Russia try to bounce back in Ukraine as victory prospects fade

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The Russian military, mired in a war with no end in sight, is trying to revive its splintered offensive in Ukraine, firing commanders, splitting combat units into smaller formations and redoubling its reliance on artillery and other weapons long range.

The change comes nearly three months after Russian and US officials predicted a quick and decisive victory for Moscow. After the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers and an avalanche of failures since the invasion began on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin has scaled back his goals in a campaign seen as unsustainable, unrealistic and likely unwinnable.

According to President Volodymyr Zelensky, at least seven people were injured after a strike against the Palace of Culture in Lozova, Kharkiv Oblast, on May 20. (Video: Volodymyr Zelensky via Storyful)

This assessment is shared by a range of observers, including Western intelligence officials and independent analysts who have followed the war closely. Russia, said Mikk Marran, director general of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, is losing in Ukraine militarily, politically and morally.

“When we look at the battlefield, Russia’s conventional capability is already overstretched,” Marran said. “Russian manpower and equipment losses are not sustainable at the same tempo of operations we have seen so far.”

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Unless Russia launches a full-scale mobilization of its military, Marran said, it has “no remedy in sight.” And while it seems that “a certain sense of reality has taken hold” among Russian military leaders, Putin himself remains determined to control everything, from the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine to the western port city of Odessa and Transnistria, a breakaway republic from neighboring Moldova.

“We are perhaps seeing an ongoing military campaign that is, to some degree, detached from what is realistic, what one might call smart or doable in the long term,” Marran said. The Estonians had long predicted, even before the invasion, that Russia would face significant resistance from the Ukrainians.

As the war continues and Russia’s gains on the battlefield remain “uneven” and “incremental,” according to the Pentagon’s latest assessment, several of its top commanders have been fired. Among them, according to the British Ministry of Defence, are Lieutenant General Serhiy Kisel, who presided over the failed effort by the 1st Guards Tank Army to capture the northeastern city of Kharkiv, and Vice Admiral Igor Osipov, who was in charge of Russia. Black Sea Fleet when Ukrainian forces sank its flagship, the Moskva. The humiliating blow to the Russian Navy was delivered with the help of Ukrainian-made Neptune anti-ship missiles. Since then, officials in Kyiv have intensified their demands for similar weapons Western partners.

Citing the latest US intelligence assessments of the war, a senior Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with ground rules set by the Pentagon, claimed that “Russian commanders at various levels have been relieved of their duties”. Pentagon officials, this person said, want to be cautious when making predictions about the next phase of the war, but they are encouraged that Ukrainian units have not weathered the morale setbacks plaguing Russians.

Russia retains considerable combat power available in Ukraine, the US defense official warned, but “you have to have the will to fight, you have to have good leadership, you have to have command and control.” Russia, he said, “suffers” from these shortcomings and others.

Meanwhile, sanctions on Russia have caused a “practical breakdown in the country’s transport and shipping logistics”, Russia’s transport minister said on Saturday, a rare admission of trouble.

But its defense minister claimed that its army had destroyed a large number of weapons supplied to Ukraine by the United States and European countries. A Pentagon spokesperson told the Washington Post that the United States had no comment on Russia’s assertion.

Russia has also stepped up its political campaign, permanently banning nearly 1,000 Americans, including President Biden and Vice President Harris, from entering the country. The banned list included a wide range of public officials and citizens, including deceased lawmakers and actor Morgan Freeman.

The United States continues to send billions of dollars worth of military equipment to Ukraine, including heavy artillery, drones and anti-tank missiles. President Biden on Saturday signed a $40 billion package of new military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Although Putin has deployed more than 100 tactical battalion groups to Ukraine, each numbering between 500 and 800 personnel, they have made little progress in the Donbass, according to US intelligence. There is evidence that the Russian military split some units, sending smaller combat teams to villages and hamlets. According to the Pentagon, this makes sense as Putin pursues smaller localized goals. But Russia has struggled to hold ground, with its forces sometimes ceding control to Ukraine days after taking territory.

Russians attack in small units, Pentagon says

In the south, Russia won two important victories by taking control of Mariupol, a major port city, and the small town of Kherson. Micholeiv, which was home to nearly 500,000 people before the war, was an out of reach target, however, despite weeks of heavy fighting nearby.

Scott Boston, a former US Army officer studying the war in Ukraine for Rand Corp., said there appear to be huge morale problems within the Russian military, undermining goals from Moscow. He cited the refusal of some units to carry out orders, as well as Russia’s inability to adequately equip and feed its forces.

“Once it’s been amply demonstrated that they don’t care about their people, they understand,” Boston said of the Russian soldiers. “It’s hard not to notice.”

Russia has only seized a few kilometers a day in the Donbass in recent weeks, according to the Pentagon. At this rate, Boston surmised, the offensive could continue for a year and “there will still be a lot of Ukraine left,” even if the Russian military death toll continues to rise.

“It’s just not a serious proposition,” Boston said.

Russian leaders may realize that their military campaign is floundering but are still reluctant to acknowledge that they are losing the war, he added.

Earlier this month, dozens of Russian combat vehicles were destroyed by Ukrainian forces as the Russians attempted to cross the Siverskyi Donets River into Donbass. The attack is believed to have killed hundreds of Russian soldiers and appears to highlight their persistent failures to perform basic combat maneuvers.

Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Russian troops had been plagued by both their own tactical mistakes and the powerful Ukrainian capabilities that contributed to routs like the deadly crossing near Severodonetsk.

River crossings require favorable terrain and construction of pontoon bridges by military engineers. They are inherently dangerous, Lee said, and the Ukrainian military likely anticipated likely crossing points and recorded their coordinates for future attacks. Their surveillance drones allowed artillery units to observe where shells were falling, then guided them to Russian personnel.

A serious mistake, Lee said, was the failure of Russian commanders to send smaller numbers of troops across the river. Instead, they grouped them together. The error cost the 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade dearly, according to an analysis by the Institute of the Study of Warwith approximately 485 casualties and the loss of 80 pieces of equipment.

“It’s an indication that there are still leadership issues,” Lee said of the failed attempt to surround nearby Ukrainian forces.

It’s hard to say how long Russia will be able to continue its offensive, Rand Corp analyst Boston said. Even after the death of thousands of Russian soldiers, he said, Russia could continue to launch artillery shells from a distance for some time.

Yet the trajectory of the conflict leaves him perplexed. Russia defeated Georgian forces in a five-day war in 2008, but the conflict revealed failures within the Russian military, including an inability to adapt quickly when things went wrong. Moscow set out to reform its military after that conflict, Boston said, and demonstrated improvement in others.

“You just get this feeling that they’ve let go of everything they’ve tried to learn for the past 10 years and gone back to an older style that they’re more comfortable with,” Boston said. “Frankly, the Red Army in 1944 was more capable of firing and maneuvering than a lot of what we’ve seen of this Russian army, and I don’t understand why.”

Julian Duplain, Timothy Bella and Michael Kranish contributed to this report.

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