Why Is Russia Losing The War In Ukraine? Because Putin Is Lying

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

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On this, the 367th day of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, things haven't been going well for the Russian army. No less a figure than Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley talked about it at a press conference in Brussels following a meeting of NATO defense ministers on February 14.

“Russia has lost; they’ve lost strategically, operationally and tactically, and they are paying an enormous price on the battlefield,” Milley intoned through his famous scowl. “President Putin thought he could defeat Ukraine quickly, fracture the NATO alliance, and act with impunity. He was wrong. Ukraine remains free. They remain independent. NATO and its coalition have never been stronger. Russia is now a global pariah, and the world remains inspired by Ukrainian bravery and resilience.”

Milley and a large majority of military experts are saying that Russia is losing the war in Ukraine because Putin’s army has performed so poorly against Ukraine’s army. Russia’s army doesn’t measure up with any metric used to analyze an army’s performance in war. Its soldiers are poorly trained, poorly led, and as the war has ground on, poorly equipped. Its armored forces have been decimated. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of tanks and armored personnel carriers have been either destroyed or captured and used by Ukrainian forces against the Russians. Russia has lost a large portion of Ukrainian land it captured early in the war along with rail systems and the port of Kherson which they were using to resupply their soldiers.

British intelligence estimates Russia has suffered 200,000 casualties. More than 58,000 names of Americans killed over 10 years are on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. It has taken Russia less than a year for 60,000 of its soldiers to be killed.

The war that began a year ago has settled into a stalemate across a 600-mile front line and is being fought largely with artillery and ground-launched rockets. NATO and U.S. military officials are now estimating Russia has gone from firing 20,000 to 30,000 rounds of 155 mm artillery shells a day to firing 5,000. Ukraine estimates Russian artillery fire has dropped from 60,000 rounds a day to 20,000. Every time I read about Russia’s artillery, I remember a photo I ran with a column some time ago showing fields pock-marked by hundreds of craters left by Russian artillery rounds that missed their marks. Today I found another one taken of a recently planted field near Slovyansk, Ukraine, dated June 6, 2022:

There were no military targets out in the open in those fields. Even if you assume the Russians may have been firing at Ukrainian soldiers using the tree lines running through the fields for cover and concealment, just look at how many times the Russian artillery missed! I counted more than 100 craters within the left quadrant marked by the tree lines. There must be at least 100 more in the rest of the fields, and the craters continue out of the picture in three directions.

What this photograph means is Russian soldiers manning 155 howitzer batteries were just shoving shells into the breach of their guns and pulling the lanyards and doing it over and over again without aiming the weapon. In mil-speak, aiming and re-aiming artillery is called adjusting fire. You shoot a volley of shells and then a forward observer – or more likely a surveillance drone – gives new map coordinates for the battery to dial into their weapons before firing a new volley. You can see in the photo that the firing was completely random. They weren’t aiming at anything. They didn’t adjust anything.

What does this tell you about the Russian soldiers manning those 155 mm howitzers? It tells you simply this: Either they were so poorly trained they didn’t know how to adjust fire, or they didn’t care what they hit or even if they hit anything at all. Their commander had given them some sort of unfocused order, such as, “The enemy are in the vicinity of these grid coordinates. Kill them.” The Russian soldiers just fired and fired their heavy howitzers and kept firing.

The photo shows the lie behind the numbers. If the Russian army was firing 20,000 rounds a day in this manner, or even 60,000, they were just wasting ammunition. This is why there is a stalemate with the Ukrainian army along such a broad front. Russia has much more ammunition than Ukraine does, and if the Ukrainians are firing an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 rounds a day and holding their own on the front lines, then Ukraine is killing way more Russians than Russia is killing Ukrainians, using a lot less ammunition.

Here we arrive at the nut of the whole thing. Ukrainian soldiers are fighting to retake land that is theirs and to defend their country. Russian soldiers are fighting because Putin ordered his army to invade Ukraine. He even gave it a name that was a lie. It wasn’t a war, it was a “special military operation” – a name, incidentally, that has since been dropped in favor of the word “war.” The reasons Putin gave for invading Ukraine were lies – that Ukraine had always belonged to Russia, that Ukraine is being run by a Nazi regime, that Russian soldiers are fighting for the honor of mother Russia – all of it is nonsense.

That fact is trickling down to the Russian soldiers on the front line. They don’t believe what Putin said or what their commanders are telling them. Leaders of countries like Putin make a fatal error when they inflate the rhetoric behind the war and then send their soldiers into battle ill-equipped and ill-trained. Soldiers can reason as well as you or me. They have no difficulty concluding that if the reasons behind the war were true, then Putin wouldn’t be sending them into battle led by untrained leaders with aging equipment and weapons, even in some cases without adequate food and medical supplies.

A fight broke out last week between Yevgeny Prigozhin, who owns and runs the infamous Wagner Group of mercenaries, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian Army's general staff, the man Putin recently assigned to be the operational commander of the war. Prigozhin accused the Russian military officials of not providing enough ammunition to his soldiers in the fight for Bakhmut. Prigozhin posted a photo of himself with the bodies of dozens of dead Wagner Group fighters in body bags near Bakhmut, and accused the Moscow officials of treason for not adequately supplying his soldiers with equipment and ammunition. Prigozhin accused them of eating off “golden plates” and sending their children on luxury vacations while his soldiers died on the battlefield. Gerasimov and Shoigu fired back, calling Prigozhin’s charges lies.

Yevgeny Prigozhin with body bags of dead Wagner Group mercenaries near Bakhmut, Ukraine

What’s going on here? Putin was nowhere to be seen in this fight, taking neither the side of his official government commanders or his unofficial mercenary commander, Prigozhin, reportedly a close friend. Prigozhin may be criticizing Putin in the names of his defense official and military commander, or he may simply be trying to get Putin’s attention. Either way, when commanders fight amongst themselves instead of against the enemy, it is no way to win a war.

The larger story about Russia’s army is about lies. Armies that are in disarray tell lies from the bottom up and the top down. Soldiers in the field who are given orders that don’t make sense lie to their commanders that the orders have been carried out, when the opposite is true. Commanders lie to their soldiers in giving them nonsensical orders and expecting the troops to believe them. Then the commanders turn around and tell lies to the commanders above them, and ultimately to Putin himself, that the war is going well and they are winning – when in reality the opposite is true.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s the way we fought the war in Vietnam. That war was based on a lie, and lies were told about it every day in Saigon at the infamous “Five O’Clock Follies” press briefings. U.S. commanders in Vietnam lied about the number of enemy soldiers who had been killed, the famous inflated body-counts. They lied about battles like Hamburger Hill and the battle of the Ia Drang valley, calling them victories when in fact they were extraordinarily expensive defeats in which hundreds of American soldiers lost their lives, only to have the territory that they were fighting for turned back to the enemy when the battle was over.

American military commanders in Vietnam made the same mistake the Russians are making today. They told lies to their soldiers and expected them to believe. Eventually, the soldiers caught onto the lies they were being fed and basically stopped fighting the war. Sent out on bogus missions to engage the enemy, they sallied forth into the boonies and did nothing and returned to base and reported either that they had seen no enemy soldiers, or that they had engaged with them and won imaginary battles.

Armies are extraordinarily fragile things. With an army – any army, not just ours or Russia’s – governments don’t have profit as a way to motivate soldiers or measure success. They can’t tell soldiers, if you go out on this very dangerous mission and risk your lives for your country and defeat this terrible enemy, we’ll give you a great big raise! Instead, armies are like enormous houses of cards held up by trust and trust alone. Soldiers have to believe that they are facing terrible danger and risking their lives for a very, very good reason in order for them to fight effectively. They must believe that there is a cause they are fighting for, and that cause is right and true.

When soldiers discover that the whole thing is a great big lie, the house of cards comes crashing down. That is what happened in Vietnam. The war was lost by the American soldiers sent to fight it who came to believe it was all for nothing. And it was lost at home in communities and families who came to understand that they had lost their sons and daughters for nothing. John Kerry put it succinctly when he testified before a Senate committee in April 1971 wearing his fatigue jacket and famously asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” The senators didn’t have an answer to that question, and two years later, American combat operations ended in Vietnam. Two years after that, we were out of there.

That’s why today we have satellite photographs of fields marked with craters of Russian artillery shells that missed their mark. They missed because the soldiers firing them didn’t care if they hit their targets. It’s probable that all they were doing was filling some quota of shells fired that was imposed on them by corrupt commanders who had to have metrics to report up the chain of command that indicated in some bogus way that the war was going swimmingly. See how many rockets we fired today! We hit X number of Ukrainian cities! We killed Y number of enemy soldiers! We moved the front lines Z-hundred meters into enemy territory!

They are holding a Five O’Clock Follies in Moscow where the war in Ukraine is being won, where the Nazi enemy is being defeated on the battlefield, where the deaths of all those young soldiers being shipped home in body bags are given meaning. New military metrics are invented to tell new lies to support Putin’s deadly dreams for his future and Russia’s. It’s all just staving off the day when the gigantic house of cards that is Russia’s war on Ukraine will come crashing down. Prigozhin and others have already started pointing fingers. One day the finger will point at Vladimir Putin, and his “special military operation” in Ukraine will be over, along with his political power and maybe his own life.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

Please consider subscribing to Lucian Truscott Newsletter, from which this is reprinted with permission.

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