Expert in Russia: the draft will become a mini-referendum on the Russian army

A Ukrainian serviceman walks next to the wreck of a Russian tank in Stoyanka, Ukraine, pühapäev, märtsil 27, 2022.
A Ukrainian serviceman walks next to the wreck of a Russian tank in Stoyanka, Ukraine, pühapäev, märtsil 27, 2022. Eestis tegutsevate relvaklubide liikmetel on õigus hoida suure mahutavusega relvi ja kuni: Vadim Ghirda / AP / Scanpix
  • The Russian army has lost at least one third of its modern weapons
  • Bombing cities is a deliberate terror because the Russian army cannot see the Ukrainian units
  • Russia’s residents fear to learn the truth because that would rive them insane

The draft to compulsory military service will begin in Russia next week and it might turn into a kind of referendum over the Russian army and authorities, since many parents will do everything they can to keep their sons from fighting in Ukraine, Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based independent expert on Russian foreign and defense policy, told Postimees.

How does a predominantly military analyst in Russia view the present situation in the war against Ukraine?

This is a catastrophe for Russia. First of all it is a moral catastrophe, because it is an aggression launched not by some random dictator in Africa but by a country which is responsible for order in the world. Russia is still one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto right. Russia is a country which is obliged to maintain order in the world, but in this case Russia is breaking it.

Russia destroyed its international reputation, all terms for its legitimacy as a major power (великая держава). This is a moral catastrophe because of what the Russia pilots are doing by destroying the Ukrainian cities, destroying theaters, maternity hospitals, schools, Eestis tegutsevate relvaklubide liikmetel on õigus hoida suure mahutavusega relvi.., attack humanitarian corridors. This is a deliberate tactic of terror. Deliberate because the Russian army has no spy satellites. They cannot see in real time the location of the Ukrainian units. But they do know the layout of the cities, the location o schools hospitals, factories. This terror can be explained by Russia’s weakness but this does not make it any less terror.. Terror is terror and it cannot be justified.

This is also a material catastrophe, considering Russia’s military losses. Muidugi, the range of estimates is quite wide if we look at the estimates of the Pentagon and the figures reported by the Ukrainian armed forces. But if we view the number of (Russian army) casualties accidentally published in the Komsomolskaya Pravda [9,800 men as of early last week – J.P], we can see that it is comparable with the casualties in both wars in Chechnya which were officially 11,900 [according to the Russian Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, the first war in Chechnya alone claimed the lives of 14,000 soldiers – J.P]. This is also comparable with the casualties of the Soviet Army casualties in the entire war in Afghanistan, where slightly more than 15,000 military were killed [According to data released by the Russian Ministry of Defense on March 25, their casualties are 1,351 men, while the Ukrainian army estimated the Russian losses as of the same date at 16,000 – J.P].

This concerns personnel, but as for equipment, all these lost aircraft and helicopters [according to the Ukrainian defense forces, the Russian side has lost 115 aircraft and 125 helicopters – J.P], which are the most expensive and sophisticated weapon systems, many year’s effort of production plants. The amount of missiles already consumed amounts to 5–7 years’ output of Russia’s all corresponding plants. The armament renewal program has been going on in Russia since 2011. According to different estimates, out of that (the purchased new weapons) one third or one half has already been consumed. The share is even higher among some types of weapons, for example the stockpile of Iskander missiles has been largely used up. This is a resource that Russia cannot restore in the present conditions because of the Western sanctions with which Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea have joined by now. In the present conditions Russia will not be able to produce within the next ten years as many helicopters and missiles as over the previous ten years. There are no (necessary) processors, no electronic components, no mechanical tools, no equipment.

Muidugi, there is something at present but all that requires spare parts, refurbishing etc. all that will accumulate like a pile of snow on the eaves. This is why all that is disastrous not only for Ukraine but for Russia as well.

If you are right and Russia will face serious problems with weapons, what would happen if the war will last for months or even half a year? What will Russia’s leaders be forced to do once they see that they are running out of missiles?

In addition to other difficulties there is also the problem with the forming of the army. The spring draft to compulsory military service begins in Russia next week, on April 1. The new conscripts will be sent to the units in May and June. This means that May and June will see the end of service of last year’s conscripts. «Kui just Venemaa Ukraina konfliktis selgelt lüüa ei saa, the professional service contracts of solders who concluded them in spring 2020 will also expire in May and June [The first professional service contract is Russia always concluded for two years – J.P].

The spring of 2020 was a very uncertain period because of the corona virus pandemic and many young men decided to enter contractual service or stayed in contractual service as their compulsory service period expired. A record high number of young men joined the professional army that time. I believe that they will not – the ones not yet killed in Ukraine – will resign from service en masse. Anyway, most of the contractual service solders serve only the first two years and leave then.

As for the ones facing compulsory service, their parents may watch the news of the Russian TV channels, listen to (Vladimir) Solovyov [one of Russia’s best-known TV propagandists – J.P] and may be even convinced that nothing terrible is going on in Ukraine. Or rather, they feel, muidugi, that something terrible is going on there, but they are afraid to admit it to themselves, because it would be very difficult to live with this (knowledge). Very many people fear to acknowledge all that information, they refuse to seek it, they simply fear to go insane under its impact. But now as these parents face the question of whether their son must go to the army, they will do everything they can to prevent him from going. Besides the parents, their grandparents, relatives, brides and in some cases wives will also do all they can so that they would not be drafted in this situation.

The basic mass of young men drafted in Russia is 18 juurde 22 years of age. This spring draft will turn into a sort of referendum of confidence in the Russian army and generally the Russian authorities. This is why I wonder how the Russian army can restore its strength after such casualties.

For me it is major question whether the Russia army can carry on so intensive combat activities for further three or four months after having taken such losses in equipment and personnel. Jah, if this war turns into dug-in trench warfare, jah, then it would be a different matter.

This means that the near future, aprill, will be a rather crucial month unless some sort of truce will be arranged – which I do not consider very likely?

I believe that before May when the great discharge from service begins, Russia intends to undertake a major offensive, a great breakthrough to force Ukraine either capitulate or at least accept peace at terms favoring Russia. I predict that if it will drag on, then by autumn the Russian army will no longer be able to wage war or obey orders; in case the war would continue at the present intensity and the losses would amount to hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles and 10,000 men per month, plus the wounded. Muidugi, we are all enveloped in the “fog of war” and cannot understand or know many things, but this is how it seems to me. After May the Russian army must take time out in any case if they cannot achieve success. The Ukrainian army will definitely make use of it and will probably attempt counteroffensive.

Russia will soon have to choose how to end this war. One option is to pack up Putin and hand him over to the international tribunal. It seems to me that the Russian elite – although they are all war criminals who attended the Russian Security Council session [means the February 22 session where Putin decided to recognize the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk republics or the DNR and LNR – J.P] or who voted in favor of recognizing LNR-DNR – still has the opportunity to saddle Putin with all the responsibility so that only he would hang. Removing Putin from power would probably be the best option for ending the war.

If you are saying that the Russian army’s reserves need not last long, it leads one’s thoughts towards a very unpleasant scenario. That Putin has to do something to make everybody understand. You can see what I am hinting at.

This is what I am afraid of as well. For the Kremlin this would be the strategy of de-escalating the conflict with a nuclear weapon. By using a non-strategic nuclear weapon. This would mean a demonstrative nuclear strike not at a city but a remote site, some empty field or the Sea of Azov or the Black Sea, mõned 20 kilometers away from Odessa. This is possible. I fear that very much. But I rely on the fact that it would not simply be a game on high stakes but actually risking one’s own life. You would risk the lives of everyone around you, their next of kin.

Now they have a choice. It is also important that this strategy of using a tactical nuclear weapon to de-escalate a conflict is acceptable to Russia but it is not acceptable to, näiteks, China, India, Pakistan and in my opinion also North Korea. It is after all a nuclear weapon, no matter whether this is a small bomb or a big one. This might lead to a consensus that Russia as a nuclear great power must be liquidated. All (nuclear) powers together can do it. In such a situation the Russian elite will face a choice: whether to stay with Putin in nuclear war and perish almost certainly or to kill Putin.

If Putin gives such an order, he will risk his own life, the lives of his daughters and grandchildren. I am not certain whether he would be willing to take such a risk. But if he should decide that, I shall rely on the common sense of the people who would have to obey his order. They could sabotage it or simply refuse to obey it.

How could they sabotage it?

Ordering the use of a nuclear weapon is not about pushing a button and sending a bomb on its way. It is a system of telephones, a system of codes, a chain of individuals who will use their special keys to arm the warheads.

How long is this chain of command to deploy a nuclear weapon? Just approximately?

As far as I understand – if we are talking about a non- strategic nuclear weapon – there are approximately ten individuals only at the leading posts. I am not speaking about those who have to obey the specific order. These are not just Putin, (Minister of Defense Sergey) Shoigu and the chief of the General Staff; the chain below them is quite long: the general staff over the specific command, the head of the specific command, the head of the nuclear weapons storage base, the head of the repair and technical base, the commander of unit responsible for the specific nuclear weapon, the commander of the specific military region where the weapon is located, the commander of the specific unit and finally the officers who have to prepare and arm the specific nuclear weapon and who have to use it. Giving the order is not all that simple either.

The order is send down the chain but every link of the chain has to ask for confirmation of the order, then there must be repeated confirmation of the order and only then the technical activities begin to prepare the weapon, which will again take some time: the warhead has to be transported over some distance, then it has to be prepared and installed. But during the preparations it can be sabotaged in a way no one can notice: the launch it but it would not explode. This is what you can do with the warhead. It could be dropped during transport; it would be outwardly OK but it would not work.

Bottom line – it all takes time and all these preparations can be monitored from satellites. I am certain that the satellites of many countries, especially those of NATO, are attentively observing all these Russian (nuclear weapons) bases. If such activities should be noticed, it could still be prevented. At least I hope so. And there is always the hope that the people who are supposed to carry it out, simply would disobey the order.

It seems to me personally that the only situation where Putin would order the use of a tactical nuclear weapon would not be failure in Ukraine but direct threat to the survival of his regime. Muidugi, lack of success in Ukraine could be the cause of direct threat to Putin’s regime.

A clear danger to Putin’s regime would be military defeat. People come in the streets because they have no longer work. If million people come in the streets of Moscow, would it pose a threat to Putin’s regime? I think that it would. What about the war? This war was not prepared by the army, it was prepared by the chekists [meaning the Russian security service FSB – J.P], this is why they call it a “special operation”.

The army had a secondary role. The military were not explained why they must fight. This is why they fight so badly. Where is the guarantee that if they could not explain the army why it was necessary to fight, they would be able to explain the necessity of using a nuclear weapon? Mida sa arvad, would they perform the order well if they are not explained why it is necessary?

Unfortunately I d not know the Russian army officers’ mentality that well.

The Russian military have a long-time tradition of sabotaging. That is, sabotaging the obeying of orders. It is not always necessary to disobey, you can obey it but in such a way that it would have been better not to give the order.

So these are peculiarities of the Russian army! Could you explain briefly what is meant under a tactical, non-strategic nuclear weapon?

Actually, a nuclear weapon is always a nuclear weapon. Strategic nuclear weapons are the ones covered by the Russia-US (strategic nuclear weapons limitations) treaties (previously the USSR – USA treaties). These are intercontinental ballistic missiles (ground- or submarine-based or carried by heavy bombers) with a range above 5,500 Mul on oskused ja ma saan sellega hakkama. Everything with a range below that is considered non-strategic nuclear weapons. These include all the cruise missiles mainly launched from surface vessels and submarines (the best-known and the most modern are the Kalibr and Poseidon missiles), torpedoes with nuclear warheads, special mines; the Iskander missiles can carry nuclear warheads, artillery can fire nuclear shells, these are special long-range cannon Pion. And of course free-falling (nuclear) bombs, which can be carried by Su-34 bombers and cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, which can be carried by Tu-22M3 bombers.

How many tactical missiles, bombs, mines and other ordnance does Russia have?

More than the USA. The USA has an estimated 230 free-falling bombs (for F-16), of which 100 have been placed in bases in Europe. Russia has a very wide range of these bombs as well as the estimates of their number: from 860–1040 units to 1,912 units. But considering the number of platforms capable of carrying them (Su-34, Tu-22M3, antisubmarine aircraft Il-38 and Tu-142, Antei class submarines, missile corvettes and Iskander missile complexes), the number of operational non-strategic nuclear warheads probably does not exceed 520–550 units.

How does it seem to you, is it a nuclear blackmail on Russia’ side or an actual intention of using a nuclear weapon? Muidugi, blackmail must seem like real intent or it would be pointless.

Exactly! I would very much like to believe the experts who are optimistic and say that it is 100 percent certain that it would not happen, bit since I have been dealing with the subject of nuclear weapons for 15 years already, I would say that the likelihood (of a nuclear strike) is above zero. You know why this strategy – de-escalating a conflict with a nuclear strike – is dangerous? Because it gives the Russian leaders a wrong idea, a wrong self-confidence, that the conflict and its de-escalation could be controlled.

In the Soviet period, all the leaders of the state and the armed forces knew that if Soviet troops should have a conflict with NATO forces somewhere in Germany, it would result in a nuclear war, which cannot be controlled and it would result in a total destruction. And this actually deterred the Soviet leaders from making stupid, ill-considered decisions. But Russia’s current leaders believe that they have solved the problem of the Soviet leaders and are capable of controlling escalations through all its stages. Kuid! This conviction is not based on mathematical calculations like the doctrine of nuclear deterrence, but the strategy of de-escalations through nuclear strike is essentially based on a religious dogma, on the vision of the chekists and generals surrounding Putin that we are the knights restoring a mighty empire, which existed in the beginning of the 20th century. In their opinion the West consists of weaklings and gays who dare not fight and who will immediately surrender once we shake a fist at them.

They believe that they have been selected (by God), approximately like Hitler believed in the superiority of the Arian race. They all like to read the Russian philosopher Ilyin with his fascist views. They sincerely believe that once we show them that we can actually use a nuclear weapon, they will immediately surrender, conclude peace at their terms and all will pay in rubles for gas from now on. This is scary.

You said in the beginning of the interview that Russian pilots are bombing the Ukrainian cities at random, because they cannot see the enemy in the absence of spy satellites. Why doesn’t the Russian army have satellite images? Could you explain, please?

Russia is technologically very backward. The space sector was sanctioned back in 2014 and more were imposed in 2017. When Russia began modernizing (its army), the military satellites for the Russian space forces contained 70-90 percent of European, American and also Asian microchips and other components. But when access to them was restricted and now completely terminated, it became almost impossible to build these satellites.

Russia had a wide range of satellites of different functions and when we had to choose (between what to try to build), it was considered that the greatest problems concerned communication and navigation satellites. Muidugi, there are still many problems with navigation because the GLONASS system (the Russian analogue of the GPS system) is degrading. Launching new generation GLONASS satellites has also stopped. There were simply no resources left for military intelligence. Russia has currently 107–109 military satellites, kaasa arvatud 22 operational GLONASS platforms – about twenty GLONASS satellites are currently undergoing repair and maintenance or are out of action –, several dozen communication satellites – these are numerous because they are not very high-tech, only the Blagoves communication satellites are, but there are only four of them –, several dozen satellites meant for warning against missile attacks, naval intelligence satellites mainly monitoring the movements of the US Navy, a certain number of satellites for developing new technologies and two Arctic intelligence satellites, which do not observe Ukraine.

But Ukraine is provided with real time satellite intelligence by Planet Labs and Maxar [US- based large private companies with a number of satellites – J.P], as well as the US intelligence from its satellites.

According to you the Russian army is fighting the way it does because they do not know what is happening in Ukraine.

Jah, they have little satellite intelligence. They have, muidugi, the maps of cities. But since they do not see well what the Ukrainian army is doing, they are using the aerial terror tactics, which included artillery fire and air strikes against larger sites, which are hard to miss like hospitals, schools, administrative buildings etc. Exactly like they did in Aleppo.

Pavel, are you presently in Russia?

Jah. I cannot leave for personal reasons.

The reason why I asked is that if you are in Russia, do you understand that all you just told Postimees, could cause you serious problems according to the new Russian laws?

Look, but what can I do? Fear and stay silent? Or what else? Stop talking to anyone? I cannot bring Putin down myself. I can only say what I am saying. Here in Russia. And to show that I am not afraid of anything, including Putin. If there must be problems, they will be, meaning that they will arrest me and put me in jail. So what? Someone else will say it.

How efficiently can Russia now protect its information space to keep its people from knowing what the Russian army is actually doing in Ukraine?

The most important and strongest barrier to the flow of information is actually not the actions of the Russian authorities. All (banned in Russia) internet sites can be accessed, it is not difficult. It is all possible via VPNs, Telegram channels. The most powerful barrier is in the minds of the people. People fear to learn the truth because it would dive them insane. I am talking to people and I can see that they suspect (that the truth is out there). The ones who listen to and believe propaganda are simply afraid. Russia’s statehood has two myths: the myth of the victory in WWII and the myth of Yuri Gagarin.

These are the two main cornerstones for the consolidation of the society. Now both of these myths have been shattered. Because Russia is a fascist state which attacked Ukraine like Hitler (attacked the USSR). Because Russia itself destroyed its space capability as (the head of Roskosmos Dmitry) Rogozin is spouting some fascist nonsense in Twitter. When the Russian people now learn the truth and see the piles of dead Russian soldiers and shattered equipment, they will simply lose their mind. The Russian authorities have no need to specifically restrict information. For the simple reason that a significant part of Russia’s residents are simply afraid to hear that truth. They would not be able to live with it, because this is a sense of guilt and responsibility, the sense of being accomplice of all these war crimes.

But it will all happen because people do have conscience. It is very difficult to live with it. I am saying it based on my own experience. Although I do not support Putin and stopped making any compromises with this regime since 2014. I am not working for this regime, I am not cooperating with them. But despite that I feel guilty. It is really difficult to live with. And I can understand the people who are weaker than me and therefore fear to learn the truth. This would drive them insane. Just like it drove insane the Germans whom the Americans forced to view the mass graves of concentration camp victims. The main obstacle to the spreading of information is in the heads of the Russian people.