The elk-antler sculpture that arches across Highway 89 in Afton, Wyoming is the largest in the world. Are there others? An impressive 15-ton agglomeration of more than 3,000 antlers, it looked quite solid to me. My wife, however, decided it was safer to stand under the little arch next to it.
When the world gets closer, we help you see farther
No doubt, strategic errors and corruption at the highest ranks in the Kremlin are partly to blame for the Russian military's stunning difficulties in Ukraine. But the roots run deeper, where the ordinary recruits come from, how they are exploited, how they react.
To the great relief of Ukraine and the great surprise of the rest of the world, the Russian army — considered until February 24, the second strongest in the world — is now eminently beatable on the battlefield against Ukrainian forces operating with vastly inferior firepower.
After renouncing the original ambitions to take Kyiv and unseat the Ukrainian government, the focus turned to the southeastern region of Donbas, where a would-be great battle on a scale comparable to World War II Soviet victories has turned into a quagmire peppered with laughable updates by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov on TikTok.
The Russians have not managed to occupy a single significant Ukrainian city, except Kherson, which they partially destroyed and now find difficult to hold. Meanwhile, Ukrainian civilians are left to suffer the bombing of cities and villages from Lviv to Odessa, with looting, torture and assorted war crimes.
The reasons for both the poor performance and atrocities are many, and include deep-seated corruption and lack of professionalism up through the highest ranks, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who had never served in the army, and arrived in his position only because of his loyalty to the No. 1 man in the Kremlin.
Putin himself, who also has no military education or experience, has been giving orders on operational and tactical decisions during the war in Ukraine that are usually taken by an officer "at the level of a colonel or a brigadier general," according to British intelligence reports.
Still, the reason that the Russian army is reeling goes deeper than Putin's follies — and lies directly in the nature, origin and economics of its military manpower. It's about the Russian soldiers.
Ukrainian tank crew jumps off his tank hidden on the outskirt of Donetsk
Currently, the core of the Russian army in Ukraine is made up of conscripts and contract soldiers from the depressed, poorest "national republics" of the Russian Federation, most of them from the republics of Buryatia and Dagestan. These regions are infinitely distant from both the cultural references and standard of living of residents of Moscow or St. Petersburg. They are, in other words, invisible, and thus easily expendable for the Kremlin.
Renowned Russian journalist Ilya Varlamov spent his entire career traveling around the far-flung regions of Russia, meeting with locals trying to find out why life there is so woefully poor and hopeless. And everywhere he got the same answer: Because there is no money. Last week, he released a new video in which he again showed footage of ordinary Russian towns and cities complaining about budget deficits.
"I travel a lot around the country and sometimes I manage to meet with the mayor or governor and almost always hear the same story," Varlamov says. "I ask why there are no normal roads, why people still live in rotten huts, and what problems they have with garbage and so on, and I am told that the city simply does not have money."
He recounts the sites of his travels: In Omsk, there's only enough money to pay state employees; in Chita people dump the garbage right outside their homes or bury it in pits; in Khabarovsk people defecate and pour the sewage into pits in the street. Even in one of the richer faraway regions — the Krasnodar Territory — even in the new neighborhoods, there are simply no roads.
Direct and indirect losses
Varlamov continues: "And now I look at these very mayors and these very governors, many of whom I have personally met, and I see how in a fit of patriotism they rename their towns with the letter Z, how some of them try to persuade their countrymen to volunteer for the war, and how they persecute those who dare to speak against this war," he says.
There are sanctions and reparations that Russia will have to pay to Ukraine.
"They do not take into account the number of lost tanks, planes, ships, and all other military hardware. As well as expenditures on fuel, food, medical care and salaries of soldiers. Moreover, Russia loses millions of rubles daily in manpower alone. Mostly young men who could have started families and worked for the good of the country for many years end up dying in war."
Varlamov concluded: "And all this is only direct losses of Russia, and on top of that there are sanctions, and in the future - reparations that Russia will have to pay to Ukraine."
Yes, as elsewhere, poverty pushes Russians to war: in regions where there are no prospects and hopes, an army contract is almost the only way to earn money. But unfortunately, it is not only the poverty of Russian soldiers, who enter even small Ukrainian villages and are shocked by wi-fi, hot water, toilets in houses, and paved roads to the extent that they are convinced that they have managed to occupy a major city.
At Russia's 77th annual Victory Day military parade at Red Square
Another factor, no less important, is the moral character of a typical Russian soldier. With the collapse of the USSR, the army gradually grew corrupt and violent, hazing and poverty inside the army intensified each other until the conscription became a terrible ordeal for an ordinary Russian, and a whole system of draft evasion developed in the country.
Every family and every mother tried to buy their son out of military service, which was all fertile ground for the growing corruption. As a result, the army became a receptacle for the most disadvantaged and marginalized strata of society.
War is never clean.
The indifference of the state to its citizens in Russia, particularly its distant territories, has reached the level where the President is pleased to boast about rockets but does not have the slightest idea about the people who launch them. The Russian army was built over the past decades to intimidate the world, but it was never on the professionalism of its personnel.
War is never clean or correct, and it could not have been so this time either. The irony is that the Ukrainian army was lucky that the Russians did not arrive with a professional army, while Ukrainians civilians were unlucky — too many have become victims of immoral and impoverished soldiers abandoned by their own homeland as expendable material to wage this brutal and senseless war.
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