An interesting development involving an unlikely source.
Mikhail Khodaryonok served in the Soviet and Russian air forces before becoming a commentator on military affairs. You might assume that in Russia that means toeing the Kremlin line in all things, but you’d be wrong. Here’s Khodaryonok writing three weeks before the invasion of Ukraine:
A little more from the same piece:
That was a shockingly gloomy assessment at a moment when the Russian military expected to take Kiev in 72 hours. In hindsight, it was prophetic. Khodaryonok knew the Ukrainians wouldn’t be pushovers and the Russian high command somehow didn’t. One would think they’d resent him for his foresight and warn him privately to pipe down.
Instead, he’s doing regular stints on Russian state TV lately to spread the gloom. What gives? Why would Russian authorities approve that?
I posted this clip shortly after it aired 10 days ago but it’s worth watching now if you missed it. Again, he seems prophetic: Despite widespread expectations that Putin would order a mass mobilization of the Russian people on Victory Day, Khodaryonok made the case that that wouldn’t do much for the war effort because it would take too long. Putin ended up not issuing the order.
Senior military expert on Russian state TV argued that mobilization wouldn’t accomplish a whole lot, since outdated weaponry can’t easily compete with NATO-supplied weapons and equipment in Ukraine’s hands and replenishing Russia’s military arsenal will be neither fast nor easy. pic.twitter.com/jzkU7RiZFz
— Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) May 7, 2022
This week Khodaryonok was back on TV warning the nationalists on the panel with him that Ukrainian morale is high, their conscripts are motivated and well armed thanks to the west, and Russia’s international isolation is unsustainable. He even warned them not to get their hopes up about Rand Paul blocking America’s aid package to Ukraine (although he didn’t mention Paul by name):
In an extremely rare moment of candour on Russian state TV today, defence columnist Mikhail Khodaryonok gave a damning assessment of Russia’s war in Ukraine and his country’s international isolation. It’s fairly long but worth your time so I’ve added subtitles. pic.twitter.com/0mr7WAgSx6
— Francis Scarr (@francis_scarr) May 16, 2022
Why would Russian TV agree to give Khodaryonok a platform, knowing that his opinion is destined to weaken morale by puncturing the unreality balloon that the Kremlin has patiently constructed?
The only theory I can muster is that Moscow now believes that a long stalemate in the Donbas is the realistic best-case scenario for the war and they need to start preparing the Russian people for that. Dreams of a lightning victory over the entire country are long gone but there was some hope of a limited conquest of the occupied territories in the east once Russian troops withdrew from around Kiev and redeployed. That hope may be gone now too. Someone will have to explain to Russian viewers who are impatient for victory and worried about their children that the war in Luhansk and Donetsk isn’t going to end anytime soon.
Congrats to Khodaryonok on having landed that gig, it seems.
There’s another possibility, I guess — that Moscow fears outright defeat and needs to begin preparing Russians for that scenario too. A Ukrainian victory would be shocking under any circumstances, but imagine absorbing three months of Kremlin propaganda about how well the war is going only to tune into the news one day and find that Russian troops are withdrawing from Ukraine altogether. Not only would the war have failed, the extended lying by the government about how much progress was supposedly being made would be instantly exposed as lies to boot. If there’s a chance of defeat here, Putin and his cronies will have more credibility with the public if they begin to introduce the possibility now than if they surprise them with it later.
Besides, the truth is leaking out in other forums. I wrote last night about Russian military bloggers raging about the fiasco at the Donets River. Igor Girkin was a key player in the 2014 Russian campaign in Ukraine, eventually commanding Moscow’s separatist forces in the east, and he’s been complaining for weeks that the current war is going poorly. Whereas figures like Khodaryonok aim for realism about what Russia can accomplish, Girkin tends to complain that Putin isn’t being tough enough on the Ukrainians:
The louder the grumbling gets that the war is going badly, the more anxious Putin appears to be. There are reports today that he’s taken to micromanaging the war down to the battalion level, which may be the cause of — or a reaction to — episodes like the Donets massacre. Either his commanders in the field aren’t up to snuff, leading him to panic and take charge himself, or he’s handing down battlefield orders from hundreds of miles away that no longer reflect the reality of dynamic troop positions once they arrive at the front.
The Institute for the Study of War cites further evidence of Russian anxiety:
Russian forces have likely run out of combat-ready reservists, forcing the Russian military command to amalgamate soldiers from many different elements, including private military companies and proxy militias, into ostensibly regular army units and naval infantry. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that approximately 2,500 Russian reservists are training in Belgorod, Voronezh, and Rostov oblasts to reinforce Russian offensive operations in Ukraine. That number of reservists is unlikely to generate enough force to replenish Russian units that have reportedly lost up to 20 percent of staffing in some areas—to say nothing of the battalion tactical group that was largely destroyed recently while attempting to cross the Siverskyi Donets River. The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate stated that Russian forces are conducting covert mobilization and creating new units with newly mobilized personnel who likely have insufficient training to be effective and little motivation to fight. Russian forces also deployed new conscripts from occupied settlements in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to maintain an offensive around Kharkiv City, likely due to the lack of Russian reserves.
Russian private military companies are reportedly forming combined units with airborne elements due to significant losses in manpower. Denaturing elite airborne units with mercenaries is shocking, and would be the clearest indication yet that Russia has exhausted its available combat-ready manpower reserves.
This is the sort of hard problem that Khodaryonok is grappling with while other Russian veterans are beating their chests about taking off the gloves against the Ukrainians. Russia’s problem isn’t any lack of will to be ruthless, God knows. It’s logistics. It always has been.
One more possible reason for introducing Khodaryonok onto Russian televisions is that the number of casualties from the war may now be too high to effectively hide. As more Russian families learn that their sons are killed or wounded, word of mouth will feed the perception that things aren’t going well no matter how much happy talk the Kremlin engages in. If the public now knows the truth, it’s in Moscow’s interest to stop pretending otherwise. Your exit question comes from the mother of a sailor who’s been missing since the Moskva was sunk: “I look at my government totally different since the war started… There are some very harsh things I would like to say about our leadership, but maybe best if I don’t because they would put me in prison for it.”