Putin’s Potemkin Military

Potemkin military”, said Andrei Kozyrev about the Russian Army. He ought to know, being no stranger to Russian affairs as he was foreign minister of Russia under Yeltsin. Grigory Potemkin was a courtier on intimate terms with Catherine the Great though ten years her junior. Catherine is said to have described Potemkin as “one of the greatest, the most comical and amusing, characters of this iron century”. He helped her in her successful 1762 coup against her husband Peter. It was Potemkin who annexed Crimea from the Turks and founded many cities including Kherson and Sevastopol and redesigned Odessa,a city that Putin hopes to retake from Ukraine in the current invasion. Catherine gave him the title of Prince of Taurida (Crimea) with his own Taurida Palace in Saint Petersburg and made him the absolute ruler of New Russia as Ukraine was then called. Potemkin would have become a forgotten character in Russian history but for his penchant for creating villages and towns that were mere facades designed to impress visitors, including Catherine. The sobriquet “Potemkin” stuck to any such ruse and is now being frequently used for the Russian army in the same context of Crimea and Ukraine where these fake villages were created in the 18th century. Today, the name of Putin is being hyphenated with Potemkin and Russia is being called the Potemkin Superpower.

Russia has a defence budget of $60 billion and an economy of the same size as that of Italy. Given the small size of its economy, even this defence budget represents a high 4 percent of its GDP. For the sake of comparison, the much smaller Germany recently announced an infusion of $109 billion to its armed forces in order to meet the NATO requirement of 2.5 percent of GDP for defence. Russia’s defence budget is less than that of India even on nominal conversion, considerably less if reckoned on PPP, although India spends only 2.40 percent of its GDP on defence. Russia has a huge geographical area comprising 11 percent of the world land mass while India has just 2 percent. Corresponding to the area, Russia has borders on all directions of the compass, with none of them extra-friendly to it. It has a maritime border with the US and Japan and a land border with 14 countries. Russia includes 7000 kilometres of the Arctic Circle, east to west, comprising some five million square kilometres and of the remaining country too, a large part has tough winters. All these make the task of defending the country demanding and expensive.

The small budget spread over this huge area, with the totalitarian characteristics of the regime making internal security as expensive as external defence, gives its military an inherent weakness. It has an outsized nuclear force and for the two decades prior to Putin, there was negligible expenditure on nuclear arsenal. Since 2011, there is renewed emphasis on warheads and delivery systems and it is estimated that 20 percent of the defence budget goes in that direction.

A bigger threat to the money actually available for conventional defence, however, comes from the corruption, which is endemic. Putin encouraged oligarchs, he being one himself, who run everything in the country and are untouchable by the law as long as they are loyal to Putin. They have stashed their wealth in many countries and have their luxury yachts and mansions in the world that have become the subject of seizure attempts during the current sanctions with photos circulating of a golden toilet paper holder in a yacht docked in Italy, said to belong to Putin himself. Andrei Kozyrev, the former minister is on record saying, “Much of that (defence) budget was stolen and spent on mega-yachts in Cyprus.”

Corruption and its impact on the performance of Russian forces have been loud and clear during the invasion of Ukraine. Photographs of Russian armoured vehicles mired in mud showed Chinese tyres of lower weight ratings than required. In an article “As Russia’s military stumbles, its adversaries take note”, on March 7, 2022, the New York Times reported that ready-to-eat meals given to troops had expired in 2002. It has been said that an army marches on its stomach and the Russian forces seemed to be marching backwards by two decades. Russian soldiers were seen looting food from supermarket shelves and CNN reported that Putin has requested Xi Jinping for sending ready-to-eat meals. As China has so far desisted from supplying arms and ammunition, this request worked as a face-saver to support the Xi-Putin declaration of “friendship without limits”. The tragi-comedy outcome of poor logistics were there for the world to see through phone cameras when Russian troops sold fuel from their military vehicles or simply ran out of fuel and the abandoned armoured vehicles and tanks were towed away by farmers with their tractors. Yet, what takes the cake was a mundane reason behind the death of seven Russian generals in this war.

In a long article “Why Russian radios are getting spammed with heavy metal”, The Economist explained the short supply of field communication equipment resulting in only a fraction of the invasion force being given the encrypted Azart radios. The reliability of even these was dubious given an earlier scandal when these were found to have been made on the sly with Chinese components and $240 million were embezzled. Most of the troops were using commercially available China-made Motorola, Kenwood and Baofeng radios.

These caused delays in communications and being unencrypted, made an easy target for Ukrainians who distributed frequencies to volunteers for listening to Russian chatter. By triangulation, they could locate these devices which explains the unusually high number of Russian generals successfully targeted. The sad part of the story is that the Russian generals found the Baofeng device trendier than the dull Azart and at least one of them, Lt. Gen. YakovRezantsev, was photographed holding his favourite Baofeng UV-5R Dual-Band radio before he was located and killed by the Ukrainians. Despite Chinese insistence that they have not supplied anything lethal to Putin, their radios are lethal, at least for the Russian generals. Potemkin was immortalised when a battleship of the Russian Black Sea fleet was named after him in the late 19th century. Perhaps Potemkin could never be without something monumental associated with him. There was a mutiny on this ship in 1905 and that is considered to be the starting point of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. While Putin and his oligarchs created the Potemkin Russian Army and believed it could occupy Ukraine in a matter of days, it appears that the final chapter in the current Potemkin saga is yet to be scripted. A mutiny on Putin’s ship is certainly not far-fetched given the widespread effect of Western sanctions,the increasing dissatisfaction in the families of those killed on the Russian side and in the Russian families who have relatives in Ukraine and even in the members of Putin’s inner circle who are made to sit thirty feet away and called out one by one like school children to support the war.

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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