The immense success of the Ukrainian army’s counter-offensive in the northeast of the country enabled an incursion into Russian-held territory, the scale and speed of which surprised everyone. Within days, the Ukrainian army took over more than 2,500 square kilometersin particular the city ofIziouma crucial supply platform for the Russians, as well as close to the entire province of Kharkov which adjoins the border – although the Ukrainian soldiers have not yet advanced there.
This reversal was of such force and speed that the Moscow propaganda machine had no time to issue new instructions and left the television experts and the russian bloggers -some of them, in any case- to manage on their own to analyze the depth of the setback, lament the retreat of the troops and even vociferate against the soldiers and officials who claimed, from the start of the war, that the Ukrainians would not retaliate, that the Russian forces would not bombard the towns, and that a quick victory was certain.
Life comes at you fast: pundits on Russian TV realize that their military is failing and their country is in trouble. They are starting to play the blame game. Some of them finally understand that their genocidal denial of the Ukrainian identity isn’t working in Russia’s favor. pic.twitter.com/jNNn5xifI5
—Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) September 11, 2022
No one has dared to reproach President Vladimir Putin for these perfidy: he remains untouchable for anyone who does not want to end up behind bars. But it is now legitimate to ask (because it is no longer an optimistic fantasy) how long it will be necessary to wait before some people in Russia begin to wonder, first in the intimacy of the family, then in public , if the man in the Kremlin – who, after all, reigns with an iron fist over all of Russian politics – would not also be responsible for this catastrophic war.
A thick fog
Again, it would be premature for an outside observer to reach these conclusions too quickly. First of all, the war is far from over. Ukraine is on the right track, but it should be noted that the situation has turned in one direction and then the other several times in the seven months of the invasion launched by Vladimir Putin.
At first, Ukraine put up amazing resistance and diverted Russian tanks from kyiv. But Moscow’s forces seemed unstoppable in the south. Mid-June, the latter then seemed to come out of an impasse which dragged on in the east and pushed the Ukrainian defenses slowly but surely out of the Donbass region.
Now the tide is turning in favor of Ukraine. But if the turn is spectacular, it is not necessarily definitive. To begin with, the fog that shrouds this war is particularly thick: so much is still invisible to analysts and independent journalists. Then, if the Russians are in trouble when it comes to armaments, soldiers and supplies, they are still not about to be short.
They still have an advantage over the Ukraine in sheer firepower, in addition to another, geographical one. Because if the Russians can attack the interior of Ukraine with impunity, kyiv cannot retaliate on the other side of the border without risking losing the support of its American and European allies, who fear the outbreak of a war in larger scale.
The three explanations for a dramatic turnaround
Still, it’s worth re-emphasizing that the turnaround is truly spectacular – indeed extremely, although not yet final. It is due to several reasons. First of all, by the influx of weapons from the West – in particular long-range, high-precision missileswho touched more than 400 Russian targetsincluding ammunition depots (which sometimes caused secondary explosions) and logistics terminals.
Furthermore, according to one battlefield observer, a good number of Soviet-era T-72 tanks –supplied to Ukraine by Poland– played a crucial role in breaking through the Russian defences. So do such mundane supplies as guns, bullets, night vision goggles, and radios.
Assistance was also provided by US intelligence and special operations forces. I think that years from now, when the history of this war is written, these factors will appear much more clearly than they do today. It has been widely shown that since the beginning of the conflict, American agencies have provided the Ukrainian command, almost in real timeintelligence on everything related to the Russian offensive – the location and direction of the soldiers, and what the officers say to their subordinates.
On September 10, as the scale of Ukraine’s successes was revealed, the New York Times reported that the country’s leaders had also relied on US intelligence to plan and conduct the current counter-offensive. It was also learned that US Special Forces had trained some Ukrainian units Has deception operations and other essential techniques.
Given that the Ukrainian units fought in an extremely coordinated manner and the Russian units disintegrated during the battle, it can be inferred that these tools were arguably as crucial as the most advanced weapon systems.
The monolith cracks
The third explanation is even less quantifiable: it is about “morale”. Ukrainians know why they are fighting. A cause drives all soldiers, wherever they are, to fight with a very particular ferocity, to defend their country, their homes and their families.
In contrast, many (perhaps most) Russian soldiers don’t know what they are doing on the battlefield. Many of those who withdrew from Kharkiv over the weekend of September 10, as from the area around kyiv in the early days of the war, just threw down their guns Where abandoned their tanks and ran away.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin has imposed a tightly knit version of history in which the Ukrainian nation is a myth, the Nazi-led “kyiv regime” and NATO will do anything to use war as an excuse to invade Russia.
It’s hard to know how many soldiers, military leaders and ordinary citizens believe it. The polls must surely exaggerate: those who have doubts about the propaganda won’t tell a stranger who calls them on the phone and asks them what they really think. The debates about the war that appeared on television over the weekend of September 10, in shows that once tolerated no contradiction, suggest, however, that the monolith may be cracking.
Oligarchs who depend
What direction will the war take? The answer depends entirely on Putin’s calculations and whims. No single man had ruled Russia with such impunity since the days of the tsars. Even Joseph Stalin had to answer – albeit rhetorically – to a Politburo.
Putin is surrounded by oligarchs, but they are the ones who depend on him, not the other way around. Recently, one of them, who openly criticized Putin, was thus forced to sell his assets for next to nothing. Others were less fortunate: a number of executives died in mysterious circumstances, including Lukoil resident ‘fell’ out of hospital window this month.
The elites still have access to their luxuries and as long as they do, they are highly unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them. If conditions worsen and some get so annoyed that they feel rebellion rising in their face, they will still think twice before hatching a plot, for fear of being denounced by one of their comrades.
There could also be a revolt in the streets, but such events are rare in Russian history – there were 1905, 1917, 1991 and not much else. That said, uprisings have always appeared abruptly in the country. Who knows when the next one will be, or why? One thing is certain: it is better not to count on it.
What will Putin do if things continue to go wrong for his army? It is a question of recruiting or mobilizing some 130,000 additional soldiers, but it would take about a year to round them up, train them, and equip them for battle, and it might be too late. Many in the West fear that, out of desperation, he will resort to chemical weapons or nuclear. He has already bombed civilian targets on several occasions, for lack of anything else to do. On the weekend of September 10, as his troops retreated from Kharkiv, his leaders thus aimed at power plants and caused power cuts in towns taken over by the Ukrainians.
The unlikely diplomatic outcome
Will Putin continue to outbid? He has enough weapons to do so, even without much effectiveness. Will he seek a diplomatic way out? Two things make it doubtful. First, if he appears weak, he could lose control of his levers of power in Russia. Second, the more Ukraine advances on the battlefield, the less President Volodymyr Zelensky will be willing to compromise.
In the wake of the Sept. 10 weekend triumphs, Kyiv spokesmen have defined victory as restoring Ukraine’s 2014 borders — which involves reclaiming Russia’s annexed Crimea and all areas of Donbass captured by Russian-backed rebels that year. An outcome that Putin – or even a hypothetical successor – would be unlikely to accept.
Maybe, as journalist Anne Applebaum writes in The Atlanticis it “time to prepare for a victory for Ukraine” (by the way, the title of the magazine goes further than the argument of its article: “It’s not a prediction, it’s a warning”, y she says.) It makes at least as much sense to prepare for a very long war.