Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, turned 70 on October 7. He was showered with gifts and praise as his soldiers continued to wage an ill-fated and illegal war in Ukraine. The Belarusian leader gave him a new tractor. The ruler of Turkmenistan gave him festive watermelons. Countries like Cuba, Turkey, South Africa and Kazakhstan called him to wish him a happy birthday.
Yet as Putin celebrated this landmark year, the septuagenarian dictator received reports that a strategic bridge linking Russia with Crimea had been badly damaged.
The bad news came amid a series of military and strategic mistakes, declining army morale and signs of growing internal unrest in Russia. Putin retaliated with missile strikes on Ukrainian civilian targets.
An invasion gone wrong
Widely considered a poorly planned military operation, the once vaunted Russian military has consistently demonstrated tactical weakness in supply, logistics and communications. Putin deploys his army with massive shortages of weapons and food after his men chaotically dump much of their equipment on the battlefield.
Reports suggest that Putin asked North Korea and China for military equipment to recover his lost tanks and trucks, which were destroyed, abandoned or captured.
While President Joe Biden (D) has pledged to keep US ground forces out of Ukraine, the US has continually aided the Ukrainian military. So many American weapons have been sent to Eastern Europe that America is striking new multibillion-dollar contracts with defense companies to replenish its own national arsenal.
The U.S. Army has mentored the Ukrainian officer corps with special training in warfare and tactics. The US Department of Defense provided the Ukrainians with sensitive intelligence, helping them locate enemy forces and target them through conventional or guerrilla operations.
Currently, the Russian army is bleeding. Part-time soldiers do not want to participate in this war. Worse still for Putin, his call for 300,000 reservists was met with stiff opposition from the Russian population.
Putin even lowered recruitment standards, allowing homeless people, criminals, wounded soldiers and middle-aged people to enlist. The Russian army has become simply a debasement of the once fierce Red Army, slowly reduced to second and third rank personnel.
Foiled by Ukrainian President
In the face of overwhelming Ukrainian resistance, many of Putin’s citizen-soldiers surrendered. Meanwhile, Russian conscripts, with little training, have gone into battle with obsolete weapons and limited food against a motivated and growing enemy.
At every turn, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy outwitted and outmaneuvered his Russian counterpart. Zelenskyy sent messages online to Russian soldiers, saying they would be treated well if defeated. Some Russians were even offered to be sent to another nation, where they could save their lives by not going to war.
While the Ukrainians have shown themselves capable of deterring the Russians, Putin has employed desperate means. Given his nuclear options, we are now hearing about a possible escalation of a conflict that may well escalate.
On the home front, the invasion of Ukraine is unpopular; its effects were felt most by Putin’s own people. Prominent Western companies pulled out of Russia months ago, sparked by a global economic boycott designed to cripple the Russian economy.
In the name of destroying Ukraine, Putin incited protests against his rule. He tried to quell these protests and censor news of the conflict. Yet the stories of numerous Russian casualties on all fronts are too difficult to hide.
Russian citizens followed the fighting in Ukraine, the heavy losses suffered by their compatriots and the lack of supplies for their soldiers. In Russia, massive border crossings have taken place. Cars, many carrying young men, were seen deserting conscription into the Russian army.
It is estimated that nearly 200,000 reservists have fled Russia. Putin needs soldiers but has yet to tap into his huge citizenry for a large-scale project.
There are still many more fights and sacrifices to be made. The Ukrainians, however, have proven that there is no safe place for the Russian army on their territory.
While Putin plays with his new tractor and enjoys his watermelons, he doesn’t have much else to celebrate on his birthday. He waged an unjust war against a sovereign nation. His actions have significantly diminished Russia’s power and legitimacy in the world.
If all this portends a rough road, Putin’s 70th year will surely be a bad year for him.
Rich Acritelli is a history teacher at Rocky Point High School and an assistant professor at Suffolk County Community College. Written in conjunction with members of the school’s History Honor Society.