This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
British Army Colonel Hamish Stephen de Bretton-Gordon is a military analyst who formerly commanded NATO and U.K. chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear reaction troops.
He is a regular commentator for Britain’s The Telegraph and elsewhere on Russia’s 14-month-old full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
He spoke recently with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service about whether Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats have “backfired,” a devastating mobilization that targets Russia’s most vulnerable communities and argues that Russia’s “irrelevance” is inevitable once the Ukraine war is over.
RFE/RL: In a recent piece in The Telegraph, you argued that Putin “knows his only hope of victory…is the total militarization of Russia.” Before we discuss such a military dictatorship, can we define what “a Russian victory” would look like in that context? What’s “victory” on Putin’s terms and is it achievable?
Hamish Stephen de Bretton-Gordon: I don’t even know what a “Russian victory” would look like. I assume the “special military operation” that was started in February last year, where Putin said it was to prevent the expansion of NATO, of NATO moving further eastwards, and also to reclaim Ukraine for Russia. If that is what Putin is still trying to achieve, then he has no chance of victory. On the expansion of NATO, his actions have had exactly the opposite effect. Only two weeks ago, Finland joined NATO, the most powerful army in Europe, and also gave Putin another 832 miles (1,339 kilometers) of borders to worry about. He galvanized the whole of NATO, if not the Western world, to support Ukraine to throw the Russians out of Ukraine. So, I don’t think there is any chance of Putin gaining victory from what he was trying to achieve in February last year.
RFE/RL: Let me rephrase it a bit, then: What could Putin perceivably sell as a “victory”?
De Bretton-Gordon: I’m not very sure what victory he can claim. Because his army has been decimated [and] it will take him years and years to rebuild it. For example, allegedly, he’s lost 2,000 tanks; that is a massive force. It’s difficult to get the actual casualty rates. But the British government and the U.S. government, who I tend to believe, say the casualties are over 220,000 dead or wounded young, Russian, predominantly men. This is a huge, huge cost.
Some commentators seem to think that maybe the Ukrainians will come to the negotiation table and maybe negotiate Crimea. I don’t think so at all. I think [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskiy has been very clear that for him victory is Russian troops pushed out to the boundaries back from 2014, which would mean out of the Donbas and out of Crimea. What Putin can claim as victory, I just don’t know.
RFE/RL: Putin too probably realizes all of this? Why go on, then?
De Bretton-Gordon: In the history of warfare, commanders, when they have set out so clearly an objective for victory and have already spilt so much of their young people’s blood — now it would be an almost worse defeat. So, I think Putin and his generals are in the vain hope that they can eke out some sort of victory.
There is also the nuclear question here, which I’ve written about in The Telegraph and elsewhere. I think Putin’s nuclear threats have backfired, because the idea of the threatening nuclear attack, which really started at the very beginning of the conflict, was to keep NATO out. And clearly that has not happened, quite the opposite. So, the nuclear threat to me is completely hollow. In fact, I don’t believe that he can use even his tactical nuclear weapons, because they’re either out of range or I’m pretty certain that NATO would prevent them being fired, with some of the sophisticated weaponry that NATO has at its disposal. My greatest concern at the moment, actually, is the nuclear power stations in Ukraine, which could be attacked to create a nuclear accident and a contamination hazard across Europe far worse than we saw with Chernobyl back in 1986.
The Russian psyche and the sort of Western psyche are completely different. I don’t think NATO’s commanders and leaders in the U.K. and France, or certainly the U.K. and the U.S., they absolutely can’t bow down to further bullying, if you like, from Russia. The populations won’t allow it…. It seems to me a lot of Putin’s threats are more for the audience in Russia rather than in Europe, to show that he’s still this strongman and all the rest of it. Outside of Russia he’s seen as a gangster and a tyrant.
RFE/RL: You also write that the only way he can win in Ukraine, whatever that victory might look like, is to prolong it. And the only way to prolong it is to continue feeding the “meat grinder” until actually, as grotesque as it sounds, Ukrainians run out of bullets. So, he is betting that he won’t run out of cannon fodder. But then again, if Bakhmut is anything to go by, it might not net Russia anything but a Pyrrhic victory in its poorest sense, if even that.
De Bretton-Gordon: I agree with your assessment that the longer this goes on, Putin probably feels better. Because next year there are elections in the U.S. and also the U.K. and other Western countries, and our politicians are very sensitive about how much this is costing, and they’re more interested in getting reelected in their own countries. So, if the war is still going on in 12 months’ time and there’s been no progress, then you could see that some countries might start to waver. And perhaps that’s what Putin is hoping for.
The meat grinder is almost medieval, it’s certainly World War I, the amount of manpower that Russia is throwing into it. I’ve had credible information that the Russians are identifying lots of young men who they think will not be noticed if they’re lost, because they are either homeless or of low intelligence, or they might be suffering drug problems. And throwing those into the front, as you say. In Bakhmut, the casualty rates are unbelievable, astronomically high.
I find it amazing that the mothers of Russia are not causing more of a stir. I get the feeling that I expect most of these young men are not from the elites in Moscow or St. Petersburg; they’re probably from far in the east where people are less in communication with social media to be able to complain about these things. And of course, we know in Russia, if anybody complains, they tend to get put down. We just saw Vladimir Kara-Murza being sentenced to 25 years in jail for being a dissident, and of course Aleksei Navalny is in jail, the main opposition leader, and unlikely to ever come out.
RFE/RL: This ragtag army of 4 million recruited “souls” that you write about, it’s not just about Moscow elites; there is a creeping suspicion that it would also heavily “favor” not Russians but the myriad of ethnic minorities that Russia has. What does it spell for those people or, to use an example closer to my home in Georgia, from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been under pressure to send fighters to fight Russia’s war there?
De Bretton-Gordon: Absolutely. It’s shocking that those people have even lesser a voice in Russia. Ethnic minorities are being used as cannon fodder. I think I called it an “own goal,” an “own genocide” that Russia is creating. But not [against] the…elite Russians — I expect predominantly white — but at the cost of people from the Far East who have less of a vote in Russia, probably less educated, and certainly less of a voice, that Russia is using to try to prolong this war almost to use up Ukrainian bullets until they run out. And it is a shocking state, which is why I and all sorts of others are calling on NATO to do everything it can to ensure that Ukraine prevails as quickly as possible so we can get to a peace, and to stop the bloodshed on absolutely unbelievable scales.
RFE/RL: Four million is an imposing, intimidating figure [for mobilization]. But what can it actually translate into on the battlefield?
De Bretton-Gordon: Well, sadly, I think it will just turn into more dead bodies, the “meat grinder” as we call it. An infantry soldier with a rifle is no match for the modern Western weaponry that Ukraine has at [its] disposal — the tanks, the armored vehicles, etc. Human flesh, it just cannot survive.
And I think one of the interesting factors — having only just heard that Russia is claiming to put its newest, most modern tank, the T-14, on the battlefield in very small numbers, for example. There’s the difference between a Russian tank and a Western tank: a lot of it is in the protection that they have. So, having spent many years in Challenger tanks in the British Army, I know these tanks are very strongly armored and could take many, many hits from a T-72 or even a T-80. Whereas a T-80 or even a T-14, because they’re lightly armored, will be taken out very easily by the Leopard tanks and the Challenger 2 tanks, but they can’t take out the Western tank.
So going back to your question about this manpower, I think it is just suicide, it is a genocide. Because there is no way that these young men are going to be able to survive. It’s almost like a circus shooting gallery. It is unimaginable that it is allowed to happen. (Editor’s note: de Bretton-Gordon has written elsewhere about the atrocities and other war crimes allegedly committed on a massive scale by Russian troops against Ukrainian civilians and others.)
RFE/RL: What would be a role model of military dictatorship for Putin? We have seen many, ranging all the way back from the Roman Empire, which he allegedly finds fascinating, to the more recent Soviet mold, embodied by Josef Stalin.
De Bretton-Gordon: From what we read and learn, he sees himself very much as a Peter the Great of the modern era, being able to expand Russian influence across the rest of Europe. And undoubtedly, he’s been focused on how Stalin ruled Russia in World War II, with an absolute iron grip. And those people around him seem to be of a similar type of stance and idea. But it is this sort of totalitarian, autocratic rulership, which is to rule with a rod of iron and fear….
Putin’s rule is an autocratic dictatorship and maybe born out of his time in the KGB, where you could get away with anything as long as it’s successful. He is now 70 — whether he’s ill or not, who knows — but he’s in the last part of his life and probably feels he must achieve something like the great Russian leaders. And at the moment, it’s all going the wrong way. So, he will presumably try to do everything he can to eke out some sort of victory. But I’m not quite sure how you can do that. He’s operated very much like [Adolf] Hitler in World War II and he may well have a similar end.
RFE/RL: One of the trademark signs of military dictatorship is brutal quashing of any dissent, and also, if you take the Soviet example, it was at every level of society. Should we expect any sort of mass purges?
De Bretton-Gordon: It’s very difficult to see. I think the purges of the dissidents and the elites is happening anyway. If we turn back a few years, we see the dissidents outside of Russia, [Aleksandr] Litvinenko in London, Sergei Skripal and others who’ve opposed the regime, being taken out.
As far as the purges within Russia, I think at the moment things are working out just as Putin would see fit. I’m sure if there is any widespread dissension in Russia, and people start refusing to go to the front in any great numbers, then one would expect widespread purges. When there was a big conscription six to nine months ago, we saw a lot of young men leaving Russia at a rapid rate. That seems to have dried up. And perhaps by recruiting people from the east, it’s not so noticeable. But I don’t think anything is off the cards to keep Putin and the elite where they are. I just hope their time is limited.
RFE/RL: And last question: What does Russia as a military dictatorship spell for the rest of the world?
De Bretton-Gordon: I think at the moment, it is a real concern, because there are so many resources being used up to help Ukraine defeat the Russians. Interestingly enough, you will have seen the evacuations in Sudan from the war there.
Now I think Britain and other countries have sort of sleepwalked into this; they’ve been so focused on Ukraine that they haven’t noticed what else is going on in the world. I’m sure we could talk about China for several hours.
But I think once this conflict is over, Russia is going to become more irrelevant. And I say that because economically, apart from their fuel, they are of no great interest. I think Putin has destroyed their military in the Ukraine fight, and now that NATO has been strengthened with Finland, probably Sweden fairly soon, and probably Ukraine too, the threat of Russia is minimized. And again, I don’t think the nuclear issue is a huge issue. I don’t see the nuclear [issue] becoming a problem. I’m more worried about North Korea’s nuclear weapons than I am about Russia’s nuclear weapons.
I think, actually, as soon as this war is over, Russia will become more and more irrelevant. The world will want its gas and oil, but we are rapidly weaning ourselves off that. It’s a huge worry at the moment, which is why people like myself want this over as soon as possible, so that we can concentrate and get back to more savory things.