The Russian Offensive Is Projecting Power It Cannot Sustain

TSeverodonetsk, the Russian Information Operation in the Form of a Battle is what he’s fighting for. Moscow’s main purpose is to give the illusion that Russia has gained strength again and will take on Ukraine. It is false. If the Ukrainians continue to hold, then the Russian military in Ukraine will become a more exhausted force and cannot win a decisive victory.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to transform his invasion in Ukraine into a war 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. Ukrainians still have a chance of rescuing their nation and land if they can weather this Russian storm.

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.

While the Ukrainian defenders wisely retreat from this barbarism in spite of it, they are paying a heavy price for their own morale as well as their willingness to fight. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are critical of their government’s failure to provide support for the troops fighting on the frontlines. The Ukrainian people are beginning to question their ability to prevail since the Battle of Kyiv. These doubts are being fuelled by delays in providing Western aid, and refusing to supply certain weapons systems to the U.S. or other countries. Now, voices in the West are calling for Ukraine to make concessions.

This is precisely what Putin requires. As long as the Ukrainians have the will to continue fighting and the West is willing to support them, he cannot militarily defeat Ukraine. 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 holds the vital supplies of fuel and food for Ukraine hostage in order to make it abandon Ukraine.

Either the Ukrainians, or their international friends must resist Putin’s charms. Putin presents in the Battle of Severodonetsk. It is a mirage. 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. This force does not have large Russian reserves to support its success. Putin, on the other hand, has made it possible by depriving the key axes that the forces need to defend themselves against Ukrainian counterattacks. Because even this slow, steady advance won’t exhaust its participants, it will most likely end in a successful offensive. Putin won’t be able to launch another offensive for quite some time.

What is the secret to this knowledge? It is partly because this mix of Russian troops conducting the offensive consisted of the remains of units that were destroyed in battles such as the Battles at Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol. Not from new units or Russian troops. 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. Demoralized and exhausted soldiers are also a problem. The Russian army has seen a rise in refusals to fight, both among soldiers and those who command 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. Even this strategy has limitations. Russia’s supply of artillery pieces is not infinite. It was necessary to focus artillery in priority areas and pull it from the rest of the country. They’ve taken artillery, tanks, and other equipment from Soviet-era storage buildings. 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.

This war has two main limitations: the lack of supply artillery tube is a major problem. 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.

However, the Russian soldiers are likely to die before their artillery is exhausted. The adapted Russian tactics are causing serious injuries to Russian soldiers across the front. Russian military blogs and others have shared the grievances of Russian troops, that are still in place defensively to Ukrainian artillery fire. Russian troops continuing to strike at Ukrainian forces’ positions continue to suffer losses, even though artillery fire rarely ends all resistance.

Continue reading: Ukraine is in worse shape than you think

Russian Milbloggers documents, intelligence reports and documents about Russian court proceedings against officers and soldiers who deserted orders or refused to fight in combat, all portray a Russian army that is demoralized and angry at its treatment.

Similar signs of depression are being seen in certain parts of the front by some Ukrainian soldiers. Some of the anger and bitterness in the Ukrainian army and society regarding the difficult situation they find themselves facing was fueled by the widely publicized incident when Ukrainian volunteers refused to stop fighting at Severodonetsk, late May. That incident has led to hyperbolic headlines suggesting that Ukrainian soldiers are deserting or “fleeing” en masse—which is not the case. The phenomena of anger, frustration, betrayal and disillusionment in the Ukrainian Armed Forces are dangerous. As the result of small, unrelated feelings can build up over time they become even more dangerous. 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. Reluctant or ineffective measures can lead to both casualties and the loss of ground. They also cost the hope for success and the confidence that it will be achieved.

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 have shown that they are unlikely to give up or to refuse to fight on large scales unless it becomes extremely difficult. 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 is slow in mobilizing Russian military industry. It’s not known how fast or how much.

Russian soldiers are also fighting an aggression war in another country. They are becoming more conscripts and involuntarily recalled reserveists, which is conscripts that have completed military service but were now compelled to enlist and fight. Only a small number of Russians have volunteered to serve in the war effort. An increasing resentment towards Russia can be seen in the spate of Molotov cocktail attack on Russian military training centers. Russian officers must coerce and force these conscripts, reservists, to carry out attack after attack. It is nearly always more difficult to get them to defend than to persuade.

This conflict has also decimated the Russian officer corps. 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. Russian officer losses are more severe than Ukraine’s losses. 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. On the contrary, the Ukrainian defenders have shown a consistent ability to work with smaller units led by junior leaders who take the initiative and act more independently. To make things happen, they don’t need to rely on senior officers. Leaders are often more involved in helping soldiers conduct costly and dangerous attacks than they are with leading defense and counter-offensive efforts to free their country.

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. The Russian military is likely to have exhausted all of its offensive maneuver capabilities by the time it does. The Russian military has no large mobilization, there are not untapped combat-ready troops, and no additional front areas from which new troops can be drawn for another campaign. 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.

It is clear that the Russian military cannot support the current offensive for long enough or far enough to defeat the Ukrainian military and seize other large cities. This reality must be reflected in our actions.

Severodonetsk does not constitute decisive territory. The Russians will not gain new routes to carry out new offensives on their favorable terms by seizing Severodonetsk. Losing it does not unhinge Ukraine’s ability to defend critical positions. Ukraine could lose Severodonetsk but still win the war. You can lose Luhansk or even Donetsk Oblast but still win this war, as long as you don’t lose any of your effective combat force.

Ukraine still has the chance to change the course of the war even after Lysychansk and Severodonetsk fall. The Ukrainians will retain their determination to fight, their justifiable confidence in their capability to liberate most if not all of the occupied territories they control and the West keeps to the promise that President Joe Biden made in his recent speech. New York Times Op-ed in support of Ukraine and not to push Kyiv into concessions. There is always hope.

Ukrainians can have hope. They will liberate their oppressed country and build a strong bastion of liberty that is strong enough to deter further attacks. This prospect doesn’t negate or diminish the suffering they have and will continue to suffer. It is an option that, even though it does not offer any relief, seems worth the effort, particularly when all other options are so dire.

Let the West continue to support the Ukrainian people in their fight for this hope.

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