Putin’s meatgrinder tactics are destroying a generation of Russian men

Ukrainian soldiers firing artillery in the direction of Bakhmut
Ukrainian soldiers firing artillery in the direction of Bakhmut
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Vladimir Putin’s regime is in its death throes. His “special military operation”, far from disarming Ukraine, has only succeeded in disarming Russia. Moscow has lost over 220,000 soldiers to death or injury alongside 1,900 tanks. These are the sort of numbers we associate with the first world war; modern militaries are rarely built to handle such catastrophic losses.

It’s no wonder that videos on social media appear to show burgeoning mutinies in the ranks of Russian units, or the much-feared criminals of the Wagner group complaining that they have no ammunition. The fighting around Bakhmut resembles Passchendaele or the Somme, with barely trained recruits sent into killzones to die.

So desperate is Russia for manpower that I am now hearing credible reports that the Kremlin has identified around 4 million people across the country that it believes could be press-ganged into the army. These, it believes, are men whose absence would be little missed; those with no fixed abode, with no close family, and sometimes with intellectual disabilities or drug use issues that make it difficult to hold down work. If these reports are correct, they will be given a day or two of training, a gun – and ammunition if they are lucky – before they are pushed to the front.

There it is believed that Putin’s conscripts last little more than seven days before they leave. If they are lucky, they are wounded. If they are a little less lucky, they leave in a coffin. And for some, they will be left to rot where they fall with nobody at home much the wiser. Is this really so difficult to believe when Moscow has already emptied its jails of murderers and rapists to fight and die in these same trnches?

The Russian air force appears to be welded to the ground, and the Navy seems capable only of offering gun turrets to be stuck onto old tank chassis. These Frankenstein creations look more like the original designs from the First World War, and are probably about as effective on the modern battlefield. It’s only human mass that Russia now has to offer.

Worse still for Putin, the Russian economy is showing signs of weakness. Sanctioned by the West and reliant on sales of oil and gas at steep discounts, the state coffers are beginning to run dry. His oligarchs, with their superyachts in drydocks, their assets frozen or seized, and their access to socialite playgrounds cut off, may well be running out of patience with their supreme leader.

The Russian autocrat may now be looking for a face-saving way out of his Ukraine misadventure. Teetering on the precipice, he will need a way to appease his people, his oligarchs and to placate the Western powers. His threats of nuclear destruction are an empty bluff; he knows that any escalation with weapons of mass destruction would result in Nato destroying what’s left of his armed forces, an outcome which would be followed rapidly by his own defenestration.

He can’t sue for peace to keep the gains he’s won to date; the Ukrainian people will not accept it with the tides of war turning in their favour. He might try to trade the Donbas for a concession on the status of the Crimea, but there is pro-Ukraine sentiment on that very peninsula. President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, shows no interest in bailing Russia out. Why would he, when Putin’s failure is making Moscow ever more dependent on Beijing?

Col Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a former commander of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a regular contributor to the Telegraph's 'Ukraine: The Latest' podcast. With over 27 million downloads, it is your go-to source for live reaction and correspondents reporting on the ground. You can listen here