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General Michel Yakovleff: "Putin lost the war, but he hasn't understood it yet"

After almost eight months of conflict, Russia seems more than ever in difficulty in Ukraine.

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General Michel Yakovleff: "Putin lost the war, but he hasn't understood it yet"

After almost eight months of conflict, Russia seems more than ever in difficulty in Ukraine. Now unable to advance into the Donbass, it suffered a major defeat by Ukrainian forces in the Kharkiv region in September. In the oblast of Kherson, in the south of the country, where its forces have been surrounded for several weeks by the Ukrainian army, Moscow is not in a better position. This Tuesday, October 18, General Sergei Surovikin, the commander-in-chief of the Russian forces, deeming the situation "tense", announced the evacuation of the civilian population of this region in the face of the progression of Ukrainian troops. "A Russian collapse in Kherson is very likely," judge with L'Express General Michel Yakovleff, former vice-chief of staff of Shape, the supreme inter-allied command for NATO operations. According to him, the observation is implacable: the Russian army is no longer able to "turn the tide". Maintenance.

L'Express: The commander of Russian forces in Ukraine admitted on Tuesday that the situation was "tense" for his troops. Does a collapse of the Russian army in the coming months seem realistic to you?

Michel Yakovleff: Absolutely. The long-term trend of the Russian army in Ukraine has been disintegrating for several months now. At present, the Russian army is stranded in Ukraine like a whale being cut off piece by piece. And it no longer has any real reserves capable of turning the tide, having already scraped all the combat units it could in all of its military districts. We have already seen a collapse of the Russian military posture in the Kharkiv region in September, and I think the next one will be in Kherson.

On the spot, his defense is really in difficulty. It relies heavily on artillery and lacks ammunition following the destruction of the bridges connecting this bridgehead to the rest of the occupied territories on the east bank of the Dnieper River. So a Russian collapse in Kherson is very likely. If this actually happens, will it have a discouraging and contagious effect on the rest of the Russian army? It's a possibility, although it's not the most likely hypothesis. I think it is more likely that the Russian forces will crumble over time.

Can't the mobilization launched by Russia change the situation?

No, i dont think so. One of the big problems with this late mobilization is that Russia is faced with a cruel lack of supervision to prepare the 300,000 men it wants to recruit. Let's take an example. In France, when the army sends 1,000 men to a training center, we have to mobilize around 300 soldiers to supervise them: whether to manage the firing point, ammunition, the infirmary, the kitchen, the driving vehicles, administration... We generally retain a ratio of one quarter to one third of supervisors to form an army. It's unavoidable, soldiers don't train alone and there are no autodidacts in war. For this, Russia would therefore need 70,000 to 100,000 soldiers. But where will they come from? They are almost all in Ukraine, where they are needed on the front line.

Russian citizens enlisted during the partial mobilization in Moscow, October 10, 2022

Anadolu Agency via AFP

The other problem is that the men that Russia is mobilizing were not volunteers for this war. They had many opportunities to get involved before this mobilization, and Moscow did everything for that. But they did not, and the regime was forced to force them to do so. This Russian army therefore has no desire to go and fight in Ukraine and this will quickly affect its motivation. Faced with Ukrainians seasoned by eight months of conflict, whose motivation to defend their country is ultra-solid, and who are galvanized by the dynamics of victory, the contrast is striking. The Putin regime has reached the end of its military resources, and even if it mobilized millions of men, it would anyway no longer have the equipment and sufficient ammunition to equip them. He has no way to turn the tide. Putin lost the war, but he hasn't figured it out yet.

Not enough to improve the already weak morale among the Russians...

Not at all, indeed. And all the less so since the Russian regime treats its soldiers like cattle. That's always been the case in this army. Beyond their often dated equipment and their miserable living conditions, the soldiers are kept abreast of nothing. Before the invasion, they were made to maneuver on the borders of Ukraine without telling them why. Then it was the same when they crossed those borders, with some units that didn't even know they were in Ukraine. The Russian general staff is content to send these men left and right to fill in the gaps and serve as cannon fodder. And to complete this already lackluster picture, this army is being insulted by Putin and his associates: already through the waltz of the generals that we have been witnessing since the start of the conflict, but also through the virulent comments on Russian television where we do not stop saying that the Russian army is no match for Wagner's mercenaries or Kadyrov's Chechen soldiers.

There are now questions about a possible intervention by Belarus. Could Minsk's entry into the war reverse the course of the war?

No, it would only have a marginal impact on the battlefield. The Belarusian army is a small army which is trained to even lower standards than the Russians. She is clearly no match for the Ukrainian forces. Moreover, the involvement of Belarus would be very dangerous for its leader Lukashenko. Everyone knows he was defeated in the 2020 presidential election and his regime is unpopular. However, he needs his strength to maintain himself internally. We also know that its population does not wish to engage militarily alongside Russia.

So I don't think Lukashenko will attack. And if he ever attacks, his army will be destroyed by Ukraine, which, ultimately, could lead to the fall of his regime. In this case, we cannot exclude that a regime favorable to Ukraine and the West will take power in Minsk, potentially with the help of Ukrainian special forces. The result would therefore be quite catastrophic for Putin, who would find himself with a Belarus that has changed sides. It would make him feel weird. And the Kremlin would not have the means to avoid this situation, insofar as all its forces are already engaged in Ukraine.

How strong is the Ukrainian army today?

To put it bluntly, the Ukrainian army has become the most powerful in Europe. Today it is stronger than the Russian army. If it hasn't won yet, it's because it still needs to increase its advantage. It is not enough to be the equal of the other, or slightly superior, it must be outclassed in manpower, equipment and ammunition. The Ukrainian army now numbers around 700,000 men thanks to its general mobilization decreed at the start of the conflict. Thanks to this, Ukraine was able to add about 600,000 men to the approximately 100,000 professional soldiers it already had. Moreover, kyiv has taken the time to train and equip them to make real maneuver brigades.

Ukrainian soldiers fire at a Russian army position on the front line near Toretsk on October 12, 2022 in the Donetsk region.

afp.com/Dave CLARK

One of the limits of this army, on the other hand, is that its equipment has the air of a motor show: they have a bit of everything. This necessarily complicates the supply chain, as does the conduct of fire. Their gunners must thus learn American, French, German artillery and that of many other countries. It also complicates the work of mechanics, who are faced with repairing armored vehicles from a multitude of countries. The other problem of the Ukrainian army is that it lacks shells. So they can't conduct massive bombardments like the Russians. But that all the same has a virtue, which is to reserve their fire for two particular cases: the counter-battery, which consists in destroying the Russian artillery, and then, direct support for their maneuvers, by applying fire artillery fire against enemy units where their troops are conducting assaults.

Today there are criticisms of the military aid provided by France, is it insufficient?

Like others, I believe that it is indeed not sufficient. But we have the generosity of our means. And our means are weak. If they were higher, we could be more generous. So in a way, we give what we can. The fact is that a sample army [which has a wide range of weapons but in limited quantities, editor's note] like the French army has become does not have the means to massively help an army like the Ukrainian army. Besides, what we have given is useful, it still renders service.

Could France send Leclerc tanks to Ukraine?

It's an excellent tank, so it's clear that it could be useful for the Ukrainians. But there are important prerequisites to respect. Already, they would have to be trained, which would take at least three or four months. It would indeed be necessary to be able to create a tank regiment capable of both maneuvering, shooting, and commanding artillery fire for its own benefit. These are real skills that cannot be improvised.

Moreover, the threshold effects are important: it is not worth making the effort to provide Leclerc tanks if they arrive in too few numbers and have only a marginal contribution to victory. Below a certain volume, the cost-effectiveness ratio becomes zero. The creation of a Leclerc tank regiment - which could have a significant effect in unblocking the situation around Kherson - would require the delivery of 40 to 50 tanks. This would be a significant help, but it would be complex. They should arrive with their maintenance and enough spare parts, but the production line stopped twenty years ago.

Following the destruction of part of the Kerch bridge, linking Crimea to Russia, Moscow launched an intense campaign of strikes against civilian targets in Ukraine. Is Putin at bay?

Absolutely. We can also see that he has since calmed down his strikes, saying that he had achieved his objectives. But the reason is above all that he is running out of stock of missiles. He does not have enough left to do this daily for more than ten or fifteen days. It is also interesting to note that since February 24, Putin has been using his missiles haphazardly. He wasted extremely expensive gear on civilian areas, which has no impact on the battlefield: it's a militarily stupid decision.

A destroyed school in a locality in the Mykolaiv region of southern Ukraine on September 24, 2022

afp.com/Genya SAVILOV

Russian troops in Ukraine would like Iranian missiles or drones to strike the artillery facing them. But Moscow prefers to use it against schoolyards. Putin launched a few volleys to reassure his supporters and show that he could hurt the Ukrainians. But now that he's wasted hundreds of ammo for nothing - and will soon run out of it - he's forced to stop.

After the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, Putin said he was ready to use "all means" to defend them against the Ukrainian counter-offensive. Is the nuclear threat it poses real?

The probability is not zero, but I do not believe in it for several reasons. The first is that it has not yet used it, although there have nevertheless been significant penetrations into the territory it claims. The second is that even if the decision for a nuclear launch is unique and comes from him, its execution involves dozens of people. And we cannot exclude that someone within the chain of command refuses to implement this order. It should also be remembered that for the moment, we have not witnessed any Russian maneuver that would suggest a nuclear strike.

Finally, the last reason is that the Westerners, first and foremost the Americans, have promised him in return a massive conventional response that will destroy his forces present on Ukrainian soil. You can't rule out other targets either. Putin must understand that if he crosses a threshold as sensitive as the nuclear threshold, all of his advanced bastions in Europe, including Kaliningrad, will be perceived as an existential threat by the West, and will constitute as many potential targets for a force otherwise superior to hers.

Could Putin survive a defeat?

If so, he would historically be the only Russian leader to survive a defeat of this magnitude. So I doubt it. I think his personal fate is sealed: the Putin regime will fall. There is no example in Russian history of a big defeat that did not lead to regime change. And this is not only the case in Russia, but in all countries. There is therefore no reason for Putin's regime to be an exception in the history of mankind. The show of force he thought he would put on in Ukraine was a total failure, and it is unlikely that his regime will be able to recover from it.

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