, these goals will be achieved one way or another, sooner or later. The political and military goals that were laid will be achieved fully.”

Korotchenko is a staunch Putin patriot and he was very consciously speaking to someone from the other camp, but there is a scary kernel of truth buried in all that bravado. Just because the Russian army isn’t sailing from victory to victory in Ukraine, just because they’re suffering obscene casualties, doesn’t mean that Putin’s wood chipper isn’t still working just as Korotchenko described. There is no sign that it is going to be turned off any time soon. 

“This has a long way to go and it’s going to be as long as the Russians want to make it,” the U.S. government source told me. “They have the military on hand to keep going as long as they want. They certainly have the hardware and the firepower to just continue the grinding advance. It’s going to be a war of attrition, of hardware, a grinding, kilometer-by-kilometer battle, just slinging artillery at each other.” When I asked this source, who is well-positioned to know how things were going on the battlefield, how long they thought the Russians could keep it up, they said, “They could sustain this for years.”

“A Very Costly Land War”: The Case for Realism

That lost Russian military hardware will eventually be replaced, even if it is slow, and even if Russia has to work around Western sanctions to do it. There’s China, which has not condemned the war and could potentially—and quietly—help Russia get the technology it needs. And there are also the examples of North Korea and Iran, who despite punishing Western sanctions, have been able to develop relatively sophisticated military capabilities. “If North Korea can get microchips on the black market, you best believe Russia can,” Kofman said. 

When I asked the U.S. government source about the effect that sanctions would have on the Russian military-industrial complex, they said, “I just really want to caution you on the wishful thinking.” 

According to the European diplomat, the fact that Russia was not meeting its own goals not only meant that the war would not soon end, but that it would become ever more brutal. “They’ll be able to grind on in that Russian way, just bombing and throwing people at it,” the diplomat said. “The only thing they can do is to bomb indiscriminately, in the hopes of flattening whatever they’re going to attack.” Kofman agreed. “This is going to be a more dragged out war,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to be a short conflict. It’s clear that it’s going to be a very costly land war.” 

That means more Ukrainian cities destroyed and many more Ukrainian civilians killed. It means that millions of Ukrainian refugees who have fled will not return home soon, and that could mean their welcome in some of the most xenophobic countries in Europe, like Poland and Hungary, could soon wear thin. It means the Ukrainian economy continues operating at a significantly reduced capacity. It means foreign investors stay away so long they forget what it was like to work there, and it means the country becomes ever more dependent on Western aid. 

It also means many of the fields of Ukraine, once known as the breadbasket of the U.S.S.R., will lie fallow. The continued Russian blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports—which will be very difficult to break—means a continued disruption of the food supply, which drives up the cost of basics, like grain and cooking oil, which, in turn, hits poorer countries harder, thereby increasing the probability of political unrest the world over. 

The longer this war of attrition goes on, the longer the two sides grind each other down, the harder it gets to achieve victory—for either side. Putin has continually reformulated what it is he wants to accomplish in Ukraine—his Victory Day speech tellingly did not mention “de-Nazification” or “demilitarization”—but Ukraine has only hardened its position. As its military defied all outside expectations and turned back the tide, as its people have seen what the Russian army did to Mariupol and Bucha, the Ukrainians have, quite understandably, lost the will to compromise with the Russian government. 

It doesn’t help that Moscow, in the Russian parlance, lies without blushing, violating every promise it has ever made, including that POWs would be treated with respect. Today, after hundreds of Ukrainian fighters trapped in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol were evacuated into Russian-controlled territory, the Russian parliament suggested labeling them terrorists—and therefore ineligible for a prisoner exchange. It has also considered reintroducing the death penalty in Russia so it might be used on them. 

The Ukrainian definition of victory is now reconquering the land it held as of February 23, 2022, the day before Russia invaded. That is a very, very tall order. Just because Russia is losing, doesn’t mean that Ukraine can easily win, Kofman says. “It doesn’t mean Ukraine will easily reconquer all that territory. That’s the part people are getting wrong. There’s no evidence that Russians will melt away or have big routs. These are false expectations that it might be easy to push the Russians back. Switching from defensive to offensive is going to be hard for Ukraine”—especially after months and months of being put through the Russian wood chipper. “I’m skeptical,” he said in response to his own question of whether Kyiv would be able to achieve its own goals. 

Moreover, he added, “Does anyone look at an economic blockade, millions of people displaced, minus 45 percent GDP, thousands killed, and say it’s a victory?”