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The New Russian Offensive Is Intended to Project Power It Cannot Sustain

12 minute read
Kagan is Senior Fellow and Director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute

The fight for Severodonetsk is a Russian information operation in the form of a battle. One of its main purposes for Moscow is to create the impression that Russia has regained its strength and will now overwhelm Ukraine. That impression is false. The Russian military in Ukraine is increasingly a spent force that cannot achieve a decisive victory if Ukrainians hold on.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is therefore trying to turn his invasion of Ukraine into a brutal contest of wills. He’s betting his army on breaking Ukrainians’ collective will to fight on in their country. His own won’t likely break. Fortunately, Ukraine doesn’t need it to. If Ukrainians can weather the current Russian storm and then counterattack the exhausted Russian forces they still have every chance to free their people and all their land.

Putin amassed the wreckage of Russian combat forces into a lethal amalgam around the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk Oblast. That amalgam is crawling forward using massive artillery barrages to obliterate everything in its path allowing Russia’s demoralized and frightened soldiers to walk into the rubble.

The Ukrainian defenders are wisely withdrawing in the face of this reckless barbarism, but at a high price to their own morale and their will to continue the fight. Ukrainian soldiers and citizens are criticizing their government for not supporting the troops on the front lines. Ukrainians are starting to doubt that they can prevail for the first time since they won the Battle of Kyiv. Delays in the provision of Western aid and refusals by the U.S. and other countries to provide certain needed weapons systems are helping to fuel those doubts. And now voices are rising in the West calling on Ukraine to offer concessions.

All of which is exactly what Putin needs. He cannot defeat Ukraine militarily as long as Ukrainians retain the will to fight and the West the will to back them. So he attacks the will of both by forcing his own troops into the most vicious and brutal offensive of this war, hoping to persuade everyone that he’s finally harnessed the mass and power of Russia that Stalin wielded to defeat Hitler—and thus that resistance to his demands is futile. Putin also holds hostage critical export supplies of Ukrainian food and fuel, hoping to impose high enough costs on the West to persuade it to abandon Ukraine.

Neither Ukrainians nor their friends around the world must give in to Putin or be deluded by the current mirage of Russian success and power he is presenting in the Battle of Severodonetsk. For mirage it is. Russia’s drive in Luhansk is the desperate gamble of a dictator staking the last of the offensive combat power he can scrape together in hopes of breaking his enemies’ will to continue the fight. and let him claim that he’s taken all of Luhansk Oblast. It is a historical rhyme with Hitler’s determination to seize Stalingrad in 1942 or to hold Kharkov in defiance of his commander’s advice. There are no Russian large reserves coming behind this force to carry its successes forward. On the contrary, Putin has created it only by denuding other key axes of the forces they need to defend against Ukrainian counterattacks. This offensive will likely culminate soon because even this slow, grinding advance will exhaust the forces conducting it. Putin will then be unable to launch another for quite some time.

How can we know this? We know it in part because the mix of Russian forces conducting this offensive was formed of the ruins of units wrecked in the Battles of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and elsewhere, not from fresh units or troops drawn from Russia. Badly damaged Russian battalion tactical groups that pulled back from Kyiv and Kharkiv were quickly reformed in Russia without being allowed to rest, re-equip, or properly absorb replacements and then were sent right back into the fight in Ukraine’s east. Many Russian “units” are reportedly amalgamations of bits and pieces of other units thrown together ad hoc and then hurled into battle. The soldiers themselves are exhausted and demoralized. Refusals to fight have become rampant in the Russian army among both soldiers and the officers who lead them.

The Russians have adapted to this grim reality by changing their tactics to something reminiscent of the First World War or the “Methodical Battle” doctrine of the French Army in 1940—artillery barrages destroy everything in a given sector of the battlefield and then Russian troops crawl forward through the ruins. But even this approach has its limits. Russia’s supply of artillery pieces is not infinite. They have had to concentrate artillery densely in the prioritized sectors, pulling it away from other areas. They have drawn artillery (and tanks and other equipment) out of ancient Soviet-era stores. And they’ve begun taking equipment out of Belarusian stocks as well—likely the last stockpiles of gear Putin can reliably get his hands on.

The supply of artillery tubes is an important limitation in this kind of war for two reasons. First, because the Ukrainians have taken a toll on Russian artillery with skillful and accurate counter-battery fire (using one’s own artillery to destroy the enemy’s). Second, because artillery (and tank main gun) barrels have a limited lifespan—they start becoming markedly less effective after firing a certain number of rounds and need to be replaced. There’s no way to know when these factors will force the Russian military to curtail its reliance on artillery in this way, but they eventually will do so.

But the Russian soldiers will likely burn out themselves before they burn out their artillery. Ukrainian defenders are inflicting serious casualties on Russian troops across the front despite the adapted Russian tactics. Russian military bloggers and others are passing along the complaints of Russian troops that they are subjected to devastating Ukrainian artillery fire even when just sitting in their defensive positions. Russian troops attacking where Ukrainian forces hold their ground continue to take losses even after the artillery barrages, which rarely eliminate all resistance.

Read More: Ukraine Is in Worst Shape Than You Think

Russian milbloggers, documents revealing Russian judicial proceedings against soldiers and officers who have deserted or refused orders to fight, and intelligence reports about such incidents all paint a picture of a Russian military that is exhausted, demoralized, demotivated, and increasingly angry about its treatment.

Ukrainian soldiers in some parts of the front are showing similar signs of demoralization. The well-publicized incident of Ukrainian volunteers refusing to continue fighting near Severodonetsk in late May revealed and fueled some of the anger and resentment within the Ukrainian military and Ukrainian society about the very difficult conditions they are facing. That incident has led to hyperbolic headlines suggesting that Ukrainian soldiers are deserting or “fleeing” en masse—which is not the case. But the phenomena of anger, feelings of betrayal, and frustration in the Ukrainian armed forces are real and dangerous. They can become more dangerous over time as the cumulative effect of many small such feelings takes its toll. The US and the West must take more account of the fact that the timely delivery of weapons and capabilities to Ukraine’s armed forces is essential to helping sustain Ukrainian morale and will to continue fighting through this difficult time. Delays and half-measures can cost both the tangibles of terrain and casualties and also the intangibles of hope and confidence in the possibility of success.

The problems in the Russian military at this moment, however, are far more dangerous to the success of Russia’s undertaking. Ukraine’s fighters are defending their homeland against a brutal invasion. They are extraordinarily unlikely to break or refuse to fight on a large scale unless things become dramatically worse for them. That is unlikely to be the case because Western aid continues to flow in—albeit with too many delays, too many restrictions, and on too small a scale The Ukrainian military keeps getting its current equipment and supplies refreshed and periodically gains new capabilities. Russia’s ability to generate new equipment has been seriously compromised by Russian failures to prepare for the war to begin with, international sanctions that deprive Russia of key components especially for their most advanced systems, and rampant corruption and theft that hollowed out the Russian military. Putin has been slow to mobilize Russian military industry and it is not clear how much he can or how rapidly such mobilization will generate effects.

Russian soldiers, moreover, are fighting a war of aggression in a foreign land. A growing proportion of them are either conscripts or involuntarily recalled reservists (that is, conscripts who had completed their obligatory military service and have now been compelled to rejoin the military and fight). Very, very few Russians are choosing to enlist voluntarily to fight in this war. A rash of Molotov cocktail attacks against Russian military induction centers attests to growing resentment in Russia. Russian officers have to cajole, coerce, and compel these conscripts and reservists to launch attack after attack, and getting people to attack is almost always much harder than getting them to defend.

The Russian officer corps itself has also been decimated in this conflict. As the Russian military struggled to advance even in the first weeks around Kyiv Russian officers of all ranks found it necessary to move forward and lead from the front—where they suffered high casualties at all ranks from lieutenants to senior generals. The losses of Russian officers are far more devastating to Russia than similar losses would be to Ukraine, even if Ukraine had been losing officers at the same rate, which does not appear to be the case. The Russian army is manifesting a Soviet-style relationship between leaders and led—the soldiers and junior officers are reluctant to act unless a senior officer makes them and tells them exactly what to do. The Ukrainian defenders, on the other hand, have consistently shown the ability to operate with smaller groups led by more junior leaders taking the initiative and acting much more autonomously. They are not as dependent on having senior officers present everywhere to make anything happen. And, again, the burden on leaders in getting soldiers to conduct dangerous and costly attacks is generally much higher than on those who have to lead defenses or conduct counter-offensive operations to liberate their own country at times and places of their choosing.

For all these reasons and more the current Russian offensive will almost certainly stall at a certain point, probably before it has secured the rest of Donetsk Oblast—Putin’s stated objective in this phase of the war. When it does the Russian military will likely have expended the last of its available effective offensive maneuver capability for now. There is no vast mobilization of Russian troops preparing to enter the war, no untapped reserves of combat-ready troops to send, no more areas of the front from which to draw fresh troops for another drive. Even if Putin ordered general mobilization tomorrow, fresh troops would not start streaming into Ukraine for many months—such are the realities of mobilizing and training soldiers even to be cannon fodder.

The Russian military certainly cannot sustain the current offensive long enough and far enough to destroy the Ukrainian military or seize other major cities. We must not allow the depressing losses of Severodonetsk and likely more territory in the east to obscure that reality.

Severodonetsk is not decisive terrain. Seizing it does not give the Russians new roads along which to conduct new offensives on favorable terms. Losing it does not unhinge Ukraine’s ability to defend critical positions. Ukraine can lose Severodonetsk and still win this war. It can lose Luhansk and even Donetsk Oblast, and still win this war as long as it does not lose too much of its effective combat power in doing so.

So Ukraine will still have its chance to turn the tide of this war once again in its favor even after the fall of Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk, and other areas in the east. If Ukrainians retain their will to fight and their justified confidence in their ability to liberate much if not all of their occupied territory, and if the West holds to the commitment that President Joe Biden recently articulated in his New York Times op-ed to support Ukraine in that aim and to refrain from pushing Kyiv to make concessions, then there is every reason for hope.

The Ukrainians have many reasons to hope that they can liberate their occupied country and rebuild their shattered state into a bastion of freedom strong enough to deter future attacks and, ultimately, to live in peace. The hope of that prospect does not offset or reduce the pain they have suffered and will suffer. But it is a hope that seems, to an outsider at least, to be worth fighting for, especially when the alternatives are so dire.

May Ukrainians retain the will to keep fighting for that hope, and may the West keep helping them to achieve it.

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