Ukraine at D+217: Mobilization, annexation, and low morale in the Russian ranks.
N2K logoSep 29, 2022

Enough Russians have fled the country to avoid conscription to raise concerns about the short- and long-term effect of their departure on the economy. Intercepted phone calls from the combat zones suggest serious morale problems in the Russian army's ranks.

Ukraine at D+217: Mobilization, annexation, and low morale in the Russian ranks.

The number of Russians who've fled the country to avoid the mobilization is large and growing, the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) posted this morning. "In the seven days since President Putin announced the ‘partial mobilisation’ there has been a considerable exodus of Russians seeking to evade call-up. Whilst exact numbers are unclear, it likely exceeds the size of the total invasion force Russia fielded in February 2022. The better off and well educated are over-represented amongst those attempting to leave Russia. When combined with those reservists who are being mobilised, the domestic economic impact of reduced availability of labour and the acceleration of ‘brain drain’ is likely to become increasingly significant."

More than a hundred thousand have fled to Kazakhstan alone, the Washington Post reports, seconding the MoD's assessment that the departures are likely to impose a severe cost on the Russian economy.

Mistaken draft orders continue to go out, but, one regional recruiting official says, when that happens, it's the conscripts' own fault. If they were eligible for an exemption but didn't get one, it's because they didn't keep their records up-to-date, as the law requires.

Nord Stream sabotage.

The BBC reported this morning that Sweden had found a fourth leak in the Nord Stream pipelines that run through the Baltic Sea. Investigation into the sabotage continues, but so far, as POLITICO summarizes European and North American informed opinion, "all signs point to Russia." Only a nation-state would have the capabilities necessary to carry off the sabotage, and only Russia seems to have had a motive.

What Russian troops' mobile phone calls reveal.

One general lesson military services have drawn from Russia's war against Ukraine is that the ubiquity of mobile devices and their easy access to the Internet have combined to create a new world for OPSEC, for operational security. That is, no one has so far figured out how to keep matters secure when individuals now have communication capabilities that fifty years ago would have been the envy of a national command authority. Local citizens with cell phones taking pictures of deploying Russian units in both Russia and Belarus gave journalists, enthusiasts, and lay observers a tolerably complete picture of the Russian order of battle on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine. Now they're affording insight into the state of morale in the Russian forces, and it's not a pretty picture.

Ukrainian intelligence and law enforcement agencies intercepted and recorded many of the calls Russian troops made from the zone of attack beginning in the early days of the invasion, and the New York Times has published an extensive selection of them. The soldiers complain of their leaders' failure to even tell them they were being deployed to combat, of tactical ineptitude, supply failure, and, often with horror, of the widespread atrocities committed by their forces. A representative call early in the invasion recounted the futility of Russian attempts to take Kyiv in a decapitation operation:

"We can’t take Kyiv.…We just take villages, and that’s it."

"They wanted to f**king do it in one fell swoop here, and it didn’t f**king work like that."

"They just want to fool people on TV, like, 'Everything is all right; there’s no war, just a special operation.' But in reality, it’s an actual f**king war."

Other calls reflected the shifting fortunes of the battlefield as the war turned against Russia:

"Our position is sh*t, so to speak. We’ve moved to defense. Our offense has stalled."

"A lot of paratroopers were moving in front of us.…They got f*cking hit." (Paratroopers are considered highly trained, highly motivated, and highly cohesive in all armies, but they're held in particularly high regard in the Russian army. When they fail, it shakes the confidence of ordinary infantry.)

"Tanks and armored carriers were burning. They blew up a bridge and a dam. The roads flooded. Now, we can’t move." (A roadbound force takes heavy losses in vehicles.)

"The khokhols are advancing and we’re just standing here....I never imagined I’d end up in this kind of sh*t." ("Khokhols" is a familiar, vaguely pejorative Russian slang term for Ukrainians. As an aside, the usage seems in tension, at least, with the official Russian claims that the Ukrainians are really just Russians, artificially separated brothers and sisters.)

Other problems cropped up, like friendly fire: "Our own forces f*cking shelled us. They thought we were f*cking khokhols.…We thought we were f*cking done for." And casualties are said to be high. One conversation with a family member went like this:

Do you guys have losses?" a family member asked "Yegor." He answered, "From my regiment alone, one-third of the regiment." "That’s a lot," his family member replied. Other soldiers in other organizations said things like this:

"Sixty percent of the regiment is gone already."

"No one is left from my Kostroma regiment."

"There were 400 paratroopers. And only 38 of them survived.…Because our commanders sent soldiers to the slaughter."

And the commanders don't come off well in the phone calls:

"F*cking higher-ups can’t do anything. Turns out, they don’t really know anything. They can only talk big in their uniforms."

"Our new general was removed because there were too many losses under his leadership."

A common view of the war is that it was founded on lies, as one "Sergey" said to his mother:

"Mom, we haven’t seen a single fascist here....This war is based on a false pretense. No one needed it. We got here and people were living normal lives. Very well, like in Russia. And now they have to live in basements. The old lady who lived near us had to live in the cellar. Can you imagine?" Mom thinks he's being unreasonable, and talking out of fear. "Seryozha," she says, "you can’t be so one-sided. I understand that it’s scary there and you feel bad." Sergey is having none of this. "What does scary have to do with it? We all think the same thing: This war wasn’t needed."

There's a great deal more like this. President Putin himself comes in for a great deal of adverse comment. Given the increasingly hands-on role he's played as he's progressively lost confidence in his combat commanders and the military and intelligence establishments generally, that front-line odium seems fair enough.

The authenticity of the intercepts seems beyond question. "Reporters verified the authenticity of these calls by cross-referencing the Russian phone numbers with messaging apps and social media profiles to identify soldiers and family members," the Times wrote, adding that they'd "spent almost two months translating the recordings, which have been edited for clarity and length."

All soldiers gripe, in every army, at all times and in all places, but what's being heard in the intercepted phone calls goes well beyond the soldierly norms of grousing, discontent, and a general sense of being unappreciated and ill-used. Russia's army has a serious morale problem That problem is rooted in loss of confidence in the chain of command and a recognition that the army's training and logistics have been utterly inadequate to its mission.

Cyber risk in the hybrid war.

Ukraine has warned that Russia is preparing a fresh wave of cyberattacks. While Russian cyber operations have underperformed in the war (in part because defenses have proved more effective than expected), the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has tweeted a reminder that relaxation of vigilance would at this point be premature.