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Even Putin’s ‘arsenals of evil’ cannot help him now

Money can’t buy happiness, and apparently it can’t buy an Army or a win in Ukraine, either. Just ask Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose Army has humiliatingly abandoned equipment and ammunition stores in the Kharkiv Oblast, donned civilian clothing, and hastily retreated to Russia in the face of a Ukrainian counter-offensive. Putin appears to be down to his last few options, reduced to turning to his “arsenals of evil,” a phrase we coined in the London-based National Security News to describe Moscow’s sudden, desperate dependence on Iran and North Korea to procure weapons and ammunition. 

Similarly, in a domestic mercenary version of an “arsenal of evil,” Putin once again, has been forced to turn to the Wagner Group to dredge up manpower and results in a war that shall not be named. The conscripts and generals simply haven’t been getting the job done. Putin will rely on murderers and thieves to try to accomplish what his professional soldiers and generals can’t do: win. 

Intelligence reports that North Korea has sold “millions of artillery shells and rockets” to Russia should come as no surprise. As the “special military operation” hit its seventh month, Russia’s dependence upon artillery finally has exceeded their ability to replenish supplies and sustain the fight. Having nearly exhausted stockpiles — or, as happened in Kharkiv, having simply abandoned them — Putin has been forced to outsource the demand to his “arsenals of evil” because his defense industry, beset with corruption and economic sanctions, cannot replenish them.

It can’t be said enough: the U.S.-supplied High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) has altered the course of this war. Its mobility, range and ability to precisely deliver ordnance on top of Russian artillery formations have devastated Russia’s ability to maneuver and continue their offensive. Together with Ukrainian Special Operations and partisan forces operating behind Russian front lines to identify, target and destroy Russian ammunition depots, Russia’s strength has become its weakness. The Kremlin’s insatiable appetite for artillery has been marginalized by Ukraine’s ability to interdict its lifeline: the supply line. Poor rear area security and ineffective air defense systems — the S-400 — have contributed significantly to Russia’s downward spiral.

Putin and his generals only know strength, and for them strength comes from artillery. It’s a lesson they haven’t forgotten, abandoned or augmented since the Second World War. It is at the very core of Moscow’s military doctrine, and it makes them vulnerable. Putin needs ammunition and North Korea has it; however, getting those artillery rounds and rockets to the front lines is an entirely different story. Supply lines are not secure — and the soldiers on the firing line may be long gone by the time it arrives.

Who would have thought that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un would have to come to the rescue of Putin’s army as it braces for what very well may be Russia’s last stand? Even Kim recognizes Putin’s manpower shortcomings and reportedly offered to send as many as 100,000 “volunteers” to fight in Ukraine. Tempting. According to the Pentagon, Putin’s once vaunted military has sustained between 70,000 and 80,000 casualties since the invasion — nearly 50 percent. The best the Kremlin has been able to muster to date for the manpower shortfall is the formation of the Russian 3rd Army Corps, composed mostly of minimally trained volunteer battalions, forcibly mobilizing personnel from breakaway Russian-speaking Ukrainian oblasts, and a decree that would add an additional 137,000 volunteers and/or conscripts to the Russian Army by Jan. 1, 2023.

Even Putin realizes that bringing a “third nation” into the “family feud” risks the escalation of U.S. and NATO direct intervention — especially if that third nation were North Korea. There is an understood rule, carried over from the proxy wars of the Cold War, that one can supply a country with weapons, ammunition, intelligence and training outside the borders of the conflict — even the use of mercenaries is permitted. 

Enter the Wagner Group, Putin’s “Dirty Dozen,” or “Inglorious Bastards,” if you will, sans Lee Marvin and Brad Pitt. Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner, aka the Wagner Group, is stumping Russian prisons (gulags) looking to recruit infantrymen to fight in Ukraine. A video recently surfaced on social media showing owner and chief financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin, making his pitch to Russian prisoners, proclaiming that Russian prisoners have been participating in the war since July 1 when they were instrumental in seizing the Vuhlehirska Thermal Power Plant. 

In July, they were in St. Petersburg penitentiary colonies, IK-7 Yablonevka and IK-6 Obukhovo, offering 200,000 rubles ($3,155) and amnesty for six months of service. Prisoners reportedly were told that if they were killed, their families would receive five million rubles ($79,113). The message then was to “protect the motherland” and to “fight Nazis.” The given odds of surviving were 20 percent — and for someone serving a life sentence, those odds aren’t bad.

As Michael Corleone so famously said in the Godfather, “Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in.” Like Corleone, the Russian prisoner, enticed with cash and freedom after surviving six months of combat in Ukraine, will never be able to just walk away from the Wagner Group. Death is virtually assured — either from a Ukrainian bullet, or one in the back of the head when they hesitate. 

Then there’s Iran’s contribution to the war. Putin made a trip to Iran in July to meet with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to procure Shahed-136 drones, which seem to have their own quality control issues. The “arsenals of evil,” apparently, are full of duds.

No matter how much weaponry, munitions and manpower Putin buys or bribes from these regimes, he cannot overcome his abject failure as a wartime leader to generate confidence in his soldiers and to turn it into willpower and momentum on the battlefield. No effective counter to HIMARS is forthcoming, nor any imminent answer to the Ukrainian counter-offensive. Putin has known only failure in Ukraine. 

It is only a matter of time until the Russian army culminates in Ukraine, or outright collapses. Whether realizes it or not, Putin and his “special military operation” are heading into oblivion. It is nigh time he orders all the windows closed and locked at the Kremlin. 

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.

Mark Toth is a retired economist, historian and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL

Tags Iran North Korea Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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