There was derision for Vladimir Putin when, on May 9, he watched just a single, second world war-era tank lead Russia’s traditional VE Day military parade. More significantly, Putin cancelled the “immortal regiment” parades, which since 2011 have seen Russian nationalists march with photographs of the dead from the second world war.
Russia has lost an estimated 3,500 tanks since invading Ukraine in February last year, through capture or destruction – so the western attack lines were predictable. “There are Ukrainian farmers with more tanks than Putin,” said one popular internet meme. “The Vatican has one less tank than Russia,” said another.
Regardless of any tank shortage, Putin remains confident that he retains the strategic advantage. He can, he believes, meet any operational setbacks during the expected Ukrainian offensive with strategic countermeasures: the threat of nuclear war, a faked attack on a nuclear power station, or the destruction of Europe’s undersea cable network – which carries energy as well as information – by prepositioned mines.
Above all, he knows his economy has survived more than a year of sanctions, and has effected a major geopolitical switch over to selling energy to China, and importing industrial supplies and raw materials in return.
There is no mystery as to why the Russian economy has survived: it has offset its losses by finding willing buyers for its energy beyond the west, albeit at knock-down prices. Though $300bn (£240bn) – half its foreign exchange reserves – were seized by the US Federal Reserve, together with $20bn of oligarchic wealth, revenues from energy exports allowed the Russian Treasury to avoid going bankrupt as its economy slowed.
The European Council estimates that Russian energy revenues fell 41% in the 12 months after the full-scale invasion began. Its exports are down about 15%. Its growth performance this year, meanwhile, is subject to varying predictions, ranging from -2.5% (OECD) to +0.7% (IMF). Either way, for an economy that’s supposed to be in the grip of war production, this is still dire.
Though it has not yet reached a tipping point where growth implodes, there are signs – both physical and financial – that the stress is acute. In the first two months of this year, the Russian budget deficit came close to the predicted total for the whole of 2023: it is sliding rapidly into the red, which for a country rich in hydrocarbons and raw materials should be unthinkable.
At the same time, it has gone “back to the future” in terms of import substitution: instead of importing high-end German and South Korean cars it is making its own – but to the specifications of 20 years ago, when you didn’t need computer chips or airbags.
I’ve never thought that economic pressure alone would bring Russia to the point of voluntary retreat from Ukraine. Wars end, said the 19th-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, when the enemy’s will to go on fighting and their ability to do so are both degraded to the point of collapse.
Put another way, it’s the willingness of Russian conscripts to go on taking massive casualties, and their officers to sacrifice them, and prosaic stuff like the size of the missile stockpile and the supply of ball bearings to Russian tank factories, that will at some point bring Putin’s war effort to a sudden and dramatic halt.
Here, the signs are positive for Ukraine. I have learned to read every Russian pronouncement as deception. But the repeated outbursts by Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner private military company, carry an unmistakable message: Putin’s generals are useless, Putin himself is a “complete asshole” and the war is going to be lost.
Even if this is some elaborate charade, designed to trigger another command reshuffle, or give Putin the excuse to relaunch his threats to use nuclear weapons, it represents the overt politicisation of the Russian war effort.
As all students of the original Russian Revolution know, the Tsar’s army didn’t collapse simply because its soldiers threw away their weapons and ran: it did so because they were politicised, first by the liberal Kerensky government – which wanted them to go on fighting – and then by the Bolsheviks, who did not.
Prigozhin’s rants, together with numerous demoralised messages posted on Telegram channels, show that Russia’s willingness to go on fighting is approaching a tipping point. As to its ability to resist, we come back to the question of the tank.
For me, the lone T-34 on Manezh Square was less a symptom of tank shortages and more like a forlorn gesture. Its British equivalent would be flying a single Spitfire over Whitehall if Remembrance Sunday took place while we were at war. Its true message to the world was not “we’re out of armour” but more likely: we will go on fighting even if we have to dig equipment from the 1950s out of its storage bunkers and decipher the instruction manuals.
What can break that arrogance, along with the propensity to rape, torture, murder and mutilate that ordinary Russian troops have become infamous for? Total defeat on the battlefield. This will cost many Ukrainian lives. All we in the west can do is to make sure the Ukrainians who want to fight do so with the best equipment, the best training and adequate supplies.
What’s coming will not be pretty. We could, for the first time, see Iraq-style encirclements of Russian units and mass surrenders. We will certainly hear threats of nuclear retaliation. But the biggest sanctions ever imposed on a country since the second world war haven’t worked fast enough to protect Putin’s victims, so it will have to be done through warfare.
Putin chose this. He could choose to end it today. I hope for the sake of those doing the fighting, on all sides, that those around him can persuade him to cut his losses quickly.