I want to believe, but … there are a couple of reasons for skepticism about this report from The Daily Beast, although not TDB’s reporting on the development. They picked up a Radio Free Europe broadcast of an expletive-laden rant against Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu purportedly intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence services:
Two high-ranking Russian military officers have been caught shit-talking Kremlin leadership in unimaginably colorful language. The two colonels blast the defense minister and lash out at that “motherfucker” Vladimir Putin for his poor strategy in Ukraine, according to a leaked recording of a phone conversation.
While Western and Ukrainian intelligence agencies have routinely reported on plunging morale among rank-and-file Russian troops fighting in Ukraine, many of whom have been heard complaining of dysfunction in intercepted communications, the latest audio appears to be the first to expose frustrations among high-ranking officers.
The two colonels at or near the front lines in this conversation were military doctor Vitaly Kovtun and Maskim Vlasov, a wanted man for war crimes in a shelling of Marupol in 2015, and who got implicated by his own mouth in another unsecure cell phone call. That’s one point in favor of taking this at face value, along with Russia’s complete incompetence at secure comms during the entirety of this “special military operation.” No one on the Russian side has exactly demonstrated even basic combat competence, let alone challenged the ghost of Marshal Georgy Zhukov.
So what did the two say in this purported phone call? This might be the most fun NSFW warning I’ve ever included on a post, but the language is rough:
“Shoigu has assembled all these fucked up [Emergency Situations] guys… if we have head of inspection Colonel-General [Pavel] Plat, fuck, he’s never even served in the army…” Vlasov said.
“They’ve brought forth a whole stellar cast of bootlickers. That [Alexander} Dvornikov is a legend of fuckery… He’s the one who thought up this ‘anti-Banderov push,’” he said, apparently referring to the Kremlin’s narrative about Ukrainians all being neo-Nazis.
“Well, basically, he’s fucking washed up, a brain-dead idiot,” he said.
Kovtun, complaining that Russian forces haven’t been ruthless enough in their assault on Ukraine, blasts Putin personally for Moscow’s retreat from Kyiv.
“A fucking rocket should fly into the Verkhovna Rada [Ukraine’s Parliament] in Kyiv. That’s it, fuck it. Why didn’t [a rocket] fucking fly? I don’t fucking get it, you’re fucked, Putin—motherfucker! Why didn’t a rocket fly into Kyiv, so they’d think… fuck, yes, for fuck’s sake there’s something wrong… something hasn’t been done the right way.”
Needless to say, this is getting tons of attention in our Headline section, and for good reason. If this is on the level, then it portends disaster for the Russian military. If morale is this bad at the colonel level, where people jockey for their first star, morale must be collapsing everywhere.
And that’s why we should view this with skepticism. In the first place, the sourcing for this — Ukrainian intel — should itself give us pause. They’ve been fairly reliable so far but their business isn’t accurate reporting; it’s defeating an enemy, by all means necessary. Spreading this kind of reporting boosts their psy-op ambitions as well as domestic morale, whether it’s true or not. Unless we get some kind of independent corroboration, we should perhaps enjoy this but not rely on it to any large degree.
Second, we know that morale has been bad in Russian fighting units all along, but they haven’t collapsed. This conversation took place on April 14, at a low point, even before Ukrainian forces pushed the Russians pushed away from Kharkiv, which happened a month later. But since then, Russia has launched a new offensive in the southeast, and at least so far, they have improved their performance. They took the city center at Sievierodonetsk today and may be close to severing the Donbas entirely from Ukraine:
Russian troops have stormed the city of Sievierodonetsk from three directions and converged in the city center, according to a local military official, appearing to close in on seizing the last main pocket of Ukrainian control in the eastern region of Luhansk.
The industrial town has been the focus of Russia’s offensive in recent days in its effort to grasp control of the Donbas region, which is made up of Luhansk and Donetsk. Russian forces have reached the city’s core, Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian head of the regional military administration, wrote on Telegram early Wednesday. …
Capturing Sievierodonetsk would bring Russia one step closer to its stated aim in the current phase of the war — seizing Ukraine’s east, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014. It also clears the path for Russian troops to advance westward toward Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in neighboring Donetsk, the last major Ukrainian-held cities in region.
The Russian performance in the Donbas is markedly different than in the north at the early part of the war. That could be in part because the logistics are simpler for Russia in the east and south, although that should have helped them take Kharkiv, a key objective they lost. Russians could not hold up against sustained defenses in the first weeks of the campaign, and Ukrainian shredded their invading units when they got bogged down. Clearly Ukraine has hoped for a similar outcome in the south, and it might still come, but it’s not happening so far. It appears that Russian military planners have improved their performance, although they are still far from the overwhelming threat that NATO assessed their ground forces to be.
However, US analysts at the Pentagon think that the Russians haven’t learned enough to stave off disaster if the fighting continues much longer:
The Russian military, beaten down and demoralized after three months of war, is making the same mistakes in its campaign to capture a swath of eastern Ukraine that forced it to abandon its push to take the entire country, senior American officials say. …
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia appointed a new commander, Gen. Aleksandr V. Dvornikov, in April in what was widely viewed as an acknowledgment that the initial Russian war plan was failing.
Soon after his arrival, General Dvornikov tried to get disjointed air and land units to coordinate their attacks, American officials said. But he has not been seen in the past two weeks, leading some officials to speculate as to whether he remains in charge of the war effort.
Russian pilots also continue to demonstrate the same risk-averse behavior they did in the early weeks of the war: darting across the border to launch strikes and then quickly returning to Russian territory, instead of staying in Ukrainian air space to deny access to their foes. The result is that Russia still has not established any kind of air superiority, officials said.
If Ukraine can keep up the fight in Donbas over the summer, a Russian collapse seems more likely. That seems like a stronger peg for hopes of a Russian withdrawal in the south than a conversation between disgruntled colonels. It’s far less entertaining, though.