AS ALLIED ARMIES were closing in on Nazi Germany from the East and the West, Joseph Goebbels launched the Volkssturm. Inspired by the great popular uprising of ordinary Germans against Napoleon, the Volkssturm (Peoples Storm) was composed of the very last reserves of German manpower. Old men and teenage boys were handed an armband and an anti-tank weapon and ordered to resist – to the death – the vast Allied armies advancing relentlessly, and unstoppably, towards the German heartland.
The creation of the Volkssturm was not just a hopeless gesture, it was a profoundly wicked one. By early 1945, Germany had already lost the war. Continued resistance was utterly futile. To send out old men in their sixties, and boys as young as twelve, to fight highly-trained and well-equipped soldiers was nothing short of murder. Only the leaders of a government bereft of ethics, who had lost all contact with the real world, could contemplate such a disastrous call-up.
What then should we make of the photograph posted on the website Tea Leaves and Russia showing what is purported to be a Russian soldier. The man has a white beard and looks to be in his sixties. He is standing before a Russian lorry and is carrying a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. But, the most remarkable detail of this photograph, circled in red by whoever sent it, is what this soldier is wearing on his feet. No combat boots for this man. He is expected to go into battle wearing plastic sandals!
Now, it is important to own up to the possibility that the photograph might be a fake. That what we are actually looking at is a Ukrainian grand-dad doing his bit for his country’s war effort by pretending to be this poorly-equipped Russian conscript-of-last-resort. Vladimir Putin’s Volkssturm.
But if the photograph is genuine: if this is the quality of the reserves Putin is throwing into the fight; then the general collapse of the Russian Federation (RF) forces in the face of the general offensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) is explained. Against a military force trained and equipped with the latest high-tech weapons by the Americans and their Nato allies, whose commanders, unlike their Russian counterparts, are encouraged to take the initiative and make their own battlefield decisions, and whose already sky-high morale is now off-the-scale, the RF has very little to offer by way of effective resistance.
Images recorded on the advancing AFU troops’ smartphones show tanks and armoured vehicles abandoned on the roadsides. Perhaps they are empty of fuel. Perhaps they have no more ammunition left to fire at the enemy. Whatever the explanation, their crews have fled towards the east, desperate to reach the safety of the Russian border. Moscow is attempting to portray this as a “regrouping” – it is no such thing. What the world is looking at here (at least that part of the world which is not obsessively following the “coffin” – i.e. the body – of the late Queen on its journey south to London) is not a “re-grouping” – it’s a rout.
Just how serious the situation has become for the Russian Government of Vladimir Putin is captured in these words to the Russian President, supposedly spoken by a representative of the leadership of the Russian General Staff:
“Our troops have no more offensive capabilities, and soon there will be no more opportunities for defence. You lost Vladimir Vladimirovich!”
Taken together with the already confirmed reports of representative bodies in St Petersburg and Moscow passing resolutions demanding Putin be charged with treason, and reports of military movements in the capital suggestive of preparations for a military coup d’état, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Putin’s political (and personal?) survival must now be considered doubtful.
Putin and his coterie of supportive oligarchs, bureaucrats, and politicians will be desperate, now, to fix the blame for the military catastrophe unfolding across Eastern Ukraine on his battlefield commanders. His mouthpieces are already calling for the execution of these “treacherous generals”. The military commanders of the Russian Federation must, therefore, move with the utmost haste to protect themselves from the wrath of “Vladimir Vladimirovich”. By decapitating the political leadership, before it decapitates them.
Not only is the personal survival of these principal players at stake at this critical moment, but so, too, is the general shape and structure of the Russian Federation.
In 1905, the Russian Czar, Nicholas II, suffered a catastrophic naval defeat at the hands of the Japanese Empire – an “upstart” power whose military capabilities the Russians had fatally underestimated. The result was a nationwide uprising which came within an ace of overturning the Russian autocracy.
Putin’s oligarch allies will not want defeat at the hands of the “upstart” Ukrainians to spark a third Russian revolution. Better to depose Putin quickly and cleanly, make peace with Ukraine, and restore a measure of normality to the Federation, Europe, and the world in general. As Bob Dylan has the gangster Joey Gallo say in his eponymous ballad: “It’s peace and quiet that we need to go back to work again.”
At any other time, developments on this scale, and of this importance, would be dominating our headlines and, like the Ukrainians themselves, the rest of the world would be following the advance of their forces with bated breath. Only time will tell whether the Western World’s utter distraction by the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and the accession of King Charles III, was a help or a hindrance to the Ukrainian offensive.
It is, however, possible that the Queen’s death, by distracting the West, prevented its more hawkish leaders from making the sort of accusations and threats that only ever end up strengthening Putin’s hand. That Ukraine’s armies racked up their victories while the eyes of the West were elsewhere, may yet prove to have been the most extraordinary stroke of good luck.
By dying when she did, the Queen may well have saved the life of that sandal-wearing Russian greybeard, as well as tens-of-thousands of equally ill-equipped and poorly-trained Russian troops, and given the Armed Forces of Ukraine the clear airwaves they needed to drive Putin’s armies back across the border.
Goebbel’s Volkssturm could nor rescue the Third Reich, but Volodymyr Zelensky’s “Peoples Storm” (with a little help from the Americans) has made it possible for Ukraine to lay waste the fondest hopes of Vladimir Putin – and his allies in Beijing.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 13 September 2022.