As you read reports about the United States potentially increasing arms deliveries to Ukraine, keep this in mind: This war is already more than the Kremlin bargained for. And if average Russians see it get any worse, President Vladimir Putin will likely find his sudden surge in post-Crimea popularity evaporating. So the West's impulse to shorten this war through escalation—or by at least by helping yank the Ukrainian military into the 21st century—is almost certainly the right one. As the number of dead Russian soldiers begins climbing, outraged Russian citizens could well be the ones to end Putin's incursion.
Anyone following non-Kremlin media realizes full well that Moscow doesn’t want to acknowledge Russian troops’ deaths. The Kremlin doesn’t want you, or Kiev, or the Russians back home to know that its soldiers leading and aiding pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine are dying by the dozens, casualties in generic insignias and unmarked graves.
The lengths to which the Kremlin has gone to obscure those casualties are typical of its broader modus operandi, both historically and tactically. The Kremlin attempted this play in Afghanistan in the 1980s, eliding the fact that Soviet forces saw myriad casualties during invasion, and in the First Chechen War, combining abject denials of Russian presence from above with concerted muffling from below. The redirection—the silencing—also fits with Moscow’s current information policy. The Kremlin tells its populace, its media, and its lawmakers: Don’t dig. Toe the official line. Smother the truth, depriving these dead soldiers of dignity. Because, claims the Kremlin, these men are not in fact obeying orders. Rather (goes the lie) these are “volunteers," coursing with Russian messianism, eager to put their lives on the line against the fascism brewing next door. No one has ordered their presence in eastern Ukraine. They’ve arrived under their own volition, for god and country.
As the Kremlin disavows the dead, it's impossible to know how many Russian troops have died during this invasion. The state has stonewalled and shunned families of the deceased. Unidentified goons bludgeoned and hospitalized inquisitive lawmakers. Authorities jailed a 73-year-old diabetic, leading Russia’s innocuous Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, simply for publicizing the deaths of those fighting on Russia’s behalf. Media immunity is no pass. When BBC journalists traveled to southern Russia to interview a family of one of the forgotten, three toughs smashed their camera, deleted their footage, and beat their cameraman.
The Kremlin isn’t obfuscating the dozens or hundreds dead out of some sense of wayward tradition; rather, it’s hoping to obscure its casualties because, like the rest of us, the Kremlin can read polls. There, the sentiment’s clear: The broader Russian public may have backed the Crimean annexation, and they may see the current Ukrainian government as a Western puppet, but they’ll be damned if they'll sacrifice their family to prop up the latest Russian invasion. One recent poll from the Levada Center found only 13 percent of Russians willing to send sons to fight in eastern Ukraine.
After all, this isn’t some war of religious schism or broader ethnic demarcation, as the Crimean War or the break-up of Yugoslavia presented. Nor is it a war to retain Russia’s territorial integrity, as in Chechnya. This is a war within Orthodoxy, within Slavdom—and the Russian populace, by and large, will not have loved ones die for it.
This is perhaps the most salient point missing from the current argument over whether to send Ukraine more arms and gear. The question is not whether Ukraine can “defeat” Russia, any more than we'd ask whether a pot of honey could defeat a bear. Ukraine’s military remains desiccated from years of former President Viktor Yanukovych's malfeasance and inattention. The Ukrainian military’s current stock of anti-tank/anti-armor weaponry is 20 years old, and 70 percent of it is out of commission anyway, as noted in a recent Brookings report led by former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer and former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Cronyism and corruption have gutted the military, leaving the armed forces, like many other Ukrainian state institutions, sapped.
The point of increasing arms to Ukraine is not, as Bloomberg’s editorial board claimed, to simply “escalat[e] a fight that it's almost certain to lose.” Nor is the aim to deter any form of immediate Russian retreat. The point, rather, is to inflict more casualties than the Russian government is willing to stomach. As noted in the Brookings report, “Only if the Kremlin knows that the risks and costs of further military action are high will it seek to find an acceptable political solution.” The Kremlin has already gone to inordinate lengths to keep this fight away from domestic scrutiny. Thus far, the Kremlin has proven capable of muddying its participation with the warlords of eastern Ukraine. But as bodies pile up, the Kremlin’s ruse will collapse.
While some analysts argue that the Kremlin will respond to increased arms deliveries by ramping up its own forces, the Kremlin has already crafted a wealth of fabricated reasons to swell its ranks in Ukraine. The Kremlin-controlled media have sold mass graves, American forces in eastern Ukraine, and toddler crucifixions to the Russian public. Moscow has beaten the drum of American and NATO support in Ukraine for months on end. That this new shipment could be played as some game-changer to a Russian public already saturated by images of putative fascist-lovers in Washington and Brussels remains unlikely. Plus, Washington has already sent Ukraine tens of millions of dollars in military assistance—with a further $350 million authorized through the Ukraine Freedom Support Act. This isn’t some volte face the Kremlin can point to.
Bringing Ukraine’s anti-armor weaponry into the 21st century won't create a watershed the Kremlin couldn't already create on its own. Providing Ukraine with drones and counter-battery radars will not convince the Russian public to accept more war dead. As a statement from the American embassy in Kiev noted, the United States has already pledged nearly $240 million in military support in 2014-15, with further military training programs due next month. The United States has been backing Ukraine’s forces for months. This talking point already exists. This claim is already firmly entrenched in the Kremlin’s playbook.
Updating Ukraine’s fighting capabilities—allowing it to defend its territory in earnest, rather than with the rust-bucket military it currently maintains—may yet see the Kremlin opt for a concomitant escalation. Yet that tack would end in the one result Moscow has gone furthest to avoid publicizing: its involvement in Ukraine, and a casualty rate almost certain to rise. The Kremlin’s strategy will lead to Russian economic calamity. In the nearer term, the polls reveal the Kremlin’s strategic weakness within eastern Ukraine, which Western analysts continually miss. Russians on the domestic front are willing to slog through inflation at the grocery store, or to forego social benefits. But as the casualties continue to rise, the Kremlin’s secrecy can last only so long.
Like the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and the First Chechen War, the Kremlin sparked fighting in Ukraine hoping for a small, victorious war—something to drum up support for a stagnant, morally exhausted regime whose citizens were finally grasping its political bankruptcy. So long as the war remains external, Russians can support it. But when the costs come home—as they will with increased arms support for Ukrainian forces—Russians will turn. Knowing this, the Kremlin has gone to lengths to hide the casualties. The sooner policymakers in Washington and Brussels understand this, the better for Ukraine and Russia alike.
This article has been updated.