Digging-in in Ukraine and digging a hole for itself in Moscow. Russian Rhetoric and Military Signals 

Yet again, Kremlin behaviour is strengthening the European and American consensus against its invasion of Ukraine, whatever gains it thinks it is making winning some new friends in countries like Israel, Mali and South Africa. With a mixture of wild rhetoric and military signals, Russia has convinced the western alliance that it must invest in Ukrainian resistance and reconstruction for the long term. Every month new thresholds of western support – almost unthinkable a year ago – are being crossed. Michael Clarke looks at some of the most significant rhetoric and signals that have created this.

Russian Rhetoric

We have long been used to wild and frankly bizarre statements on Russia’s state-controlled media.  But Foreign Minister Lavrov last week was very clear that in the Kremlin’s view, Russia has entered into a war for its own national survival, against a fascist Europe, driven by an imperialist US – and disproportionately by an imperialist Britain – that just happens to be taking place in Ukraine. The only way to justify its failing war, and the need to mobilise the whole of Russian industry and society to try to turn it round, President Putin has to invoke the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. So, ipso facto, the Ukraine invasion has to be a struggle for Russia’s very survival. Only that can justify the sacrifices he is about to demand from Russian society amid a crashing economy. And not only ‘Russia’, but Russian culture as well – assailed from the west, according now to the Kremlin, by gays, trans, abstract art, edgy drama; everything inherent in a decadent westernism that we are apparently trying to foist on Russia to undermine its traditional manliness. Putin’s general homophobia is already expressed in recent Russian law and a declaration of martial law seems not far off that will severely restrict personal life as well as political expression.

The other side of Russian rhetoric is that this ‘war for survival’ will necessarily go on for a long time and Russia will not falter because it cannot afford to. Everything in Putin’s statements on this are directed not just at stiffening the sinews of the Russian populace, but aimed also to dishearten the west – and western publics – with the idea that this war, and its inherent dangers, will go on for a long time, so maybe it would be as well to lean on Kyiv now to engage in some well-timed appeasement.

But, so far, the effect in most western capitals – even in Berlin – has been the opposite. Putin’s deranged perspective on this conflict reinforces the view in the west that more is at stake in this Ukraine conflict, not less. And Putin’s hints at ‘negotiation’, it is clear, are based on the notion that Russia only negotiates once we all accept that Russia keeps what it has captured – the four Oblasts that the Kremlin now refers to in official documents as ‘Russia’s new subjects’. So it comes down to a Putin view that, of course, Russia will conquer Ukraine and destroy Ukrainian nationality, but in a spirit of compromise, it can be done in stages. That’s how appeasement works.

Military Signals

Two particular military signals have emerged since the New Year, both off them indicative of the way the Kremlin is thinking about the long-term future of this war.

One arises in Russian command changes at the very top. They are obviously linked to the situation on the ground in Ukraine but also owe more to Kremlin politics and the jostling for position around President Putin.

On 11th January it was announced that the Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, would henceforth be responsible as theatre commander in Ukraine in addition to his role as CGS. The existing theatre commander, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, would become one of three deputy commanders, alongside Gen. Oleg Salyukov (C-in-C, Russian Ground Forces) and Col. Gen Alexei Kim (Dep Chief, General Staff). It is likely that Surovikin will be the more prominent among these three deputies, but the move undoubtedly demotes him, even as it partially suggests a demotion for Gerasimov – a CGS having to be directly responsible for one theatre of operations. It makes Gerasimov directly accountable for any more military setbacks in the Ukraine War. As senior men in the Ground Forces and the General Staff, however, Salyukov and Kim can be expected to promote more consensual defence ministry views, through Gerasimov, to the President, as well as helping protect the military from external criticisms.

The most likely interpretation of this reorganization suggests a number of possible motives:

  • An attempt by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to strengthen the military representation of the Ukraine operation at the top of the Defence Ministry in response to the claims being more assertively made by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner group and by Ramzan Kadyrov who commands Chechen forces in the operation;
  • A genuine attempt to bring more combined arms awareness to the strategic level of decision-making for the Ukraine operation (Surovikin with air force expertise, Salyukov with ground forces expertise).
  • Frustration on the part of the President and a desire to have a directly accountable individual working closely to him (Gerasimov), whilst also maintaining his personal distance from military failures and reversals.

The background to this is that both Prigozhin and Kadyrov have become ‘warlords’ within the Russian force structure in Ukraine, whose troop numbers constitute 25%-35% of total Russian forces in-theatre. Both have been stridently critical of the Russian military’s conduct of the war, and in the capture of Soledar and continued attempts to capture nearby Bakhmut, there have been open contradictions between the Russian Ministry of Defence and Prigozhin’s own statements over whether regular Russian forces or Wagner should be credited with recent successes and the majority of the fighting.  Wagner troops released social media statements, abusively criticizing the MoD in Moscow and Russia’s military leadership – statements that Prigozhin did nothing to prevent and with which he passively seemed to agree. Prigozhin is believed to have been in agreement with Surovikin’s brutal and more coherent Ukrainian war strategy since early October and highly critical of Defence Minister Shoigu.

It is unclear what view Putin might take of the divergence between his regular forces and the leaders of the growing number of irregulars serving beside them in Ukraine. He is personally close to Defence Minister Shoigu, with whom he has a genuine long-standing friendship, but Kadyrov’s father was Putin’s personal selection for the government of Chechnya after the civil war, and Ramazan, the son,  has previously been totally loyal to Putin, while Prigozhin appears to believe that he has a direct line of personal influence to the President, after their years of working together. It is quite possible that Putin is not displeased to see subordinates fighting for influence over policy.  Autocrats often interpret such competition as an opportunity to reinforce their own personal grip on power.  

The Chechen fighters and the Wagner group

Around 21,000 Chechen fighters are estimated to have been cycled through the Ukraine operation, and some 9,000 are believed to be presently deployed in-theatre, being attached to the Rosgvardia internal security forces for command purposes and for the provision of any specialist equipment. But Ramzan Kadyrov maintains personal command and control over their practical operations. It is expected that the Chechen contingent might be expanded in the spring, as part of Russia’s widely anticipated offensive.

Numbers of active Wagner group fighters in Ukraine have always been disputed, but now appear to number between 40,000 and possibly now 50,000, of whom at least 30,000 are recently recruited prison inmates who agree to serve on the front line for 6 months prior to immediate release thereafter (though there is growing evidence that individual contracts are being unilaterally extended by Wagner managers). Unlike the Chechens, the Wagner group is not integrated into any branch of Russian forces in-theatre. According to US intelligence the Wagner group now spends around $100 million per month on its own operations in Ukraine, that has included the acquisition of Su-25 aircraft, T-90 tanks, S-300 missile systems, TOS-1A thermobaric rocket launchers, heavy artillery and Pantsir air defence missile systems, in addition to at least one arms shipment of various items directly from North Korea.

The second military signal, just announced, is a reorganisation of the ground forces that tells its own story. Following an outline announcement in late December 2022, Russian Defence Minister Shoigu provided a more detailed statement on 17th January regarding a series of re-organisations within the Russian military. The statement concentrated on the ground forces. It is designed to be fully implemented by 2026, indicating a switch to long-term expansion and greater readiness within the Russian armed forces. The total number of Russia’s armed forces – 1.1 million in 2022 – was increased to 1.35 million in the 2022 partial mobilisation plan, and is now set at 1.5 million overall. 

The announcement included

  • the creation of a new army corps for Karelia, near the Finnish border;
  • the re-establishment of the old Cold War military districts in Moscow and Leningrad (the extant name of the military district relating to St Petersburg) with two new ‘cross-branch’ (ie all-arms) units for their defence;
  • the creation of 3 new motor rifle divisions and 2 new air assault divisions;
  • the expansion of 7 existing motor rifle brigades to become full motor rifle divisions;
  • an unspecified number of ‘self-sufficient’ formations for the defence of the ‘new subjects of the Russian federation’ (so probably at least four, and possibly more, division-sized formations).
  • More training grounds in existing military districts and within ‘the territories of Russia’s new subjects’ (strengthening the view that Russia intends to recruit and conscript Ukrainian nationals for these ‘self-sufficient’ formations operating within conquered Ukrainian territory). 

In total, this reorganisation appears designed to create a new corps HQ, at least 12 new regular divisions, two new units for Moscow and St Petersburg that are likely to be divisional sized, and a series of more unspecified organically independent units that suggest perhaps four more divisions, at least. Allowing for those troops already allocated to the existing 7 motor rifle brigades due to be expanded, these formations appear designed to create new formations to which a minimum of 180,000 additional troops would be committed by 2026, in addition to around 60,000 intended to operate in Ukrainian occupied territories. (Prior to the Ukrainian invasion, Russia’s peacetime army was 280,000. This reorganisation suggests that the Kremlin’s intention is to almost double it in the next 3 years.)[1]

Western analysts inside government openly doubt whether Russia can meet the personnel, training and equipment requirements of such an expansion programme by 2026. Nevertheless, the plan has a political value to the Kremlin in demonstrating its commitment to an open-ended military confrontation with western powers and its intention to remain in firm control of large swathes of Ukrainian territory.

But the intentions behind these reorganisations are very clear. They accord with the broader rhetoric coming from the Kremlin, if not with some of the unhinged statements being made in the Russian media.

[1] There are also some 400,000 personnel in the Rosgvardia force of internal security troops, not normally trained for conventional combat but which has been deployed in large numbers inside Ukraine since the invasion began.

Michael Clarke is co-author of Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s, London, I.B. Tauris, 2019 and Britain’s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World, London, I.B. Taurus, 2021. He is the former Director General of the Royal United Services Institute and Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. Twitter: @MikeClarke2020s