Ukraine’s current offensive, which is still gaining ground and capturing formerly occupied towns, has come as an unpleasant shock to the Russian military and civilian leadership. The Russian propaganda machine has spent the last several months claiming the operation to overthrow the “neo-Nazi” regime in Ukraine and install a government more friendly to Moscow was still on track.
But now that plan has gone off the rails, and the military has to find a way to regain the advantage while Vladimir Putin has to find a way to explain the failures to the Russian people.
In the good old days of the Communist dictatorship, the Soviet government would keep a lid on bad news by controlling what information the people see. Obviously, that’s not as easy to do today. So with the narrative blown to pieces and the military plan in ruins, Putin has to find a way forward.
“In Moscow, they are struggling for a way of understanding what is going on right now and a narrative to explain this even to themselves, let alone the public,” Nigel Gould-Davies, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies told the Wall Street Journal.
These latest setbacks in Kharkiv are worse than originally thought. It appears the retreat from Izyum — the most important base and staging area in Donbas — has blown up the entire eastern front
“Even the interim second-order goals that Russia had set itself, to absorb Donetsk and Luhansk, those are out of reach,” said Mr. Gould-Davies, a former British diplomat in Russia and Belarus. “The Kremlin now faces the hardest choices it has in the war,” he said. “Time is not on their side.”
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Indeed, perhaps the biggest choice facing Putin will be whether or not to take the drastic step of general mobilization. But taking that step would be admitting the seriousness of the situation and making the fight a matter of survival for himself.
The Kremlin is running out of troops and, according to the Ukrainian military, will not send any more units to the Ukraine front.
“The Military Command of the Russian Federation suspends sending new, already formed, units to the territory of Ukraine,” the Facebook post reads, as translated by Google. “The current situation in the military theatre and distrust for top command has forced a large number of volunteers to abandon the prospect of combat service.
“The situation is influenced by information on the actual number of casualties, excluding losses from private military companies and mobilized from temporarily occupied territories. The situation is getting worse because of the general attitude to [their] own wounded. In particular, in Russian hospitals, the diagnoses and nature of combat injuries are deliberately simplified, no time is given for rehabilitation to return soldiers to the combat zone faster.”
They may not send “new” units, but they could reinforce units already in Ukraine. Russia has “tried to supplement” their forces in Ukraine “with volunteers or mercenaries and even convicts on the battlefield,” reports the Journal. It’s hard to imagine any of these young, 18-19-year-old conscripts being particularly eager to shoulder arms and head into this meatgrinder.
We shouldn’t expect many generals to lose their jobs over the performance of their troops, either. Analysts point out that the officers in place now are probably the best of the lot and there just aren’t any good options further down the chain of command.
In a long war, good combat leaders would be identified and promoted. But there simply isn’t time for that.
“The Kremlin is not going to make a big deal of the situation publicly,” Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R. Politik, an independent analysis project, told the Journal. “So even if there are some concerns or panic…they tend not to show it publicly.”
Unless the Russian military can retrieve the situation, Putin will have to look for a solution that saves face or create a new narrative of Russian strength.