Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, turned 70 on Oct. 7. He was showered with presents and praise as his soldiers continued to fight an ill-fated and illegal war in Ukraine. The Belarusian leader got him a new tractor. The ruler of Turkmenistan gave him celebratory watermelons. Countries such as Cuba, Turkey, South Africa and Kazakhstan called to wish him a happy birthday.
Yet, as Putin celebrated this milestone year, the septuagenarian dictator received reports that a strategic bridge connecting Russia to Crimea was severely damaged.
This bad news came amid a string of military and strategic blunders, the declining morale of his army and signs of growing internal unrest in Russia. Putin retaliated with missile strikes on Ukrainian civilian targets.
An invasion gone awry
Widely considered a poorly planned military operation, the once-vaunted Russian military has consistently demonstrated tactical weakness in supply, logistics and communications. Putin is deploying his army with massive shortages in weapons and food after his men chaotically abandoned much of their equipment on the battlefield.
Reports suggest that Putin has asked North Korea and China for military hardware to recover its loss of tanks and trucks, which have been destroyed, deserted or captured.
While President Joe Biden (D) has pledged to keep American ground forces out of Ukraine, the United States has continually aided the Ukrainian army. So much American weaponry has been sent to Eastern Europe that America is entering new multibillion-dollar contracts with defense companies to replenish its own national arsenal.
The American military has mentored the Ukrainian officer corps with special warfare and tactical training. The U.S. Department of Defense has given the Ukrainians sensitive intelligence, helping them locate enemy forces and target them through conventional or guerrilla operations.
Currently, the Russian military is bleeding out. Part-time soldiers want no part in this war. Making matters worse for Putin, his call-up of 300,000 reservists has met stark opposition from the Russian populace.
Putin has even lowered standards for recruitment, allowing the homeless, criminals, wounded soldiers and the middle-aged to enlist. The Russian military has become merely a debasement of the once-fierce Red Army, slowly reduced to second and third-rate personnel.
Outfoxed by the Ukrainian president
In the face of overwhelming Ukrainian resistance, many of Putin’s citizen-soldiers have surrendered. Meanwhile, Russian conscripts, with little training, have gone into battle with obsolete weapons and limited food against a motivated enemy gaining momentum.
At every turn, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has outwitted and outmaneuvered his Russian counterpart. Zelenskyy has sent online messages to the Russian soldiers, declaring they will be treated well in defeat. Some Russians were even offered to be sent to another nation, where they could save their lives by sitting out the war.
Whereas the Ukrainians have proven themselves capable of deterring the Russians, Putin has employed desperate means. Given his nuclear options, we are now hearing about a possible escalation in a conflict that could get much worse.
On the home front, the invasion of Ukraine is unpopular; its effects felt the worst by Putin’s own people. Prominent Western businesses pulled out of Russia months ago, initiated by a global economic boycott designed to cripple the Russian economy.
In the name of wrecking Ukraine, Putin has incited demonstrations against his authority. He has tried to suppress these demonstrations and censor news of the conflict. Still, the stories of many Russian losses on every front are too difficult to hide.
Russian citizens have followed the fighting in Ukraine, the heavy losses incurred by their fellow countrymen and the lack of supplies for their soldiers. In Russia, mass border crossings have taken place. Cars, many carrying young men, have been seen deserting conscription to the Russian army.
It is estimated that almost 200,000 reservists have fled Russia. Putin needs soldiers but has not yet resorted to calling upon his massive citizen population for a full-scale draft.
There is much fighting left and additional sacrifices to be made. The Ukrainians, however, have proven that there is no safe place for the Russian military within their territory.
While Putin plays with his new tractor and enjoys his watermelons, he has little else to celebrate on his birthday. He has waged an unjust war against a sovereign nation. His actions have greatly diminished Russia’s power and legitimacy worldwide.
If any of this forecasts a difficult road ahead, Putin’s 70th year will surely be a bad one for him.
Rich Acritelli is a history teacher at Rocky Point High School and adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College. Written in conjunction with members of the high school’s History Honor Society.