Russian President Vladimir Putin suffered a major setback last week to his Ukraine war aims, due to a brilliantly executed counterattack which has forced the Russian army to retreat in disarray from a large swath of strategic territory it had held near the northeastern city of Kharkiv. It was the most significant defeat suffered by the Russian army since the first weeks of the war, when Ukraine was able to prevent the initial Russian invasion force from reaching the capital city of Kyiv in an effort to decapitate the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky and force a quick Ukrainian surrender.
The surprise counterattack was launched after the Russians had been fooled by the Ukrainians into redeploying some of their forces that had been defending the Kharkiv region to respond to what appeared to be a major effort by Ukraine to recapture the southern city of Kherson, which had fallen to the Russians during the first days of the invasion.
In fact, the Ukrainian army was actually gathering its biggest concentration of military forces and heavy weapons since the war began. When they launched the surprise attack, the thinned-out Russian defenders in the Kharkiv area were taken completely by surprise. After some intense initial fighting, Russian resistance quickly collapsed, enabling the Ukrainian attacking force to advance into Russian-held territory at the pace of up to 30 to 40 miles a day, as many of the Russian troops panicked and ran for their lives.
Ukrainian commander Anatoli Pryhrusha told the Washington Post that the initial fighting in the Kharkiv region had caused heavy casualties on both sides, but that the resistance of the poorly disciplined and motivated Russian troops soon evaporated. “It’s good that the Russians ran away,” he said, “but we paid with a lot of lives.”
RECYCLING ABANDONED RUSSIAN ARMS
During their disorderly retreat, fleeing Russian troops left behind large quantities of arms and ammunition, including military vehicles and tanks. In one city southeast of Kharkiv, Russian troops fled in such haste that they left behind an entire warehouse full of arms and ammunition. When Ukraine’s intelligence service, known by its acronym as the SBU, published a picture of Ukrainian troops inspecting the abandoned warehouse, it added the following telling comment: “The Russian occupiers are running so fast under pressure from Ukrainian soldiers that they’re leaving whole ammunition arsenals behind. We know what to do with them and will be sure to use them according to purpose — against the enemy.”
Some Ukrainian military units have captured so much usable Russian equipment that they are now sharing some of it with other units which had been short of supplies. Ever since the war started, some Ukrainian army units have specialized in repairing damaged captured Russian military equipment for reuse as replacements for similar worn-out weapons in Ukrainian inventory.
As a result, the New York Times reported that “every functional Russian vehicle seized in the recent offensive will likely find its way to the front in the matter of weeks, if not days.”
A HISTORIC MILITARY VICTORY
Some military historians are already predicting that Ukraine’s Kharkiv operation will go down as the most successful surprise counterattack since Ariel Sharon led the IDF across the Suez Canal to attack Egypt, turning the tide in the 1973 Yom Kippur War decisively in Israel’s favor.
Initial estimates said that the Ukrainian attacks retook more than about 1,000 square miles of Russian-occupied territory in the Kharkiv region, and about 200 square miles in the area of the still-Russian occupied town of Kherson in the south. Ukrainian forces didn’t halt their advance across the Kharkiv region until they were within sight of the Russian border crossing at Hoptika.
However, as the assault continued and Ukrainian forces continued to drive the Russian troops out of the Kharkiv province, the New York Times increased its estimate of the amount of territory that had been liberated during the assault to 3,400 square miles. That is roughly two-thirds the size of the state of Connecticut, and more territory than the Russians had conquered during the last five months of fighting.
The New York Times also reported, but could not verify, claims by Ukrainian commanders they had captured large numbers of soldiers during the Kharkiv assault, who are now being held as prisoners-of-war. They have been actively encouraging Russian soldiers to surrender, because they have been fighting in Ukraine for a lost cause. Senior Ukrainian officials also claim that the Russian army is no longer sending new military units into battle because many of the fresh recruits “categorically refuse the prospect of service in combat conditions.”
Another key victory for the Ukrainian troops was the capture of the town of Kupyansk, a rail hub that the Russian military had been using to resupply and move its forces across eastern Ukraine. Russian forces were also driven out of their stronghold in the town of Izyum, which they had been planning to use as the staging grounds for launching a new offensive in the east. With the fall of Izyum, the Russian attack plans are no longer feasible, and its forces in the Donbas are now exposed to a possible Ukrainian counterattack. That will also make it more difficult for Putin to claim that he has achieved his current announced goal for the invasion of Ukraine, which is the completion of the Russian conquest of the Donbas.
By Tuesday, the Ukrainians slowed the pace of their advance, to avoid overextending their own supply lines. They also began the process of consolidating the considerable gains their offensive had achieved. This involved launching mopping up operation to eliminate any remaining pockets of resistance from bypassed Russian troops who may now be trapped behind the new Ukrainian front lines, and searching for any mines and booby traps the retreating Russians may have deliberately left behind.
THE NEW FRONT LINES
Meanwhile, new front lines have begun to form in the ongoing battle for the city of Kherson. While Ukrainian forces have liberated several of the small villages around the town, the 20,000 Russian troops now defending Kherson make it unlikely that the city will fall to a direct Ukrainian assault in the near future. However, those Russian forces in Kherson have now been cut off from resupply due to recent Ukrainian attacks on the bridges crossing the Dnipro River. The fall of those bridges also means that Russian forces in Kherson are now effectively trapped in the city.
Russian resistance has also stiffened in recent days to Ukraine’s attacks on the city of Lyman in the Russian-occupied Donbas. It also appears that even as their troops were being withdrawn from the Kharkiv region, the Russians stepped up their heavy artillery attacks on Bakhnut, one of the main cities in the Donbas region that is still under Ukrainian control.
At the same time, Ukraine’s state prosecutor’s office said it was investigating the possibility of opening a new war crimes case against Russian troops after the discovery of the tortured bodies of four civilians in the liberated village of Zaliznychne in the Kharkiv region.
RUSSIAN MILITARY CONFIRMS ITS WITHDRAWAL
Even the Russian Defense Ministry was forced to recognize the magnitude of its defeat in the Kharkiv region. Its daily briefing Sunday featured a map showing Russians forces retreating behind the Oskil River after having been driven almost completely out of the Kharkiv region by the advancing Ukrainian units.
There was also a rare acknowledgment Sunday evening on state-controlled Russian media that all was not going well for the Russian army in Ukraine. On one of the main weekly news shows on Russian television, the presenter, Dmitri Kiselyov, described last week as “probably one of the most difficult” since the start of the war.
“Under the onslaught of superior enemy forces, the allied forces were forced to leave the previously liberated settlements,” Kiselyov said, referring to the Russia army’s withdrawal from part of the areas of the Donbas which had been under the control of the local pro-Russian separatist militias.
According to an assessment by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, which has been closely tracking the conflict since the Russians invaded on February 24, “Ukrainian forces have penetrated Russian lines to a depth of up to 70 kilometers in some places.” They have captured more territory in the past five days “than Russian forces have captured in all their operations since April.”
The assessment also dismissed as nonsense the Russian claim that the withdrawal of its troops from the Kharkiv region last week had been a pre-planned “regrouping,” and characterized it instead as a full-scale “collapse” of the Russian forces on the northern front.
Other military analysts agree that the Russian withdrawal from its crucial positions in the Kharkiv region means that its military in Ukraine will now be forced into a defensive posture for the foreseeable future, at least until new Russian attack plans can be prepared.
POLITICAL SHOCKWAVES IN MOSCOW
The sudden collapse and embarrassing retreat of Russian forces in the Kharkiv region has also generated major political shockwaves in Moscow. While no Russian official has yet dared to publicly criticize Vladimir Putin personally for the military’s failures in Ukraine, the losses are now hurting Putin’s carefully crafted image as Russia’s invincible strongman leader.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Russian-dominated Chechen republic, who had sent his own fighters to fight alongside the Russian troops in Ukraine, has tried to place the blame for the retreat in Kharkiv on mistakes by the Russian ministry of defense. Kadyrov added if there were no immediate changes in Russia’s conduct of the war, “he would have to contact the leadership of the country to explain to them the real situation on the ground.”
The poor performance of the Russian military in the Kharkiv region was characterized as “a major defeat” by Igor Girkin, a former commander of the pro-Russian separatist forces fighting in the Donbas, in comments he circulated on the popular Telegram social media channel.
Girkin had previously argued that Russia could not win the war in Ukraine without a major new injection of military manpower by the imposition of a nationwide draft. But that is a move that Putin has been trying to avoid, because it would make him highly unpopular with the young people in the urban centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Putin also came under indirect criticism from Sergei Mironov, the leader of a pro-Putin party in the Russian Parliament. He complained that it was inappropriate to for Putin to allow a gala celebration of the 875th anniversary of the founding of the city of Moscow to take place at the same time that Russian troops were being forced to flee from the Kharkiv region. “It cannot be and it should not be that our guys are dying today, and we are pretending that nothing is happening!” Mironov posted angrily on his Twitter account.
Most of the current discontent is now coming from frustrated Russian nationalists upset by the Russian army’s ignominious retreat last week from Kharkiv. In response, Putin’s allies have been trying to redirect that anger away from Putin toward convenient scapegoats, including lower-level government bureaucrats in Moscow, and the Russian army’s military leaders.
While Russian nationalists have not questioned Putin’s motives for invading Ukraine, some are now blaming him for being too reluctant to bring the full might of the Russian military to bear in Ukraine, for fear of the risk that it would further escalate the scale of the conflict.
PUTIN’S INVASION PLAN HAD NO MARGIN FOR ERROR
According Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst, “The Kremlin, in principle, based its entire policy on the idea that there can be no defeats.” Putin had assumed that the outgunned Ukrainian military would be unable to put up much resistance to, let alone defeat, his powerful invasion force. He had also assumed, as did most other military analysts around the world, that the fighting in Ukraine would be over within a matter of a few days, before most Russian people had even realized their country had gone to war. But Ukrainian President Zelensky surprised everyone by launching what would turn out to be one of the most remarkable fights for national survival in modern history.
Putin also did not believe that the US and its European allies would mount a serious effort to help Ukraine defend itself. But when the initial Russian invasion drive stalled before reaching Kyiv, the character and dynamics of the conflict fundamentally changed. It was no longer the “special military operation” that Putin thought he could wrap up with a quick victory requiring a minimum of serious fighting. Instead, it evolved into a costly and bloody war of attrition for both sides.
Six months later, after repeated setbacks in Ukraine, the invading Russian military force is now badly demoralized and in disarray.
Until now, Putin had been able to manage the political fallout from the invasion because the fighting on the ground in Ukraine had settled down into a relatively stable stalemate between the two sides. However, now that the stalemate has been broken by the Ukrainian victory in Kharkiv, it is clear that if things don’t start improving for the Russian military soon, Putin is likely to soon start feeling more domestic political heat.
FORTY OFFICIALS SIGN PETITION CALLING FOR PUTIN TO STEP DOWN
For example, on Monday, more than 40 local elected officials across Russia signed a two-sentence petition that ended with: “We demand the resignation of Vladimir Putin from the post of president of the Russian Federation!”
The petition had been carefully worded to protect its signers from Russian laws which make it illegal to directly criticize government officials, Russian military leaders, or even to refer to invasion of Ukraine as a “war.” But the fact that these officials dared to publish their statement at all was a sign of cracks developing in Putin’s control over Russian public opinion as the fighting in Ukraine drags on. On the other hand, most Russian observers believe that it is still premature to even suggest that the setbacks to Putin’s goals for the war in Ukraine may have begun to weaken his hold over absolute power in Russia.
Nevertheless, even leaders of Putin’s own political party are now starting to cautiously express their concerns. For example, in a telephone interview with the New York Times Monday, Russian member of Parliament Konstantin Zatulin, a senior member of Putin’s United Russia party, described the Russian retreat from Kharkiv as doing “very serious damage to the very idea of this as a special military operation.” At the same time, Zatulin warned that it was dangerous to allow criticism of the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine to “go overboard. Otherwise, it could spark an uncontrollable reaction.”
Zatulin also noted that, “What now appears to some to be the success of the Ukrainian side could in fact lead to the beginning of a war for real. Given that Russia truly did not use the full force of its abilities, nothing remains to be done other than to demonstrate this force.”
Some of Putin’s supporters are responding to the defeats in Kharkiv by calling on Putin to order a full nationwide mobilization of the Russian military to address the Russian army’s current manpower shortages in Ukraine, while others are calling for more Russian missile attacks on key Ukrainian infrastructure targets to further punish the country’s civilian population for their stubborn resistance.
The unexpected breakthrough in Kharkiv has also earned the Ukrainian military new respect, and the Zelensky government more international credibility. Dramatic images illustrating the Russian defeat and the liberation of the Kharkiv region from Russian rule have been widely distributed on news and social media outlets around the world. One such picture depicts Ukrainian soldiers victoriously raising the country’s blue and yellow flag in the center of Izyum. There are similar images of Ukrainian soldiers celebrating their liberation of other formerly Russian-occupied towns across the Kharkiv region, including Kindrashivka, Chkalovske, and Velyki Komyshuvakha.
THE INCOMPETENCE OF THE RUSSIAN MILITARY
At the same time, it is clear that much of the blame for the Russian military’s defeat in Kharkiv is due to its own glaring shortcomings, which have been exposed ever since the invasion started. These include chronic logistical and supply problems, the continued use of rigid and obsolete Soviet-era battlefield tactics, and the abysmally low level of Russian troop morale.
While the out-manned and out-gunned Ukrainian military has performed brilliantly since the invasion, it has also benefitted immensely from the gross incompetence of the Russian military, and, in particular, the stubborn refusal by senior Russian officers to learn the proper lessons from their prior mistakes on the Ukrainian battlefields.
Another assumption which led Putin to invade Ukraine and focus on the Russian-speaking population in the Donbas region was the expectation that most local residents in the region would welcome the invading Russian army as comrades and liberators instead of occupying enemies.
That assumption was put to the test by the reaction by the residents of the tiny agricultural village of Zaliznychne, located 37 miles east of Kharkiv, adjacent to the Russian border, when it was liberated last week by Ukrainian troops, after six months of Russian occupation.
The mostly Russian-speaking local residents witnessed the hundreds of Russian troops who had been garrisoning the village retreating in terror from the advancing Ukrainian forces, and vividly described the scene to Western reporters.
VAST AMOUNTS OF RUSSIAN WEAPONS LEFT BEHIND
Village resident Olena Matvienko told the Washington Post that half of the Russian soldiers in the village fled in their vehicles during the first hours of the Ukrainian offensive. The other Russian soldiers who were left behind then grew desperate. They were overheard by village resident talking on their radios, pleading with their Russian unit commanders for someone to come get them. They also heard the commanders respond by telling their troops, ‘You’re on your own,’” Matvienko recalled.
Some village residents also said that while they had been scared of the occupying Russian troops, they felt some pity for them as well, as they desperately scrambled to escape the Ukrainian onslaught any way they could.
“They came into our houses to take clothes so the [Ukrainian] drones wouldn’t see them in uniforms,” said Matvienko. “They took our bicycles. Two of them pointed guns at my ex-husband until he handed them his car keys.” However, she added, “They were not monsters, they were kids.”
According to Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of the Russia’s Belgorod region along the Ukrainian border, many pro-Russian civilians who had been living in the villages around Kharkiv joined with the fleeing Russian troops in seeking safety on the other side of Russian border. “There are long queues of civilian cars with refugees from Ukraine,” Gladkov reported on his Telegram account. “Mobile food stations have already been deployed and a food and water delivery to the Kharkiv side has been organized.”
UKRAINE’S PRESIDENT SAVORS HIS VICTORY
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s leader savored his long-anticipated victory. In a video address he delivered Sunday, Zelensky responded to the breakthrough by his troops in Kharkiv by holding them up as an example to inspire other Ukrainian forces still battling the Russians across Ukraine.
“The path to victory is a difficult one,” the president of Ukraine said. “But we are sure: You are capable of it. You will reach our border, all its sections. You will see our frontiers and the enemies’ backs. You will see the shining of the eyes of our people and of the occupiers’ heels. They will call it ‘goodwill gestures.’ We’ll call it a victory.”
In the same video statement, Zelensky expressed hope that the victory in the Kharkiv region would lead to new commitments by Western nations to keep supplying Ukraine with the sophisticated military equipment it will need to finally force the Russian invaders to leave his country’s soil.
UKRAINE’S LATEST ARMS REQUEST
Ukraine’s military breakthrough in the Kharkiv region gave Zelensky’s arms requests new credibility. It demonstrated for the first time that Ukraine, with the help of enough Western military aid, can not only defend itself against Russian attack, but also recapture large swaths of Russian-occupied territory in both the south and east of the country. At the same time, the victory in Kharkiv also justified the investment by the US and its allies of tens of billions of dollars in military and economic aid that have kept Ukraine in the fight against the invading Russian force.
Zelensky closed his address by assuring his fighters that, “Today, your actions in the north, south and east of Ukraine are seen and noticed by all. The world is in awe. The enemy is in a panic.”
Zelensky has now turned his attention to the next stage in the war, in which his forces will try to follow up on their victory in Kharkiv by driving Russian troops out of the rest of Ukraine. Zelensky’s troops are now well positioned to resume their push southeast along the main highway which connects Kharkiv with the Russian-occupied areas of the Donbas region. Were the Ukrainian army to start making major territorial gains in the Donbas, it would become yet another embarrassing defeat for Putin, whose current announced goal for the invasion is the annexation of the Donbas region to Russia, following the same model that Putin had established in 2014 when his troops invaded the Crimea.
To help his forces continue to regain territory, Zelensky is now asking the US and its allies for even more sophisticated Western weapons, including some that have been withheld from Ukraine until now. These include a request for many more mobile Himars precision rocket launching system. The arrival of the first Himars launchers this summer proved to be an equalizer for Ukraine in its long-range artillery duels with the Russians.
Now Zelensky wants the longer-range missiles that go with the Himars system that had previously been withheld. Ukrainian forces will need that extra range to attack some of the more valuable Russian military targets that have previously been too far behind the lines to reach.
Zelensky is also asking for the US Army’s Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, which has a range of about 190 miles. Ukraine needs those longer-range missiles to match Russia’s long-range cruise missiles that greatly outdistance any weapons in the current Ukrainian military inventory. Other items on Zelensky’s shopping list for US weapons that will be needed for Ukraine’s next “offensive operations” include more tanks, drones, artillery systems, and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
UKRAINE BENEFITS FROM CLOSER US INTELLIGENCE COOPERATION
According to the New York Times, Ukrainian military planning for the Kharkiv counter-offensive also benefitted greatly from a much closer relationship with American intelligence agencies. Ever since the Russian invasion in February, the US has been providing Ukraine’s military leaders with key real-time battlefield intelligence information on such prime targets as Russian command posts and ammunition depots, enabling Ukrainian military planners to more effectively attack and destroy them.
But that partnership was initially largely one-sided, because Ukrainian leaders were afraid to fully share their closely-guarded battle plans with the US intelligence community. However, that overly cautious attitude began to change this summer, when Ukrainian commanders realized that they would need all the state-of-the-art intelligence and military analysis they could get to help them plan their upcoming Kharkiv and Kherson-area offensives.
Soon, Ukrainian military leaders were working in full partnership with the American experts. They believe that the dramatic success of last week’s offensive in Kharkiv is only the first demonstration of just how effective that more open and sharing relationship has become.
Many military analysts believe that the Ukrainians now hold a clear advantage in both the motivation of their troops and the effective implementation of sophisticated battlefield tactics that they have been taught by NATO military advisors.
SHIFTING THE MOMENTUM OF THE WAR
The dramatic success of the Ukrainian blitzkrieg in the Kharkiv region has shifted the overall momentum of the war. Across most of the country, Russians forces are now on the defensive, as they try to hold onto some of their prior gains while avoiding being cut off, surrounded, and neutralized by the far more agile advancing Ukrainian forces. The devastating defeat of the Russian forces in the Kharkiv region is also yet another blow to the depressed morale of Russian troops. They are now fighting a foreign war in Ukraine against more highly motivated Ukrainians fighting to defend their homes and native country.
Senior research fellow Jack Wattling at Royal United Services Institute, in London, also says that if the string of Russian losses in Ukraine continues for much longer, the Russian military could become trapped in a cycle of defeat, causing its soldiers to all lose confidence in their ability to win on the battlefield.
RUSSIAN MILITARY NEEDS TO FIND ANSWERS SOON
Russian military commanders must find some way to regain the initiative and rebuild the broken confidence of their soldiers, before the newly re-energized Ukrainian forces drives Russian troops out of the other corners of Ukraine still under their control, just like the Ukrainians have now done in the Kharkiv region.
On the other hand, Ukrainian officials and ordinary citizens have been greatly encouraged by the dramatic victory in the Kharkiv region. It has prompted some Ukrainian officials to declare that they are no longer willing to negotiate a peace deal with Putin that would allow any Russian troops to keep occupying any Ukrainian territory, even in Crimea and the parts of the Donbas regions that have been controlled by Russia for years.
Speaking at the Yalta European Strategy summit in Kyiv over the weekend, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov declared that for such territorial concessions to the Russians, “The point of no return has passed.” Yet the defense minister also recognized that Ukraine’s military still faces a major task in trying to liberate the entire country from Russian rule. “A counteroffensive liberates territory, [but] after that you [still] have to control it and be ready to defend it,” he cautioned in an interview with the Financial Times.
KHARKIV VICTORY BOLSTERS INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT
Speaking at the same strategy meeting in Kyiv, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was also cheered by the Ukraine’s recent battlefield gains. “Troops are moving forward; they are not only gaining back territory, but liberating people,” Baerbock said. “I think it’s really a moment of hope, even though maybe it’s a small moment of hope. This is what we need.”
The Ukrainian victory in Kharkiv came at a particularly crucial time for the Berlin government, because debate had been growing within Germany over whether it should continue supporting Kyiv in what some had argued was a war to save itself from Russian domination that Ukraine could not possibly win.
Gabrielius Landsbergis, the foreign minister of Lithuania, also rejoiced in Ukraine’s victory and argued that it could have come much sooner with proper NATO. “Let me be frank,” the Lithuanian diplomat declared. “It is now beyond doubt that Ukraine could have thrown Russia out months ago if they had been provided with the necessary equipment from Day 1.”
That sentiment was echoed by Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, who said, “We have demonstrated we are capable of defeating the Russian army. We are doing that with weapons given to us. The more weapons we receive, the faster we will win, and the faster this war will end.”
END OF THE WAR NOT YET IN SIGHT
Senior Pentagon and White House officials also welcomed the news of the dramatic Ukrainian victory, but urged caution about making assumptions that it would lead to a quick and successful end to the fighting in Ukraine.
Still, Biden administration officials have been saying for months that there would be no serious prospect for a reaching diplomatic solution to the war in unless the Ukrainian forces first won back enough territory of their captured territory to force Putin to reduce his demands. Now, for the first time, that appears to be possible. However, there is also a risk that the Ukrainian military could be too successful in driving back the Russians, forcing an embarrassed Putin to escalate the fighting in order to avoid being seen as the loser in the conflict he started.
Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, called the success of the Kharkiv attack, “A significant event, [but] it doesn’t mean Russia will be forced out of Ukraine anytime soon. But they [the Russians] keep not learning lessons [from their defeats] right, keep not doing basic things right.”
As a result, Lee concluded, “The overall [military situation now favors Ukraine, especially in the medium term.”
Even though Ukraine now holds an advantage in the fight to liberate itself from Russian occupation, victory is not yet in sight. Putin has started a war he knows he can’t afford to lose. Russian troops are still well-positioned, occupying about a fifth of Ukrainian territory, including the cities of Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia, and Melitopol. They also control a continuous land bridge enabling them to support and resupply the powerful Russian military bases in the strategic Crimean Peninsula.
Despite the recent setbacks in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions, the Russians have been continuing their deadly and indiscriminate missile attacks on civilian targets in many Ukrainian cities across the rest of the country. Late Sunday, Russia retaliated with missile attacks on infrastructure facilities in Kharkiv, leaving many civilians in the city temporarily without electricity and water. President Zelensky condemned the Russians for that strike, because, he said, it served no military purpose. Instead, the Ukrainian leader explained, the goal of that Russian missile attack was solely to deprive the innocent civilians living in the newly liberated Kharkiv region of light and heat.
PUTIN SHOWING NO SIGNS OF GIVING IN
Meanwhile, despite his recent setbacks, Putin shows no sign of giving in. On the contrary, he has now gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain the military pressure on Ukraine. He has been recruiting mercenaries as well as prisoners in Russian jails to whom he has promised a pardon if they agree to go to fight in Ukraine.
To replenish the Russian military’s depleted reserves of weapons and ammunition, Putin has resorted to buying drones from Iran and conventional artillery and other arms and ammunition from North Korea, countries which until recently were regular customers looking to buy weapons from Russia, instead of selling their generally inferior copies of the Russian arms back to their source.
The Russian military is also believed to be running low on supplies of its most accurate precision-guided long-range weapons, such as cruise missiles. That is because those weapons require Western-made computer chips that were embargoed by the US and its allies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As a result, the Russian military has been forced to rely mostly on the older, less accurate long-range weapons in its inventory which often miss their targets, resulting in a lot of collateral damage in its missile attacks on Ukraine’s cities.
Putin has also stepped up his energy blackmail tactics, further reducing Russian natural gas supplies to the NATO countries in Europe that have been supporting Ukraine militarily. Putin hopes to convince the leaders of those countries that the cost to their energy-starved economies this winter of continuing to help Ukraine will be more than they can afford to bear.
Meanwhile, Putin continues to insist in his messages to the Russian people that the “special military operation” that he launched six months ago to defeat the alleged threat to Russia from the pro-Western “fascists” in Kiev is not really an all-out war, and that it has all been going according to plan.
TIME IS NOT ON PUTIN’S SIDE
But the longer the war drags on, the more difficult it will become for Putin to maintain that false impression in the minds of the Russian people. Thanks to the energetic efforts of the state-controlled Russian media, the people have tolerated the war so far. However, the Russian people show no interest in making the further sacrifices that would be required of them if Putin were to decide to escalate the fighting in an effort to redeem his reputation by achieving the clear-cut Russian military victory that has so far eluded him.
According to Abbas Gallyamov, one of Putin’s former speech writers now living in Israel, because “strength is the only source of Putin’s legitimacy, the longer the war in Ukraine drags on, the more vulnerable he will becomes to potential political opponents rising up within Russia.”
Yet as Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed in comments he made the day after meeting with President Zelensky in Kyiv last week, despite his recent setbacks, Putin still has “significant resources” to continue the fight.
“Unfortunately, tragically, horrifically,” Blinken added, “President Putin has demonstrated that he will throw a lot of people into this at huge cost to Russia. This [war] is likely to go on for some significant period of time.”