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Canadian expert: Ukraine war could end Russian power, influence

Canadian adviser Donald Bowser stands alongside a Russian T-72 tank that has seen better days.
Courtesy Donald Bowser
A Canadian adviser in Ukraine says Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade the former Soviet republic could spell the end of Russia as the world knows it.

“If Russia loses the war, there’s very little chance that it will survive in its current form.”

Donald Bowser, an independent anti-corruption specialist who has worked in Ukraine for 30 years, says the Feb. 24 invasion and subsequent offensive has confirmed what insiders already knew—that the Russian army is a hollow shell of its former self.

“If Russia loses the war, there’s very little chance that it will survive in its current form,” said Bowser, a political scientist whose masters and PhD theses both focused on corruption in the Russian military.

“The threat that Russia posed over the last 30 years is going to be largely negated.”

Bowser has advised governments, militaries and law enforcement on a range of security, intelligence and other matters for decades. In an interview with Legion Magazine from Ukraine, the New Brunswick native said the greatest concern among experts is that “Russia itself may collapse and you may see a lot more security issues.”

Even before the war and the crippling sanctions on Russia that followed, there were signs the former superpower was weakening and its influence faltering.

Russia withdrew its forces from the North Caucasus, the region between the Black and Caspian seas that has been marked by separatist insurgencies, terrorist attacks and ethnic conflict since the turn of the century. The move limits Moscow’s capacity to retake breakaway republics or suppress rebellions in the area.

Bowser said Russia has also lost its influence in central Asia and has withdrawn some of its private military companies from Africa and Syria.

A Ukrainian government propaganda image depicts soldiers greeting liberated children.
Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service
Now, with Putin’s escalating history of aggression and Second World War-scale battles being fought in the Donbas, Europe is recognizing that real dangers exist and is re-arming. Former Soviet republics and once-neutral states are seeking the security of NATO membership.

Bowser suggested Putin’s presidency, orchestrated by former Soviet intelligence services, is on shaky ground. “Putin has based his entire time in office on being the strongman. What happens when the strongman fails?”

“You’re going to see a massive change globally. Russia’s support of authoritarian regimes is going to be over.”

He predicted that Russian military or intelligence will turn against Putin if the war continues apace. The Russian president is believed to have cancer and possibly Parkinson’s disease. Ukrainian intelligence has claimed he escaped unharmed after an assassination attempt out of the Caucasus shortly after the invasion began.

Russian losses in Ukraine have been widely estimated at more than 15,000 dead. But Bowser said the most accurate figure comes from the Ukrainian military: 30,000 Russians killed in action (KIA) in three months of fighting.

That’s double what Soviet forces suffered during 10 years in Afghanistan, and many of those 1979-1989 deaths were due to hygienic issues that contributed to chronically poor health and disease. In terms of combat deaths, the figure in Ukraine represents four to five times the KIAs taken in Afghanistan.

Bowser considers the Ukraine figures more accurate than U.S. intelligence estimates and says they are essentially confirmed by radio intercepts.

“You’re going to see a massive change globally,” he predicted. “Russia’s support of authoritarian regimes is going to be over. They’re not going to have any foreign capacity to meddle anywhere.

“And things like the continued blockade of Ukrainian wheat going to the rest of the world are going to cause big security issues down the road.”

Ukrainian troops pile on an armoured vehicle as a Russian tank sits abandoned by a roadside.
Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service
Bowser predicted Russia will return to its Soviet-era state, a “Burkina Faso with rockets…a third-world country with nuclear weapons.”

The multilingual Bowser has worked primarily as an anti-corruption adviser and capacity-builder in the former Soviet Union, throughout eastern Europe and across warring regions of Africa and southern Asia.

In his “second home” of Ukraine, where he moved in 1990 to advise post-communist privatization, he helped develop a national anti-corruption bureau. He has spent much of the last eight years advising regional governments and Ukrainian military in the disputed Donbas region.

He has been raising funds and procuring non-lethal military supplies for special forces and other elite Ukrainian military units. He is also working to help stabilize liberated areas of the country.

“So, basically you have this rot inside the Russian army that wasn’t checked.”

He correctly predicted in the invasion’s early days that the Russian offensive around Kyiv wouldn’t last.

“Their operational capacity has always been only several weeks of being able to wage war,” he said. “It was the same in Georgia; it was the same in Chechnya.

“It was the same thing even in Syria, where they couldn’t keep large numbers of planes in the air.”

The Kyiv offensive was abandoned after a month. The reason, according to Bowser? The ravages of long-term corruption.

“What we’ve seen is a hollowing out of the Russian army over the last 30 years,” he explained. “All of these tanks and planes that they say they have are on paper, not in actuality.

“This has been one of the big issues they had when they were launching the war—they didn’t have the fuel reserves they said they had, they did not have the number of shells that they said they had, things like that.”

Furthermore, much of the Russian equipment hadn’t been maintained because it was passed off to inside contactors who didn’t deliver.

“So, basically you have this rot inside the Russian army that wasn’t checked.”

This, despite a 2008 wake-up call when Moscow attacked Georgia and had problems achieving its military objectives. A 2013 Russian military doctrine was subsequently based on avoiding large-scale wars.

He even questions Russia’s nuclear capabilities. Yes, he says, Russia has nuclear weapons, but how many are operational and how likely is it that Russian generals would condone their use?

Ukrainians have no intention of giving up, nor even permanently relinquishing one iota of territory.

“It’s not that simple that one person pushes the button. Even if Putin himself wanted to launch a nuclear strike, it would have to go through many other people. I don’t think the Russian general staff is suicidal.

“All the sabre-rattling has proven is that Russia talks a big game but can’t back it up.”

Bowser said the surprise wasn’t that Russian forces and equipment have performed so poorly in the last 100-plus days; it’s that Russia, well aware of its limitations, invaded at all. He predicted the war of attrition could continue in the Donbas for anywhere from months to a year.

Russia’s internal collapse could come sooner, he said.

 

As the invading forces fail to achieve one objective after another, the goals keep getting smaller. As it stands, said Bowser, “it’s basically about killing as many Ukrainians as possible in the hopes that Ukraine would give up.”

That, he says, is not going to happen. Virtually to a person, Ukrainians have no intention of giving up, nor even permanently relinquishing one iota of territory.

“The view inside Ukraine is very simply: there are two countries at war, only one of which will survive at the end of this—and the Ukrainians don’t intend it to be Russia.”

The response by ordinary Ukrainians has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. The country’s military met enlistment capacity within two weeks of the invasion. Bowser said the forces’ current retention is at 200 per cent in almost every unit.

“They have long lines of Ukrainians who are trying to get into the army.”

Once verified, the best, most experienced foreign fighters—special operation forces (SOF) veterans, mainly—have been absorbed by the Ukrainian army. Bowser says most of the rest, including the so-called Norman Brigade made up of Canadians, have performed poorly, and in many cases have been greater liabilities than assets.

It’s the SOF veterans that Ukraine expected would come looking to help.

“Instead, what they got was every Airsoft player and Call of Duty video game addict showing up at the border thinking they were going to be military heroes without any significant experience or skills. And those have become very problematic.”

The bulk of the international volunteers, a fraction of whom spoke either Ukrainian or Russian, were placed in a training facility—which was promptly targeted by a missile attack.

“A lot of them ran away after that. Some quit before that because they expected to be given the red-carpet treatment, not understanding that the Ukrainian forces grew from several hundred thousand soldiers to a million-and-a-half.”

Those who stayed often had unrealistic expectations of their value to the cause.

Ukrainian soldiers fire U.S.-supplied Javelin missiles during military exercises in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Dec. 23, 2021.
Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service
Some complained they weren’t issued weapons—even though they were well to the rear, away from the fighting. Others who made it to the front hid in bunkers while Ukrainians had to fill their positions in the line. Some of the international volunteers bolted at the sound of the first artillery strikes.

“Their performance has been mediocre at best,” said Bowser, noting there have been exceptions and some international units have performed well.

But the failures and the risks of war crimes by rogue internationals have moved the Ukrainian government to tighten regulations with an eye to accepting only the best and most experienced fighters from outside the country. The international legion has stopped taking volunteers.

That has left large numbers of would-be fighters showing up at the border with no letters of acceptance, then wandering parts of Ukraine, forming “rescue teams” or unauthorized, illegally armed groups. Bowser includes the Norman Brigade among them. He expects more legislation to rein in the freelancers is on the way.

“It’s a mess, to be succinct, and it’s a big problem,” said Bowser. “And it’s a big problem for Canada because Canada now has people who are coming and wandering around a battle space, who have armed themselves and don’t have the proper experience or qualifications—and we’ve seen the results.

“These guys keep coming back and bad-mouthing Ukraine. Some are being used by Russian propaganda. So how is that helpful to either Canada or Ukraine?”

There is a growing understanding in Canada’s defence and security establishment that the issue must be addressed, he said.

“As much as we like to spin the story of brave Canadians going and helping Ukraine, there is a limited number of excellent Canadian combat vets who have been integrating with Ukrainian forces.

“But the vast majority of them are people who don’t have qualifications to actually be there and are making far more trouble than they’re worth.”

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