Contrary to those Western analysts who believe the Russo-Ukrainian War has reached a stalemate, pro-regime Russians admit that they are losing—badly.
Two pieces of evidence make a convincing case.
On September 15, Major General Andrei Gurulyev, a combative Duma deputy of markedly illiberal tendencies who in recent months has argued that Russia should “burn” Ukraine, bomb Great Britain, and reintroduce the Stalinist terror, suddenly had a change of heart and described conditions on the front lines as being near-catastrophic. He even had the temerity to call the war a war, eschewing the prescribed official terminology (“special military operation”) and thereby engaging in a criminal offense for which many Russians have been punished.
According to Gurulyev’s Telegram posting, the Ukrainians are resilient, adaptive, and resourceful, and have succeeded in pushing back the Russians, imposing high casualties, evading Russian artillery, neutralizing Russian helicopters, deploying huge numbers of virtually limitless drones, and dealing effectively with the minefields. Indeed, “the enemy has seized some of our defensive positions.” Naturally, concludes Gurulyev, “we will win,” though “only one serious problem keeps us from Victory.” What might that be?
Gurulyev’s answer is shocking, considering that he’s spent much of his career doing just what he now denounces. “Mendacious reports, unfortunately, lead to incorrect decisions on a variety of levels.” The major general is right, of course, though what he fails to see is that the problem is inherent in the very nature of the overcentralized political (and military) system created by Russia’s illegitimate president, Vladimir Putin. Mendacity, to put it simply, is the best way to survive and thrive in today’s Russia, just as it was in the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire.
The lying begins at the lowest levels and then proceeds upwards. By the time it reaches the corridors of power, Russia’s decision-makers, Putin included, have a false, sugarcoated picture of actual events on the ground. Hence his belief that invading Ukraine would be a cakewalk. Fixing the problem requires more than stopping to lie. The only effective solution is to dismantle Putin’s top-heavy fascist regime and replace it with something approaching democratic accountability.
Gurulyev paints a depressing picture—for Russia, that is—but just how bad conditions are on the front was made crystal clear in mid-September by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, which ordered 230,000 death certificates for family members of deceased combat veterans. Back in May 2023, it ordered 23,716 such certificates; in 2022, the number was 5,777.
The last two numbers—23,716 and 5,777—look like accurate tabulations of war dead, though keep in mind that they probably do not include the thousands of Russians left to rot on the battlefield, the approximately 50,000 dead Wagner mercenaries (of whom many were inmates), and the tens of thousands of fighters from the occupied Donbas territories. The first figure—230,000—may reflect the actual number of dead or an estimate of how many will die or both.
Now, let’s engage in some conservative “guesstimating.” We know that 29,493 definitely died. Add 10,000 left to rot, 50,000 Wagnerites, and another 50,000 Donbasites, and we get approximately 140,000 dead Russians. Let’s assume that of the 230,000 just-ordered death certificates only half are intended for actually killed Russians and the rest are intended for future use. That comes out to 115,000; add that figure to 140,000 and you get 255,000 dead Russian soldiers. Significantly, the Ukrainians estimate that about 274,000 Russians have been killed.
Whatever the exact number of Russian fatalities, it’s obviously very high—probably no fewer than 150,000 and no more than 275,000. These numbers are decidedly not evidence of Russian battlefield success or even of a stalemate. And viewed in tandem with Gurulyev’s lamentations, they convincingly demonstrate that Western analysts and policymakers who see no chance of a Ukrainian victory are simply dead wrong. In fact, victory may be closer than we suspect. All Ukraine needs to do is to continue doing what it’s already doing: degrading Russian military infrastructure, incrementally liberating territory, killing Russians, and demoralizing survivors.
Small wonder that the Kremlin wants to introduce a second, much larger mobilization. Russian soldiers are dying at alarmingly high rates, and reserves are lacking. Putin and his comrades face a dilemma. On the one hand, they need more soldiers, whom they regard as little more than cannon fodder. On the other hand, presidential elections are scheduled for March 2024. Although the outcome is preordained, it would be embarrassing for the regime if Russians decided to develop a backbone and resolved to save their fathers and sons from near-certain death in the fields of Ukraine by destroying their ballots, refusing to vote, or—Heaven forbid—demonstrate for their right to live.
About the Author
Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”