The Russian Military’s People Problem
It’s Hard for Moscow to Win While Mistreating Its Soldiers
In the month since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, policymakers and analysts have stressed the lengths to which Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone to concentrate power in his own hands. But no matter how tight his control over Russia has become, Putin cannot alter a basic reality: his ability to carry out his war on Ukraine and his crackdown at home depends on the readiness of Russian troops, police, security officials, and others to follow his orders. If they stop doing so, Putin is finished. Washington should be encouraging these actors to rethink their loyalty to a man who treats them as dispensable pawns in pursuit of his dangerous aims.
U.S. policy can make a meaningful difference in precipitating opposition to Putin, especially in Russia’s military and diplomatic corps. By encouraging defections, Washington can affect Putin’s ability to wage war, either by threatening his hold on power or by raising the costs of the invasion and thereby causing him to retreat. There is little risk of blowback to such an approach, since Putin is already making hay of supposed efforts by the West to undermine him: he will accuse the United States of plotting against him regardless of what it does, so there’s little harm in actually doing so.
Even with the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people, Putin’s defeat seems more likely to come from within the halls of power or on the streets of Moscow. There are already courageous Russians who, at great personal risk, protested Putin’s depredations. The United States and its partners must do everything possible to break through the Russian government’s information cordon to make clear the causes of Putin’s war. The battle in Ukraine may be grinding to a stalemate, but the battle for the hearts and minds of the Russian people must now be fully joined.
The most pressing objective should be to stop the slaughter in Ukraine. Russia’s increased use of artillery and aerial bombardment, including in parts of Ukraine previously considered mostly safe from Russian attack, underscores the danger to Ukrainians and the risk of a wider conflict. In the face of such tactics, the Biden administration has reiterated that the United States will protect “every inch” of NATO territory. That, however, does not do much good for Ukraine.
Putin has deployed close to 200,000 troops to Ukraine—roughly 70 percent of Russia’s capable ground force—with no clear objectives other than to destroy their neighbor in an unprovoked and unjust war. These troops have been vulnerable to attack from heroic Ukrainian resistance. Some estimates suggest more than 7,000 Russian troops died in the first three weeks of the war, more than the total number of American troops killed over 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. NATO estimates some 40,000 Russian troops have been killed, wounded, captured, or missing in Ukraine.
Increasing reports of Russian tank drivers and others abandoning their vehicles expose a soft underbelly of the military offensive. Russian military leaders failed to plan for the necessary resupplies for these forces and essentially have left them like sitting ducks, especially those in the convoy stalled outside of Kyiv. Many Russian vehicles have literally run out of gas. Their food supplies are dwindling, and the weather, including muddy conditions that Russian vehicles cannot handle, is making matters worse.
Russian troops have run into a buzz saw.
Putin and his generals foolishly anticipated that Russian invaders would be greeted like liberators and embraced by the local population. Instead, they have run into a buzz saw as Ukrainians of all stripes, under President Volodymyr Zelensky’s stellar leadership, have demonstrated tremendous determination to defend their homeland. Putin and his military heads didn’t appear to have a plan B, other than to intensify indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations and critical infrastructure and to cut off cities from food, water, and electricity.
There are reports of purges starting in the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor agency to the KGB, including the head of that agency’s foreign intelligence branch as well as among the military leadership. This suggests Putin is scapegoating those who he believes bungled the invasion. Growing signs that the decision to launch the operation was made single-handedly by Putin—and surprised many senior military and security services officials—will test the willingness of those officials to accept responsibility for the disaster that Putin unleashed.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and military chief Valery Gerasimov, both staunch and loyal allies of Putin, may be saddled with blame for the operation unless Russian fortunes start improving. Putin might purge Shoigu, a dangerous move given that the defense minister has long ranked in surveys among the most popular and trusted Russian figures. (This, of course, risks bringing unwanted attention from his paranoid boss, who may view him as a potential rival.) For the Russian forces on the front line, however, changes at the top of the military hierarchy are unlikely to produce much change on the ground: they will continue to kill, and be killed, with little concern for their welfare from anyone in Moscow.
On March 15, Zelensky appealed to Russian forces on his country’s territory. “You will not take anything from Ukraine. You will take lives,” he said. “But your life will also be taken.” Yet he also promised all soldiers who surrender that they would be treated with dignity. “Choose,” he told them. The United States and its NATO allies can deliver their own version of that appeal. The message is simple: “Your real enemy sits in the Kremlin. Will you fight for Russia’s interests instead of Putin’s?”
The first target of a messaging campaign should be Russian forces on the ground, who should be urged to realize that they are on a suicide-and-murder mission and should rethink their commitment to a pointless, unjust cause. NATO did this in the Balkans in the late 1990s, when it urged dissent among Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s forces who were attacking Kosovo. Similar efforts were conducted in Iraq in 2003. In Ukraine, it could be done with both text messages and leaflets dropped from unarmed drones (the Ukrainians have proven adept at using Turkish drones). These Russian soldiers live in miserable conditions, making them vulnerable to a persuasive campaign against the man who dumped them in their current situation. Working with the Ukrainians, Washington and its allies could offer them food and sustenance, and potentially even financial incentives, to surrender. There is good reason to think that a rising number of defections would meaningfully affect Moscow’s ability to continue its brutal campaign: its efforts to recruit Syrian fighters and its redeployments of forces from the Russian Far East and from breakaway republics such as Abkhazia and Transnistria make clear that Russian policymakers grossly underestimated what was needed to accomplish the job.
A similar outreach campaign should be targeted at Russian diplomats—many of whom should know better than to follow and justify Putin’s egregious behavior—encouraging them to resign en masse. If one or two senior Russian diplomats quit out of principle, an avalanche could follow. Many diplomats, especially those who have served in democratic capitals, know that they are sacrificing any last shred of dignity or credibility by remaining silent in the presence of their own government’s aggression and deception, or even worse by defending it. With some, an appeal to conscience might be enough; others might be motivated by their basic instinct for survival.
It will be hard to find courageous opponents of Putin among the oligarchs.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine just a month ago, tens of thousands of Russians have reportedly fled their own country. Even before the war, tens of thousands of Russians had migrated to countries across Europe and the United States in recent years. Pro-democracy Russians among this diaspora should be encouraged to organize as independent voices critical of the invasion of Ukraine and supportive of a change in government in Moscow. The same community could communicate directly with influential Russians inside and outside Russia, particularly diplomats posted abroad who know the truth about Putin’s attack and who might be inclined to defect rather than continue to defend the lies of their dictatorial president.
The leadership of the FSB and National Guard, known for their extreme loyalty to Putin and thuggish willingness to repress their own people, are likely beyond reach for the time being. But if they see defections in the military and diplomatic corps, they might recognize that Putin’s rule will not persist indefinitely and that they will someday face justice for their own part in his repression.
With a few notable exceptions, the one place where it will be unlikely to find many courageous opponents of Putin is among the oligarchs who have plundered Russia’s wealth over the past three decades. Some of Russia’s oligarchs have spoken out, calling for an end to the war and expressing regret for the loss of life. Yet none of them have criticized Putin, as they try to toe a fine line between staying in the good graces of the man to whom they owe everything for their ill-gotten gains and not permanently losing access to the West, where they keep those gains and send their children to school, buy property, and vacation. The oligarchs who came up through the ranks of the KGB with Putin or rose up in the politics of St. Petersburg after the fall of the Soviet Union are extremely loyal to him. While they are an important cog in the corrupt system Putin oversees, and some may even be responsible for guarding Putin’s own corrupt wealth, none of them are likely to turn against their leader, at least not in a way that would make a difference on the ground in Ukraine. Most of them already have been sanctioned and none of them seem to have the courage to actually confront Putin head-on.
Even before the invasion, surveys in Russia had to be taken with a grain of salt; since the invasion and the accompanying domestic crackdown, that grain has grown into a salt mine. Still, early indications are that Putin’s approval remains strong, notwithstanding the many thousands of protesters who have spoken out at significant personal cost. For instance, a poll by Russian pollster VTsIOM conducted between February 28 and March 6 (days after the invasion began) showed 74.6 percent approval for Putin. Given the Kremlin’s control over the media—tightened in the last month as it has forced the last independent radio and television stations, Ekho Moskvy and Dozhd, to close—it should not come as a surprise that support for Putin, especially among older Russians, remains high. But there is also reason to think that this support may be weakening, especially among the younger generations. A targeted media campaign should aim to fill the information vacuum created by Putin’s censorship and make clear to Russians the costs they are suffering—moral and material—as a result of his invasion.
The BBC, which was expelled from Russia on the eve of the war, has resorted to Cold War methods—shortwave radio—to broadcast into Russia. The United States must do similar outreach to get around Kremlin efforts to deny Russians access to outside sources of information and descriptions of what Putin is really doing in Ukraine. The United States and its partners in Europe and Asia should deploy communications technology around Russia’s perimeter, including portable cell towers and powerful Wi-Fi signals. Congress should fund vastly expanded Russian-language broadcasts, particularly on television and perhaps even through the use of satellites, to connect Russians with outside information.
The immediate focus of the United States and allies must be on the Russian military and diplomatic corps to encourage defections. Putin's orders are worthless if Russian soldiers and diplomats refuse to carry them out—if they recognize that the emperor has no clothes. Ultimately, the result might be that the emperor is no more.
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