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Putin’s war is in disarray

As the conflict in Ukraine drags on, will the minimal objective of surviving in power soon become the Russian president’s priority?

By Lawrence Freedman

Vladimir Putin’s pointless war has already led to thousands of people losing their lives, suffering from life-changing injuries or left traumatised by their experiences, along with the destruction of Ukrainian homes and infrastructure. Throughout Europe, refugees now wonder when they will be able to return home and what they will find when they get there. There is more tragedy to come. This is why the search for some sort of ceasefire is growing, though it is still hard to see the form it can take so long as President Putin sticks to his most ambitious objectives – despite his forces being further away from achieving them than they were at the start of the war.

There is a tendency to neglect these costs of war when seeking to make sense of the strategies adopted by both sides, for this does require dispassionate analysis, putting aside wishful thinking and emotion. Yet the human dimension must always be kept in mind. We are not looking down on a chessboard with otherwise inanimate pieces being moved by a strategic grandmaster according to some clever plan. Those being moved have their own perspectives and agency, their own motives and anxieties.

The decisions of numerous individuals will determine how this war ends. Can Ukrainian civilians remain steadfast in the face of merciless Russian bombardment? Can the apparently high Ukrainian morale be sustained through a major setback? And on the Russian side, what happens as people realise that they have been misled about the war’s purpose, and that their young men have died for this futility? How are soldiers, many conscripts, responding to the frightening and unexpected situation in which they find themselves? What about officers, alarmed about their lost men and equipment and lack of reserves, unable either to fulfil their orders or to retreat? How do Putin’s courtiers, aware that the war is going badly, explain to their leader the dire consequences of the current strategy? And then there is Putin. Will it ever dawn on him that he has failed in the greatest gamble of his career?

Distant observers should be cautious when seeking to predict the responses of those caught up in these events, but these intangible considerations are already influencing events and will continue to do so, along with the more tangible considerations of force levels, firepower, mobility and logistics.

[See also: Dispatch from the Ukrainian border: “Does anyone need a ride?”]

The impact of both the tangible and intangible factors are naturally assessed by following the course of the war on maps. These maps, such as the one seen here, provide us with a sense of scale, and show how pieces of contested territory link up with each other and why they are important. They remind us, for example, that Ukraine is a very large country (603,548 square kilometres – by comparison, the UK is 242,500 sq km and France is 543,940 sq km). While much of this vast territory is consumed with fighting, the bulk of it is not, illustrating the huge scale of the challenge that the Russians have taken on.

Russia has now committed well over 90 per cent of the tremendous force that was gathered around Ukraine before 24 February, and is still unable to take its early objectives, let alone work out, should they be taken, how they might be occupied and then governed. This suggests that there is not much spare capacity for the western parts of the country, which is where Ukrainian forces, commanded from Lviv, could regroup with supplies coming in from Poland, Slovakia and possibly Hungary, if Kyiv were to fall.

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But the maps don’t show the full extent of the quandary faced by the Russians. To repeat a point made in my previous article, presence is not the same as control. As we saw on 5 March in extraordinary videos from Kherson and Melitopol, in which unarmed civilians were demonstrating against the Russians, these towns are not truly in Russian hands. The populations remain resolutely Ukrainian in their loyalties, demonstrating not only their indignation about the Russian occupation but warning how the lack of effective control could have deadly consequences for Russian units if this turned into an insurgency.

Another area of Russian “control” shown on the map, coming down from Belarus is the famous 60-kilometre Russian convoy, now stretching from Prybirsk, near Chernobyl, to the much fought-over Antonov airport near Kyiv. This is no longer a convoy. It has not moved for days and is not going anywhere. It is full of vehicles that have broken down, or been abandoned, or attacked by Ukrainian forces. The spectacle no longer conveys a menacing threat but instead epitomises Russia’s poor planning and the limitations of its equipment. Vehicles have not been well maintained and are unable to go off-road as they cannot cope with the boggy land – in some areas made boggier because of deliberate flooding. This “convoy” denies a key road for any following Russian forces as surely as a blown bridge, while preventing Russian forces accessing a vast amount of equipment and vital supplies.

It is by no means the only Russian convoy that has got into trouble during the war. Attacks on them have been at the heart of Ukrainian strategy, which has followed a classic underdog model when facing an apparently stronger force: avoid big set-piece battles in favour of ambushes and attacks on supply lines. Not far away from the besieged Kharkiv, on the other side of Volgograd, one of the staging areas for the Russian invasion, is the city of Kursk. There, in the summer of 1943, the Soviets fought a massive tank battle that inflicted a heavy blow against the German invaders. It was a battle between armies of 500,000 men and 2,700 tanks on the German side, and 1.3 million men and 3,600 tanks on the Soviet. The battle was on a huge scale with hundreds of thousands of casualties.

If the Ukrainians had been obliged to fight an advancing Russian army on open ground during the early stages of the war then they would have suffered a heavy defeat. But the Russian advance was on multiple axes, and even on these axes, became separated and fragmented, enabling the Ukrainians to pick off individual units. In this they have been helped by Russia’s failure to put the Ukrainian air force out of business. As a result, the Russians have struggled to get sufficient troops close enough to Kyiv to surround it and have reportedly taken extraordinary losses in men and equipment. Command systems have been hampered by the distribution of forces and inadequate communications. Russian commanders have been killed moving to the front to try to organise their attacking forces.

Senior commanders, who may be out of touch with some of their forward units, must be worried about how long they can keep pushing against Ukrainian forces that are still holding their lines without breaking their own army in the process. They may be prepared to throw more forces into the battle, but Ukraine’s air force is still flying and it has received more drones, anti-air and anti-tank weapons. Russia’s air force, by contrast, appears to be suffering from maintenance and supply problems, losing significant numbers of aircraft and helicopters to Ukrainian air defences as they need to fly at relatively low altitudes to support their army.

The Russians appear to be looking to find ways to find extra forces to fill the gaps, whether by calling up reserves or recruiting more mercenaries or bringing in units from elsewhere in Russia. But that carries its own risks for Russia. A security-minded country does not like creating vulnerabilities that other enemies might exploit – for example, where Russian-sponsored separatists are protected in the “frozen” conflicts in Georgia and Moldova. Mobilising unprepared troops and pushing them to the front will stress supply lines even more. It is notable that after mixed signals Belarus has decided not to commit its own forces, with some suggestions that the designated units were mutinous. Meanwhile, Ukraine has been able to boost its numbers with a popular militia.

[See also: Putin is running out of options]

In the south the war looks different. The Russians haven’t faced the same logistical challenges and they have been able to move against Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. They are close to joining up the separatist areas in the Donbas to the annexed territory of Crimea, which some analysts always saw as one possible objective of military action if Putin had decided to keep it limited. Yet this has not been easy. They have not been welcomed as liberators in Kherson and have yet to take Mariupol despite subjecting it to a murderous battering. They have also failed to let the civilian population escape after promising a humanitarian corridor. Assuming some strategic purpose behind this viciousness, other than a frustrated vengeance, the Russians must expect that the battering would soften up the victims, making their cities easier to take. Tellingly, while Russian forces have entered some towns, in no cases has one surrendered.

One of the big questions is whether there will be action soon against the vital city of Odessa. It would be a big, symbolic prize for Russian commanders, helping them show that their offensive still has some energy and drive. So far, however, they have made little progress on the ground, having failed to take the neighbouring city of Mykolaiv. An amphibious landing has been expected for some days, and this may yet be attempted, but it would be an extremely hazardous operation, without the possibility of either surprise or command of the air.

There have been a variety of estimates about how long the Russian army can keep this up, especially if Kyiv and Kharkiv continue to resist. Without a major resupply effort it has been put at no more than three weeks. The Russians have not planned for a long war nor made provisions to sustain it over time. Certainly, wars can be won quickly. In June 1967, Israel took Sinai from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria in six days. India required 13 to advance from the border to Dhaka to receive the surrender of East Pakistan forces, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. It took longer – a month – for the Americans to reach Baghdad in 2003, but they had only one line of advance, up from Kuwait, and were also methodical in their approach. The reason why some wars drag on is rarely because it was envisaged in the original plan. It is normally because of early operational failures.

As soon as an offensive runs out of steam and front lines stagnate, the conflict becomes about the ability to feed the war machine over time, making economic and industrial strength as well as logistics even more important. This is why the Kremlin should be worried about a stalled campaign – it means that so long as Russia stays in Ukraine then its sanctioned economy will struggle even more. Fighting a war is an expensive business. Published estimates of the daily cost have ranged from $500m to $20bn. Something a bit over a $1bn a day seems plausible.

[See also: Russia is fighting a terrorist’s war]

Prewar assumptions about a modernised and efficient Russian army quickly overwhelming outgunned Ukrainians have now been jettisoned, but it remains difficult to accept the contrary assumption that this is a war that the Russians might lose. This is where the state of mind of those involved becomes important. Were it not for the fact that Russia still has the means to make life miserable for ordinary Ukrainians and use its firepower to push those unable to flee down into bunkers, one would say that it is facing defeat. Its army displays the pathology of one in disarray – at least away from the south, its logistics are literally being shot to pieces, command systems are degraded, and its troops demoralised and surrendering. We must keep emphasising that war is an uncertain business. The Ukrainians have yet to show how well they can cope with a major setback on the ground. But if they can manage more counter-attacks and start pushing Russian forces back – and not just holding them off – then we might have to revise the view that Ukraine’s best hope is to defend for as long as possible to give economic sanctions the chance to bite.

We are left contemplating the psychology of the man who launched this catastrophic adventure, who must now decide whether to call it off with whatever face-saving claims he can muster. We wonder whether Putin’s claim that the Russian war plan is on schedule and meeting its goals is a continuation of his past delusions, because the sycophants around him don’t know how to tell him the truth, or because he does not know how to admit to the Russian people how badly he has let them down – especially after going to extreme lengths to hide the truth from them. He is now engaging in more conversations with international leaders, the latest being with the Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett, so perhaps he is starting to look for a diplomatic way out.

It is possible to slide away from defeat by claiming victory against more realistic goals. After all, Saddam Hussein led Iraq into two disastrous wars – when he invaded Iran in 1980 and seized Kuwait a decade later. At the end of both, with nothing to show for all the consequential death and destruction, he nonetheless claimed victory because, somehow, he had personally managed to survive in power. As Putin is forced to move away from original aims, will that minimal one also become his priority?

Lawrence Freedman is a regular “New Statesman” contributor. This article originally appeared on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

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