British Army Colonel Hamish Stephen de Bretton-Gordon is a military analyst who formerly commanded NATO and UK chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear reaction troops.
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.
In a recent piece, you argued that Putin knows that his only hope to win in Ukraine is a total militarization of the country. What does a Russian victory look like here?
The special military operation that was started in February last year, where Putin said it was to prevent 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 or stopping the expansion of NATO. Indeed, his actions have had exactly the opposite effect. Only two weeks ago, Finland, with the most powerful army in Europe, joined NATO. It also gave Putin another 832 miles of border to worry about. Putin galvanized the whole of NATO, if not the Western world, to support Ukraine to throw the Russians out of the country. So I don’t think there is any chance of Putin gaining a victory from what he was trying to achieve in February last year.
What could he perceivably sell as a victim?
I’m not very sure what victory he can claim, because his army has been decimated. It will take him years and years to rebuild it. Allegedly, he’s lost 2000 tanks. That is a massive force. The British government and the US government, who I tend to believe, say the casualties are over 220,000 dead or wounded, young Russians, predominantly men. This is a huge, huge cost. Some commentators seem to think that the Ukrainians will come to the negotiation table and negotiate Crimea. But I don’t think so. I think President Zelensky has been very clear that for him, victory is Russian troops pushed out to the boundaries of 2014, which would mean out of Donbas and out of Crimea. What Putin can claim victory for, I just don’t know.
Putin probably realizes this, so what is he aiming for now?
When they have so clearly set out an objective for victory but have spilled so much blood of their young people, giving in or trying to sue for peace now would be an even worse defeat. 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. I think Putin’s nuclear threats have backfired, again, because the idea of threatening a nuclear attack 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 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 it has 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.
You write that the only way Putin can win in Ukraine is to prolong the war by feeding the meat grinder until the Ukrainians run out of bullets.
The longer this goes on, the more Putin will feel it’s for the better. Because, next year, there are elections in the US and UK and other Western countries. Our politicians are very sensitive about how much this is costing, and they’re naturally interested in getting re-elected 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 still start to waver. And perhaps that’s what Putin is hoping for.
The meat grinder is almost medieval, it’s certainly First World War, the amount of manpower that Russia is throwing into it. I’ve had credible information that the Russians are identifying the kind of young men that won’t be missed, whose loss will go unnoticed- homeless, of low intelligence, or suffering from drug addiction. And they are throwing these young men at the front. 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 don’t think these young men come from the elites in Moscow, or St. Petersburg. They’re probably from far in the east where people are less able to complain about these things. And, of course, we know that in Russia, if anybody complains, they tend to get put down.
This “ragtag 4 million army” that you mention – there is a creeping suspicion that it would also heavily “favor” not Russians, but the myriad of ethnic minorities that Russia has, as well as its satellites, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been under pressure to send fighters. So what does it spell for those people?
Yes, in Russia, the ethnic minorities, as it were, are being used as cannon fodder. It’s kind of an own goal, it’s an own genocide that Russia is creating, at the cost of people from the Far East who have less of a voice in Russia, who are probably less educated – Russia is using them to try and prolong this war, to use up Ukrainian bullets. It is a shocking state, which is why myself and others are calling on NATO to do everything it can to ensure that Ukraine prevails as quickly as possible so we can get to peace and stop this absolutely unbelievable bloodshed.
4 million is an intimidating figure. But what does it actually translate to on the battlefield?
Simply, more dead bodies, the meat grinder, as we call it, because 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.
Russia is claiming it will put the most modern tank, the E 14, on the battlefield, though in very small numbers. But there is a difference between a Russian tank and a Western tank, a lot of it in the protection they have. Having spent many years in Challenger tanks and the British army, I know these tanks are very strongly armored and could take many, many hits from a T 72, or even a T80. 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 a Western tank in turn. So going back to your question about the manpower, I think it is just suicide, it is genocide, because there is no way that these young men are going to be able to survive. It’s a circus shooting gallery, it is unimaginable that it is being allowed to happen.
We have seen many leaders, ranging all the way back to the Roman Empire, which Putin allegedly finds fascinating, to the more recent, Soviet mold embodied by Stalin. What would Putin’s leadership legend look like?
From what we read, 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 the second world war – with an absolute iron grip. So it is this sort of totalitarian, autocratic dictatorship, which is ruled with a rod of iron and fear. He is now 70, he’s in the last part of his life, and probably feels he must achieve something like the past great Russian leaders. And at the moment, it’s all going wrong. So he will, presumably, try and do everything he can to eke out some sort of victory, but I’m not quite sure how he can do that. He’s operated very much like Hitler in the Second World War. And he may well have a similar end.
Interview by Vazha Tavberidze for RFE/RL