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18 May 2024updated 20 May 2024 9:22am

The grim reality behind Russian advances in Ukraine

This was always going to be a difficult time for Kyiv.

By Lawrence Freedman

Vladimir Putin was in good spirits this month. First, having been inaugurated for his fifth presidential six-year term on 7 May, he took the opportunity to reshuffle his government. Then, when he met with his new team he was able to report that Russia’s latest offensive in Ukraine had made progress.  “Our troops are improving in all positions, in all directions, every day,” he said. The work of the military was “proceeding according to the plan”. Lastly he ended the week with a two-day visit to China, cementing his partnership with fellow autocrat Xi Jinping, and no doubt encouraging him to step up support for Russia’s war effort.

It was the new offensive from across the border into Kharkiv that attracted the most attention. According to Putin the aim is to “carve out” a buffer zone along the border with the Russian province of Belgorod to thwart Ukrainian attacks against Russian territory. This was disingenuous — every time Putin propels more people to their deaths, he explains that the Ukrainians made him do it. In practice, even if they can be held, the new lines put the already battered city of Kharkiv more in range of Russian missiles and rockets. For now the Russians lack the combat power to make a serious push towards the city, let alone take it. But the possibility that they might try requires a further commitment of Ukrainian troops. Because of the new Russian moves, the Ukrainians have already had to abandon territory previously liberated, adding to the pressures on stretched and depleted forces already struggling to cope on several fronts. Another Russian advance may be made against the city of Sumy. The main effort is likely to focus on the Donetsk region where they have been pushing hard for months, particularly against the town of Chasiv Yar. 

At first the messages from Kyiv were reassuring about their ability to cope, but a quick replacement of the commander who had failed to prepare defensive positions and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s cancellation of all foreign visits suggested that this was something of an emergency. The seriousness of the operational situation became clear when it was described as “challenging” and units were moved to more “advantageous” positions, a euphemism for retreat. Ukrainian sources have spoken of the heavy casualties the Russians have taken, while noting, as so often before, that these losses never quite seem to deter the Russians from throwing more troops into the fight. The Russians are said to be moving forward in small groups to avoid being caught by Ukrainian drones, which appear to have slowed their movement. By Friday 17 May, the Ukrainians were speaking with more confidence about having stabilised the situation with the Russian advance running out of steam and only a few indefensible border settlements lost. Fierce fighting was still going on in the town of Vovchansk, from which residents have been evacuated for the second time in this war. This round of fighting is not yet over.

This was always going to be a difficult time for Ukraine. In recent weeks, steps have been taken to rectify the two great failures of the past six months – the Ukrainian dithering on mobilising extra manpower and the US’s congressional dithering on supplying Ukraine with desperately needed weapons and ammunition. The recruitment and supply lines are moving once again (the two are linked – it is difficult to get people to sign up to a fight without ammunition) but it all takes time.

These delays provide the main explanations for the Russian advances. Questions have also been raised in Ukraine about whether better defences could have been prepared, although they would still have been vulnerable to the Russian glide bombs that are used to blast holes in fixed positions, and they would still have needed extensive manning. There is also frustration with the American restrictions on the use of their long-range systems to attack targets within Russia proper. This restriction might make some sense if Ukraine was aiming to attack residential buildings in Moscow but little sense when the targets are Russian forces about to move across a border that they do not recognise. The British have already said that they see little point in the restriction. During his visit to Kyiv on 14 May, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken seemed to take a more relaxed attitude than before, noting that how the long-range systems were used was up to the Ukrainians. But since then the Pentagon has reaffirmed the restriction. This defies military logic, and has only a tenuous political logic.

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Another priority is to beef up Ukraine’s air defences. Currently they face difficult choices between protecting front line forces and protecting cities. Their hit rate against incoming drones and missiles has gone down in recent months. More systems are being rushed to Ukraine by the Europeans and Americans, but again a heavy price is being paid for past delays.

This is therefore a tough time for the Ukrainian people. Whatever happens over the coming weeks, they are still going to be under pressure in the ground war until later in the year. While there is no change in Ukraine’s determination to continue the fight, morale has been dented. It is frustrating not only seeing the Russians take back previously liberated territory but also having to postpone all thoughts of another offensive until 2025, as they move into the fourth year of this bruising war.

For want of better alternatives, a different Ukrainian strategy has had to be adopted to last year’s. The previous strategy was focused on land offensives to take territory and ended in disappointment. Trying the same thing again could well be disastrous until manpower shortages are eased and new troops have had proper training. There is a lot to learn from the problems faced during 2023, but one unavoidable lesson is the difficulty of mounting large-scale ground offensives against prepared defences.

So instead Ukraine needs to focus on those things that they know they can do effectively, which is to make the Russian occupation progressively more difficult and uncomfortable. Despite setbacks this year, they have still shown that they can hit targets in Russia using their long-range home-made drones and in Crimea with Western systems such as Storm Shadow and ATACMS. An attack on the Belbek air base in Crimea, for example, destroyed at least three Russian fighter jets and damaged airport infrastructure and air defences. The port of Sevastopol no longer can serve as a safe haven for the Black Sea Fleet. An oil refinery was set on fire at the Tuapse on the Black Sea, just after it had completed repairs after a previous attack in January. A hit on an electricity sub-station in Sevastopol led to rolling blackouts. Perhaps the most significant target was the port of Novorossiysk, which operates an important oil terminal but also has been used by Russia for the Black Sea fleet in preference to the vulnerable Sevastopol. These attacks complicate Russia’s supply lines and its ability to launch missile and drone strikes against Ukrainian cities (which, it should be noted, are struggling with regular blackouts).

The prospect that these attacks will become more frequent and disruptive, and also that the Ukrainian army will gradually become stronger, helps explain the urgency behind the current Russian offensive. The current balance of military power favours Russia in a way that may not last. They therefore need to maximise their gains while they can.

While Putin has been pushing since late last year for a quick military victory, and now claims to be more optimistic, he must still prepare for the long haul. His problem here is that the country is already on a full war footing, with production at full capacity, leading to labour shortages and high inflation. The need to get even more out of the system explains the appointment of Andrei Belousov to replace Sergei Shoigu as defence minister. (Shoigu has been moved to a new position as secretary of the Security Council, demonstrating that those who show complete loyalty to Putin will never be discarded.) Belousov is a capable economist, tasked to make Russia’s defence sector more productive and innovative, and better integrated into the wider economy. He will also be expected to tackle the endemic corruption in the military systems. One of his deputies was detained for taking bribes before Shoigu was moved, and then another, head of the personnel directorate, was arrested just after on similar charges.

Belousov’s problem is that he lacks his own base within the Defence Ministry and so will have to manage an unfamiliar and probably unresponsive bureaucracy. Meanwhile the Ukrainians will be hoping that Belousov does not replace commander in chief General Valery Gerasimov, whose lack of imagination and competence is one of the reasons why Russia has not made the most of its many advantages up to now. There are candidates for his position who would almost certainly do a better job.

The fact that both Belousov and Shoigu accompanied Putin on his brief visit to Beijing indicates that he is looking to get more defence cooperation from China. There was nothing in the final communique to indicate any new agreements, although they would probably not be disclosed. The core theme was the need to rebuff Western aspirations to impose a global hegemony.

Xi clearly does not want Russia to lose his war and is helping economically and with components for new weapons, but he probably also feels he is doing enough without aggravating further his relations with the West. The communique was pretty bland and familiar. While Xi made a point of greeting Putin warmly, few concrete agreements were reported. A notable absence was any progress on a new pipeline to take natural gas to China and replace the business now lost in Europe.

Xi called for a “political solution” in Ukraine, and expressed support for a peace conference attended by both sides. A conference is planned in Switzerland next month to which China has been invited but not Russia. China has yet to accept. Putin has been talking more about peace talks recently without any indication that he has any concessions to offer as an incentive. His hope appears to be that Western fatigue with the Ukraine problem and evidence of Russian advances will lead to pressure on Zelensky to bow to the inevitable and accept peace on Russian terms – meaning a permanent loss of territory and sovereignty. Perhaps a re-elected President Donald Trump might do this, although what we know of his peace plan is that it would satisfy neither Putin nor Zelensky.

For now the Western position remains unchanged. A Russian victory in Ukraine would be catastrophic for its security as well as Ukraine. At some point negotiations might make sense but only when it is Russia and not Ukraine on the back foot.

[See also: The rise of WhatsApp government]

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