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Russia is burning out of control on Putin’s watch

Apocryphal or not, there is no image in recorded history more evocative of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s madness in Ukraine than that of Emperor Nero fiddling during the Great Fire of Rome that left 70 percent of the ancient city in ruins in 64 CE. As Putin’s “special military operation” burns down around him, Russian forces in Bakhmut, Andriivka, Kreminna, Vuhledar and other small towns along the eastern front in the Donbas are nearing culmination. It is not just Ukraine that is burning. All of Russia is beginning to smolder because of Putin’s myopic fixation on inconsequential cities on a map.

Bakhmut, however, is emblematic of Putin’s obsession. The colossal military mistakes being made there are being repeated throughout the eastern front. The mounting costs to Russia are not limited to losses in Ukraine. They are devastating and, as a result, far-reaching and unending. 

The highest cost is in lives. In February, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense estimated Moscow by then had “suffered” more than 200,000 casualties, including as many as 60,000 dead. Given Russia’s declining population of 146 million, that level of loss is generational. It is only getting worse. The ministry last Saturday estimated Russia has racked up as many as 30,000 casualties trying to conquer the 16 square miles comprising Bakhmut. 

The burn rate — be it in men, military equipment, or munitions — in Bakhmut alone is astounding. In nine months, Putin’s forces have advanced only 15 miles “west from Popasna to Bakhmut.” That is a mind-boggling 2,000 Russian casualties per mile. By comparison, it is 440 miles from Bakhmut to Kyiv. Fighting terrain varies, but purely as a hypothetical to demonstrate just how badly Putin is faring in Ukraine, crunching the numbers suggests Putin would incur 880,000 more casualties just to reach Saint-Sophia’s Cathedral in the heart of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s capital city.

Bakhmut is just one of four main ongoing battles in the Donbas. Putin — as is documented daily by Chuck Pfarrer, a former U.S. Navy Seal, on his Indications & Warnings Twitter account — is losing men just as rapidly in each of these battles. Six hundred reportedly were killed in action along the Andriivka axis on March 27 alone. 

As Pfarrer’s battlefield tactical maps record, Putin’s burn rate of Russian equipment is equally high. On March 24, Pfarrer noted that Russian forces were “repelled in attacks at Serebryansk Forestry and Bilohorvika along the Kreminna battle line.” That singular Ukrainian action resulted in strikes on “Russian HQ elements, air defense sites, and Electronic Warfare equipment.”

This, on top of an “epic” mechanized armor battle in late February at the beginning of Putin’s spring offensive in Vuhledar, which resulted in the loss of 100 Russian tanks. As a war-time commander, Putin has learned nothing in the one-year, one-month-old war. The Kremlin is employing the same strategy as they did in Kyiv by repeatedly “advancing columns into ambushes.” 

Taken together, it is not surprising that in 13 months of war, Ukraine estimates Putin has lost 3,595 tanks, nearly 7,000 armored combat vehicles, over 2,638 artillery pieces, 523 multiple rocket launchers, 277 air defense systems, 305 jets, and 291 helicopters. 

And for what? A 15-mile eastward advance in the Donbas. At this crawling rate, it will take Putin’s forces nearly 22 years to reach Kyiv from Bakhmut.

Time and lives are not the only costs to Russia. Putin is also torching nearly every aspect of his country in chase of his ego. Russia has been in a recession since November 2022, with annualized GDP dropping nearly 4 percent. Yet even this is somewhat deceiving; non-oil and gas revenues precipitously declined “by 20 percent in October.” The shortfall this caused in GDP was largely backfilled by heavily discounted oil and gas sales to China and India. 

That temporary windfall, however, is evaporating as the Brent crude oil benchmark price has dropped over time to $80 a barrel. The impact on Russia’s economy has been immediate. By January 2023, Russian oil export revenues had fallen by 40 percent year-over-year. Absent a global crude price recovery, an even bigger hit to Russia’s GDP is coming.

Meanwhile, Western sanctions continue to severely disrupt Russia’s commercial and military industrial-complex supply chains. The U.S. Treasury Department alone has globally targeted over 600 individuals, entities and “third-country providers” connected to the latter. While Moscow has found ways to avert sanctions by trading through countries such as Kazakhstan to access critical components such as semiconductors, the primary cost of maintaining the country’s supply chain is ever greater economic dependence on Beijing. 

Putin is also destroying on a generational basis Russia’s future economic ability to innovate and compete in the post-war global marketplace — not just loss of resources, but brain drain as well. Even if Putin were to miraculously win his war in Ukraine, Russia will have lost economically for decades to come.

Paradoxically, in his desperation to obliterate Ukraine’s national independence, Putin is irrationally selling off his own. As repeatedly evidenced during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow, Beijing is slowly beginning to fully subsume Russia’s independence economically, militarily and diplomatically. 

Xi’s demands and stances during the summit should have been humiliating to Putin, who agreed to replace the Russian ruble with the Chinese yuan in trading with the Global South. Despite symbolic gladhanding, Xi offered nothing of military substance that would appreciably change the trajectory of the war in Ukraine. The net effect  of Xi’s three days in Moscow, as King’s College professor Sam Greene noted: “China’s domination of Russia is complete.”

Putin blindly believes he has signed on to a multipolar world with Xi as a coequal, but in reality, he is only enabling the world to become a contest of two — Beijing and Washington — while Putin sits on the sidelines with about as much influence as Benito Mussolini had in World War II playing second fiddle to Nazi Germany.

Statesman-like Putin, if he ever really existed, has vanished. Gone are many of his grandiose plans for an economically resurgent Russia: Rapidly expanding the economic value of the Northern Sea Route. Dominating the North Pole. Checking, if not reversing, the growth of NATO in Europe. Diversifying Russia’s economy so Moscow no longer depends on being the world’s “gas station.”

Instead, Putin is ditching it all over a delusional, outsized need to win in Ukraine. Is trying to take Bakhmut and defeating Zelensky in an ego grudge match really worth selling out Moscow to Xi? Putin evidently believes that they are, and like a modern-day Nero, he keeps fiddling away in the Donbas as Russia burns out of control on his watch.

Burn, baby, burn.                                                            

Mark Toth is a retired economist 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.

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.  

Tags Russia under Vladimir Putin Russian economy Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian military failures Vladimir Putin

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