The Ukrainian September offensive took about two weeks to liberate (or “de-occupy”) over 8,000 square kilometers and captured hundreds of Russian tanks and other armored vehicles intact as well as warehouses containing large quantities of ammunition, fuel and other supplies. Russian units disintegrated and troops fled in civilian vehicles for the Russian border. The Ukrainians usually don’t fire on civilian vehicles. Besides, Russian deserters do more for the Ukrainian cause back in Russia than as Ukrainian prisoners. The deserters spread the word about the disaster to the Russian government and its leader Vladimir Putin. The bad news from Ukraine caused Putin to admit, for the first time, that Russian forces had suffered a major defeat in Ukraine. Previous defeats were explained as a planned repositioning of Russian forces. The September defeat was different because it resulted in a major loss of Russian troops, most of them deserting or surrendering. Putin declared a national emergency and ordered 300,000 army reservists be activated and sent to Ukraine.
Russian military reserves are a myth because they are simply a list of soldiers who were in the military for at least a year and their last known address. Technically these are “unorganized reserves” and not nearly as useful as reservists who are organized into units and regularly trained. In some countries the reservists are paid for the days spent training. Putin insisted that only men with military experience were being called up. That was not how it was carried out by local military recruiting personnel, including the conscripts who are called up twice a year (spring and fall). Many recruiters supplement their income by taking bribes to get men off the conscription lists. This mobilization did not yield a lot of bribe income because many of those called up simply refused to show up.
In some parts of Russia, the recruiters have access to security force police and troops who can forcibly activate “reservists.” This was often necessary because in many parts of the country there were not enough veterans to activate. Recruiters grabbed whoever they could, including unpopular local ethnic minorities or students who were supposed to be exempt from activation until they graduated. Anti-war protesters that were arrested were often taken. Since these men were already in custody, some were “activated” into the army. The government quickly noted this widespread resistance to activation and banned military age men from leaving the country. The government threatened to call up as many men as it required until it got 300,000 into uniform. The initial mobilization announcement implied that the reservists would receive two months of training before being sent to Ukraine. The reality was that most got two weeks of training, if that. Russia has lost over 100,000 troops in Ukraine so far to death, disabling injury, desertion and capture. Active-duty units throughout Russia were ordered to provide troops for duty in Ukraine and most of those sent were lost in Ukraine. Now commanders of active-duty units report that they have no more soldiers to send, even when they do.
Commanders in Ukraine wanted trained replacements they could depend on. For months they have been getting a lot of men in uniform who were often not useful as many were untrained and had little military experience or enthusiasm for being in Ukraine. The government has been trying to hide the defeats and losses in Ukraine, which began right after the invasion began in February. There were some initial successes but now the Ukrainians are armed and able to take that territory back along with territory seized in 2014. Russia conducted sham local referendums to incorporate the 2014 territories and those taken in February and March as independent states that then agree to be annexed by Russia. The UN points out that without UN election monitors the Russian referendums and elections are not legal. There is no international support for recognizing these annexations as valid and most Russian seem to agree with that, especially men mobilized for duty in Ukraine, which was and is still considered a foreign country by most Russians. While many Russians like the idea of rebuilding the Russian Empire, few are willing to fight in a combat zone to make that happen.
Ukrainian forces have learned to exploit this Russian reluctance to fight in Ukraine. Russian soldiers are given opportunities to surrender or desert, and few choose to stand and fight because the Ukrainians have a well-deserved reputation for defeating Russians who stand and fight. Russia recently passed a law that makes any Russian prisoner-of-war in Ukraine subject to a ten-year prison term unless he can escape Ukrainian captivity. Usually, it’s only the commander of the Russian units who wants to fight. Most of their troops prefer less violent solutions to the problem. This has led to heavy losses among officers who died trying to get their reluctant troops to fight. There were a lot of Russian troops willing to fight in February but as the months went by the Ukrainians were better at it while most of the invaders have lost any enthusiasm for fighting.
The Russian government fears that the Ukrainians are trying to drive all Russians out of Ukraine and have enough trained troops, equipped with superior weapons and commanders to make that happen. Ukrainians and a growing number of Russians see the recent Ukrainian victories as part of a trend, not some one-time event not likely to be repeated. This is already taking place in the rest of Russian-occupied Ukraine. Determined Ukrainians versus reluctant Russian troops is a major problem for the Russian government and Vladimir Putin’s solution is to increase the Russian threats to use nuclear weapons. There is little support in Russia and major opposition from the rest of the world to that. Putin alone cannot detonate a nuke in Russia. That requires a number of reliable and willing Russian military specialists to do. These men are well aware that this would be the first use of nukes since World War II and likely to result in Western retaliation by NATO members that also have nukes. Russian allies like Iran and North Korea are watching this with keen interest because North Korea already has some crude nukes and recently declared it would use them without warning if they felt threatened. The Iranians don’t have any nukes yet but could produce them. Fear of retaliation has made the Iranians more circumspect. Both Iran and North Korea see the Putin nuclear threats as the most realistic use of nuclear blackmail yet attempted and are very much hoping Putin will win his gamble.