The prospect of Russian public revulsion at the sight of soldiers returning from Ukraine in body bags might do more to deter an outright invasion than the threat of Western sanctions.
Before a shot is fired, campaign groups have already decried the miserable living conditions for Russian troops stationed near Ukraine’s borders.
Russian troops stationed in the town of Dolbino near the border have been experiencing “nightmare” conditions, sleeping on cramped floors and going without military food rations for days, with soldiers forced to pay out-of-pocket for supplies, according to social media reports and people interviewed by The Moscow Times.
The Russian Committee of Soldiers Mothers is posting pictures of their living conditions, with dozens of soldiers sleeping on the floor of a tiled room.
But if a major conflict flares between invading Russian forces and Ukrainian troops, the Putin regime can expect far worse images to emerge.
Ukraine’s military is not strong enough to stop a full-scale assault by Russia. But the consensus among experts is that its troops are sufficiently well trained and well-armed to inflict thousands of casualties on Russian soldiers.
Key to the Ukrainian strength is the West’s supply of anti-tank weapons and Stinger portable anti-aircraft missiles.
Stingers are thought to have caused huge damage to Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Such anti-aircraft devices are also said to have troubled Russia’s air force when it invaded Georgia in 2008. Since then, Ukraine’s military has become stronger and more sophisticated.
Putin continues to silence the free press and crack down on critics. But political dissent is far from dead in Russia, as shown by spontaneous demonstrations and the tenacious, if persecuted, opposition group of Alexey Navalny.
For this reason, Putin will not want the public to read about the death of Russian soldiers and see images of grieving parents and widows.
Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is not popular with the Russian public, despite the view among many that the West and Nato are largely to blame for the eight-year old conflict in Donbas.
The Levada Center – an independent polling institute based in Russia and one of few survey groups viewed by Western analysts and journalists as offering reliable data on the country – reveals a relative dearth of support for more conflict in Ukraine. Last April, its polling reported that among the military-age cohort (18-24), only 16 per cent of respondents thought a full-scale war with Ukraine would improve Putin’s approval rating, while 41 per cent thought a war with Ukraine would hurt Putin’s standing.