On 9 May, Russia held its annual Victory Day military parade in Moscow’s Red Square. Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian military and political officials inspected the rows of Russian soldiers marching past the podium in sharp, spirited strides.
Seeing the Russian army in all its majestic glory, it is difficult to imagine that the same army that is equipped with the world’s second strongest military equipment is currently losing ground in Ukraine.
The predicament of the Russian army is befuddling — even if they were expected to lose ground, one would not have thought that the losses would be so devastating. Roughly 12 Russian generals and 25,000 Russian soldiers have died on the battlefield, and Russia has already lost a third of the combat power it sent into Ukraine since the war started.
Land, air and sea battle losses
Let us look at the battle record of Russian troops in Ukraine.
In the air, all types of Russian aircraft, except for the Sukhoi Su-57, could be shot down by the Ukrainian army. The Sukhoi Su-35 is a 4.5 generation fighter jet equipped with a passive electronically scanned array radar and other high-tech avionics upgrades, including a digital fly-by-wire control system and a semi-active radar homing missile with backward shooting capability. The Su-35’s two-dimensional thrust-vectoring engine is the pride of the Russian army, but the fighter jet could be brought down by a single Stinger missile.
Meanwhile, the Su-57 stealth fighter was only observed a few times in the Ukrainian skies, and it is hard to say if it could be shot down if they appeared more frequently.
In the skies, Russian precision-guided missiles have a 60% failure rate. The Ukrainian military claimed that the guidance systems and electronics recovered from the wreckage of Russia’s Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile on the battlefield in Ukraine were outdated and developed in the 1960s and 1970s. Even Russia-made drones, such as the Orlan-10, that were seized by Ukraine were found to have components made in China that were possibly bought from civilian markets.
On land, Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers have taken a beating on the Ukrainian battlefield. Within three days, Ukrainian troops destroyed over 70 Russian tanks and armoured vehicles that attempted to cross the Siversky Donets River. This is roughly equivalent to the equipment of two battalions.
Using the Javelin anti-tank missile or Switchblade drone, Ukraine is able to destroy any type of Russian tank, including the latest US$1.3 million T-72 and T-72B3 tanks, or the US$5 million T-90 tank.
On sea, Russia’s 10,000-tonne flagship Black Sea missile cruiser, Moskva, is powered by an all-combustion combined power system equipped with six gas turbines and runs at a speed of 32 knots or 59 km/h. The Moskva is armed with 16 anti-ship Vulkan cruise missiles with a range of at least 700 km, but the missile cruiser sank after being struck by two Neptune missiles fired by Ukrainian forces.
Wars of the 21st century are in fact artificial intelligence wars in the information age.
Importantly, Russia’s weapons do not have information warfare and integrated warfare capabilities. For example, under the guidance of GPS and military satellites, the US’s M777 howitzer uses a digital fire control system, a computer system, an advanced counter-battery radar, drones and precision guidance. They are an entire generation ahead of Russia’s self-propelled artillery. Ukrainian artillery are also extremely accurate without relying on calibrated shells to hit the target. This could also explain Russia’s indiscriminate bombing.
Gone are the days when a single type of weapon is enough to fight the world. That is to say, no weapon alone can fight a war — they need to be supported by and integrated with information warfare. Wars of the 21st century are in fact artificial intelligence wars in the information age.
In Ukraine, Russian troops generally use China-made Baofeng walkie-talkies that can be purchased from Taobao, a Chinese online shopping platform.
Corruption on the ground
The predicament of the Russian army is indeed inconceivable. In Ukraine, Russian troops generally use China-made Baofeng walkie-talkies that can be purchased from Taobao, a Chinese online shopping platform. They are not of military standard nor do they ensure confidentiality. Could this be how Russian generals were targeted and killed?
Furthermore, Russian soldiers wear bulletproof vests made of cardboard, while army rations seized by Ukrainian soldiers show an expiration date of 2015. Russian troops plunder anything that they can find in Ukraine, such as refrigerators, televisions, washing machines, toilets, carpets and even dog beds. They steal grain and even drive home with stolen farm machinery. A stolen washing machine was also found inside a Russian helicopter that was shot down.
The behaviour of the Russian troops even prompted Ukraine to write a thank you letter — on 10 March, the head of Ukraine’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention, Oleksandr Novikov, praised Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu for ensuring the high level of corruption in the Russian military — corruption that Shoigu is certainly aware of.
The Russian army’s corruption is reflected in ironic ways. On 7 April, Ukraine announced that it had destroyed one of the Russian army’s latest Orlan-10 drones in Donetsk. Out of curiosity, a Ukrainian soldier disassembled the US$100,000 drone and found that the fuel cap was replaced by a bottle top, while a Canon DSLR camera was secured to the drone with duct tape and glue. When the soldier reported this to his superiors over the phone, they were in utter disbelief until they saw the photos and videos for themselves.
UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace has publicly mocked Russia’s military strength, claiming that “GPS receivers have been found taped to the dashboards of downed Russian SU-34s”, giving another reason for people to suspect corruption in the Russian army’s purchase of military equipment.
In October 2019, General Khalil Arslanov, then chief of the Main Communications Directorate of the Russian army, conspired with suppliers to embezzle at least 6.7 billion rubles (approx. US$100 million) during the contracting stage of projects involving military communication equipment.
This was the fourth time Russia removed high-ranking officials since 2019, marking a total of more than 20 senior generals, nearly all of which were accused of corruption.
In January 2020, the media reported that Putin personally ordered the removal of five high-ranking military or military-adjacent officials, involving Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, Investigative Committee and Ministry of Emergency Situations. This was the fourth time Russia removed high-ranking officials since 2019, marking a total of more than 20 senior generals, nearly all of which were accused of corruption.
Is Shoigu corrupt as well? On 30 October 2015, China Daily quoted a report from The Daily Telegraph that Shoigu was being monitored by Russia’s anti-corruption investigators for secretly building a £12 million mansion on the outskirts of Moscow. Based on Shoigu’s household income, the source of the funds to build the mansion raised great suspicion.
In March 2017, civic group the Anti-Corruption Foundation released a documentary of investigations into the secret assets of then Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, claiming that Medvedev owned property, land, yachts and wineries, worth a total of over 70 billion rubles.
Aleksey Navalny, the founder of the group, also released a drone-filmed video on YouTube featuring “Putin’s Palace” in August 2017, claiming that a mansion on an island in the Vyborg Bay was built for and secretly owned by Putin.
Former opposition leader Boris Nemtsov released a report “The Life of a Galley Slave”, which alleged that Putin owns 58 planes and helicopters and 20 luxury homes, along with 11 luxury watches worth several times Putin’s annual salary.
While outsiders cannot easily get their hands on evidence of corruption by Putin or his followers, one can only make reasoned assessments based on various incidents. This has led to Russia and its army being notorious around the world for corruption.
Putin at the helm of corruption
Karen Dawisha was a professor in the Department of Political Science at Miami University, and the director of The Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. She spent eight years writing Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, which is said to “read like a who’s who of Team Putin” that have been sanctioned by the US and the European Union.
Dawisha wrote that Putin “built a system based on massive predation on a level not seen in Russia since the tsars”. Transparency International estimates the annual cost of bribery to Russia at US$300 billion, roughly equal to Denmark’s GDP, or 37 times higher than what Russia spent on healthcare, education and agriculture in 2007. She added that Western bank coffers swelled due to the capital flight, which has totalled approximately US$335 billion since 2005, or about 5% of Russia’s GDP, reaching over US$50 billion in the first quarter of 2014 alone.
She highlighted, “It is this kleptocratic tribute system underlying Russia’s authoritarian regime that the US government sought to expose and punish beginning in April 2014.” All those sanctioned by the US were basically on “Team Putin”.
... one cannot disregard corruption when trying to understand Putin’s political power; his power is created, driven, shaped and restricted by corruption, which will one day also lead to his destruction.
Dawisha’s evidence suggested that from the moment Putin assumed power in 2000, Russia ceased to be “a place where democratic dreamers could flourish”. Putin built a legalistic system, but this system only serves to “control, channel and coerce the middle class and the broader elite” while at the same time allowing the inner core to act with impunity along what has been called Putin’s “vertical of power”.
She added that within weeks of Putin’s coming to power, the Kremlin began to erode the basic individual freedoms guaranteed under the 1993 Russian Constitution. She wrote, “This pattern of gradually closing the public space and denying citizens the rights of free press, assembly and speech was present and planned from the very beginning.”
According to experts on Russia, one cannot disregard corruption when trying to understand Putin’s political power; his power is created, driven, shaped and restricted by corruption, which will one day also lead to his destruction.
Russia’s oligarchs have a right to corruption under the guise of patriotism, and so they are all on the same boat, embracing one another and sharing weal and woe.
Support for Putin’s dominance under the autocracy that he built hinges on corruption. Only by allowing corruption among his confidants can he prop up his authority through the “vertical of power”. And those confidants in turn use that “vertical of power” to gain the loyalty of their subordinates and strengthen their own sphere of influence.
Putin’s priority is not to clean up corrupt oligarchs, but to dignify them. Proving their loyalty to Putin is a show of patriotism that proves their loyalty to the country. Russia’s oligarchs have a right to corruption under the guise of patriotism, and so they are all on the same boat, embracing one another and sharing weal and woe.
Russia’s environment of corruption has conjured up corrupt rulers. In the late 1990s, corruption was already rife at various levels of the Russian government. When Boris Yeltsin’s position as president started to weaken, the elites pressured him to step down with the assurance that if Yeltsin appointed the successor that they had carefully picked, he and his family would not be charged for misappropriating government funds. Yeltsin agreed, and in August 1999, Vladimir Putin was revealed as the successor.
When Putin took office, he did not list accounts of Yeltsin’s corruption — that was the unwritten rule of the oligarchs. Putin started a fresh round of corruption, and the cycle began again. This is the historical fate of the Russian people.
When the people of Moscow watch the inspiring inspection of the Russian army, do they know that under the glamour lies a huge pustule that is the autocracy? The war in Ukraine is bursting that pustule. How will the Russian people react when the stink reaches Moscow?
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