Russia’s withdrawal around Kharkiv – a planned “regrouping” that some state media haven’t even dared to mention – is arguably more significant than its earlier collapse of positions around the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. These units had been entrenched for months, effectively defending their positions — as CNN witnessed for weeks along the arteries north of Kharkiv — and were sometimes literally a few minutes’ drive from the Russian border.
The fact that Moscow cannot maintain a force so painfully close to its own territory speaks volumes about the real state of its supply chain and military. It’s almost as if these retreating units are heading back to the void, not to the nuclear power that in February expected to overwhelm its neighbor within 72 hours.
Pockets of Russian troops may remain to harass Ukrainian forces in the coming weeks, but the nature of the front line has irrevocably changed, as has its size. Kyiv is suddenly fighting a much smaller war now, along a drastically reduced frontline, against an enemy that also looks a lot smaller.
Indeed, the Russian military now relies on forced mobilization and prisoners for its exhausted ranks. Ukraine was quite surgical, hitting supply lines to cut off already depleted units, spotting those that were least prepared and least equipped. He was incredibly efficient and quick.
Whether Ukraine’s counter-offensive will become decisive depends on how far its forces are now able to push: would seeking even more territory risk stretching too far? Or is Ukraine facing an enemy that simply has nothing left to fight? No matter how overstretched Russian forces have become during the chaotic decades of America’s War on Terror, an army that needs North Korean shells and St. Petersburg convicts is at best at the minimum strength necessary to protect Russia itself.
What next? Barring a remarkable turnaround, Russia’s attempt to take all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is over. Kherson is still under sustained Ukrainian pressure. And suddenly, a return to the borders stolen by Russia in 2014 does not seem exaggerated.
For months, the received wisdom was that Russia “would never let that happen.” But now Crimea looks oddly vulnerable – connected to Russia by the land corridor that runs along the Sea of Azov through the Mariupol coastline and an exposed bridge over the Kerch Strait. What remains of Moscow’s overstretched, exhausted, ill-supplied and equipped forces deeper in Ukraine could face the same deadly encirclement as its supply chain around Kharkiv.
As far as Kyiv pushes now, we have had a sea change in the dynamics of European security. Russia is no longer a NATO peer.
Last week, Russia was not even the equal of its NATO-armed neighbor – a power mainly in agriculture and IT last December – which it has been slowly tormenting for eight years. The British Ministry of Defense said on Monday that elements of Russia’s First Guards Tank Army – an elite unit intended to defend Moscow from any NATO attack – took part in the chaotic withdrawal from Kharkiv. They ran.
The defense budgets of NATO member states are slowly approaching the 2% suggested for years. But will those billions really be needed to deal with an army that needed shells from Pyongyang after just six months in Ukraine?
It would also be a mistake to misinterpret the silence inside Russia – a few critical analysts, politicians and talk shows aside – as a sign of a sullen residual force that is about to be unleashed. It is not a system capable of looking in the mirror. The Kremlin remains silent on these issues because it cannot face the chasm between its ambitions and rhetoric, and the scruffy, hungry mercenaries it seems to have left stranded around Kharkiv.
The fact that they don’t talk about their mistakes amplifies them. The Ferris wheel President Vladimir Putin inaugurated in Moscow this weekend doesn’t go invisible when it breaks down and can’t spin. The same can be said of the monolithic, uncompromising force that Putin is trying to project: when it crumbles, it’s not in private.
The most egregious foreign policy mistakes of recent centuries were born out of hubris, but Europe today faces a series of hard choices. Will they keep pushing until Russia demands a peace that leaves its neighbors safe and the energy pipelines open again? Or do they retain the old faulty logic that a humiliated and injured bear is even more dangerous? Would a possible successor to Putin – not that we know of one – seek a detente with Europe and prioritize the Russian economy, or prove his worth in another reckless and outright act of brutal militarism? ?
It is also a key moment for non-proliferation and nuclear power in the post-Cold War era. What does a nuclear power do when it is vulnerable and lacks convincing conventional power? Russia faces no existential threat now: its borders are intact and its military is hampered only by a savage misadventure of choice. But he seems close to the limits of his conventional abilities.