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Ukraine war: Russian retreat exposes military weaknesses

By Amanda Caroline  •  September 17, 2022  •  17

Russia's retreat from Kharkiv, north-eastern Ukraine, has exposed key weaknesses in the supplies and staffing of the nation's armed forces, Russian veterans and military bloggers say.

"You have no idea how tired I am to say hello to someone in the morning and then have to identify his remains later the same day," one Russian officer serving as a marine in Ukraine reportedly confided over the phone to a former colleague back home, who published it on his Telegram channel.

"Just yesterday two of my sniper groups were destroyed by a tank. Three men died instantly, the fourth one fought for his life for an hour and a half, another one in critical condition was taken to hospital. We have hardly any men left and we are holding a front line dozens of kilometres long."

While Russian officials and state media are trying to play down the Russian forces' retreat from Kharkiv, individual war reporters, veterans and influential military bloggers are acknowledging numerous challenges within closed messaging channels.

Blogs and Telegram channels are littered with stories of inadequate equipment and personnel, compounded by a rigid operational hierarchy.

One Telegram channel, sharing experiences of soldiers in the field in Ukraine shortly after the latest retreat, describes how even deploying a small surveillance drone needs to be approved by a senior officer or a general, considerably slowing down understanding of enemy positions.

Another channel on Telegram, reportedly run by a Russian special forces veteran, has posted a photo of a Russian soldier sporting an arm patch embroidered with the words: "There is no opponent worse than your own commander who is a…" using an expletive to describe him.

There is no way of knowing where and when the image was shot, but what is significant is that it has been widely shared by both veterans and forces in the field, suggesting it reflects popular opinion among the country's rank and file.

Despite rumours of low morale, Russian war reporters and paramilitary soldiers serving in Ukraine are not suggesting that widespread desertion in the field contributed to the latest rout in eastern Ukraine. They say it is much more likely that units simply obeyed an order to retreat.

Some Russian fighters on another channel joke bitterly that the "special military operation" - as the Russian government publicly terms it - "has no goals, it only has a path".

There are not only concerns about poor leadership. Basic equipment appears to be in such short supply that it is having to be crowdfunded. Dozens of public social media groups are collecting money for a whole range of kit - everything from drones to socks and underwear.

One of them, called "The People's Front", says it has raised about 1.5bn roubles (£15m, $17m) over the past three months, and has already spent it on uniforms, helmets and flak jackets, as well as first-aid kits, binoculars and thermal imagers.

Despite such fundraising, hundreds of pleas have been posted online from dozens of military units - including pilots of Russia's most modern fighter jets - for specific items, such as fire-proof uniforms, torches and two-way radios.

But the issue is not just a lack of equipment, it is a lack of troops.

While there are no signs of imminent compulsory conscription, there has been a push for recruitment - described by the government as an "informal mobilisation" - since soon after the country's invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian Ministry of Defence started posting adverts on popular job websites in early March, something which was rarely done before the war. On one website there are more than 7,000 military vacancies listed - for gunners, mortar crew and other combat-focused roles. None of the adverts mention the "special military operation" in Ukraine.