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News from a wargamer with a special interest in the military history of the Balkans. It mainly covers my current reading and wargaming projects. For more detail you can visit the web sites I edit - Balkan Military History and Glasgow & District Wargaming Society. Or follow me on Twitter @Balkan_Dave
or on Mastodon @balkandave@mastodon.scot, or Threads @davewatson1683

Wednesday 7 June 2023

Putin's Wars

 This is Mark Galeotti's detailed look at the development of the Russian army in the Putin era and the wars they have fought. Mark has written several excellent Osprey's on this subject, which have everything the wargamer could want. However, if you are looking for a deep dive into the topic, this is the book you want.

Part One covers the period before Putin. If you think the Russian army's performance in Ukraine has been poor, this section describes the shambles of the First Chechen War and the post-Soviet military crisis. Just one of many side stories Mark covers in the book highlights this. "In 1994, investigative journalist Dmitry Kholodov wrote, ‘our Russian army is sliding down into a world of organized crime’. Amongst other stories, he was digging into claims that commandos from the elite 16th Spetsnaz Brigade were working as hitmen for the mafia, or even running training programmes for their gunmen."

In the First Chechen War, one officer reminisced, ‘honestly, it was a wonder we could even move, we ended up having to cannibalize about a third of our trucks to get the rest on the road.’ A position eerily similar to more recent problems in Ukraine. As was the experience of the then-new T-80s of the 3rd and 133rd Tank Battalions, prey to the inherent vulnerabilities of tanks in built-up environments, with infantry buttoned up in their APCs.

Part Two covers the arrival of Putin and efforts to reform the armed forces to deliver his nationalist agenda. The aim was a smaller army with a higher proportion of contract soldiers. However, conscription remained largely because it was cheap. The irony is that even though he presided over the rearmament of his country and for all the photo opportunities in the cockpit of a fighter or driving tanks, Vladimir Putin never really served in the military. Defence ministers came and went, but fundamental reform remained challenging. 

In Part Three, we get the latest round of Putin's wars in Crimea, Donbas and Syria. Here the new-look armed forces were tested against modest opponents. Largely successfully, although without a real test, and for all the resources devoted to the military, fundamental problems remained. The efforts at promoting the military have been massive, but demographic and cultural change means conscription remains unpopular. This led to the use of irregular proxy forces and the infamous Wagner Group. They may be relatively cheap, but you get what you pay for, "while they may be individually brave and sometimes effective on the battlefield, much of the time they are thuggish opportunists who are unimpressive in battle and undisciplined off it."

Part four covers in detail the different parts of the new armed forces. How they are organised and equipped. While the budget doesn't look huge, Mark points to how the real costs are hidden in other budgets. The real level is probably three or four times its paper value.

Finally, he looks at the future, including new ways of waging war such as cyber warfare. He finished writing just as the Ukraine invasion began, so this is touched upon as far as demonstrating how Russia overrated its own capabilities and underestimated Ukraine. Again, this chapter is full of stories that illustrate the problems. Like the soldier who, while drunk, thought he would borrow a BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicle to go and buy cigarettes. He managed to drive it into a ditch, and so he returned to the training ground to liberate another BMP-2 in order to tow it out. However, he had neglected to power the first vehicle down properly, and so in the meantime, it caught fire. He ended up causing more than 1.8 million rubles in damage.

He concludes that the story of Putin’s presidency has been one of two halves. "His first two presidential terms in the 2000s were strikingly successful, but so many of the gains made were wasted or embezzled away in the 2010s and beyond... Its military, of course, but also its economy and its society will long bear the deep, painful scars of Putin’s wars."

Some of my 20mm Russian armour.


On Tuesday 13th June at 7.00 p.m. GMT, I will be talking to @War Series Editors Tom Cooper and Andy Miles about my new book, Chasing the Soft Underbelly, which examines the role of Turkey during the Second World War. The talk will be followed by a moderated Q&A session and all those who attend will get access to an exclusive discount code to get money off the book. This event will be hosted using the web-based Demio platform, for which no special downloads are required. You can register here.


  1. Hmmm… it sounds like Putin’s Wars should be on my list to buy.
    I note there are a few one or two “star” reviews on Amazon, but I trust your recommendation. I believe Helion have a few titles forthcoming about the conflict in Ukraine, so maybe I’ll investigate those too.

    1. This is focused on the past conflicts as background to Ukraine. The Helion books are good, recognising the challenges of writing about an ongoing war with disinformation etc.

  2. Great review- I really liked the book when I read it. Good luck on the book launch. I'll try to make it.