• Vladimir Putin’s war is failing. The West should help it fail faster
•Where next for Ukraine’s army?
Ukraine’s friends should reinforce its success by sending more and better weapons
One of the many excuses Vladimir Putin has given for invading the country next door is that Ukraine and Russia are “one nation”, which should be united under his benign rule. “Do you still think that?” asked Ukraine’s president, as his troops swept thousands of Russian invaders from Kharkiv province this week. Volodymyr Zelensky’s triumphant sarcasm was justified. The Kharkiv counter-offensive, which began on September 5th, marks the most dramatic Russian reversal since Mr Putin abandoned his effort to seize Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, at the end of March.Listen to this story.
Its significance is not just the liberation of 6,000 square kilometres of territory in a few days—more than Russia had gained in the previous five months. Nor is it Ukraine’s seizure of the tanks, guns and boxes of ammunition that the Russian soldiers left behind as they fled in disorder. Ukraine has also recaptured two transport hubs, Izyum and Kupyansk, which Russia needs if it is to complete its conquest of the Donbas region and integrate it into Russia. Mr Putin’s plans to stage phoney “referendums” on annexing occupied parts of southern and eastern Ukraine are now on hold, as Ukraine counter-attacks in both areas. Predictions in war are always risky, but the tide seems to have turned. Russia’s occupation is everywhere held in check, and Ukraine is gradually—and sometimes suddenly—rolling it back.
Ukraine’s battlefield advances rest on two pillars; materiel and men. In hardware it has an ever-increasing edge. America and other friendly states have sent it rockets with enough range and accuracy to shift the terms of engagement. Ukraine can see and reliably hit enemy ammunition dumps, command centres and logistics nodes far behind the front lines; Russia cannot. Russia’s supposed air superiority has been suppressed by mobile air defences. And whereas Russia is running down its stocks of weapons, Ukraine’s are growing both more plentiful and more powerful, as superior nato equipment replaces its old Warsaw Pact kit.
Ukraine’s manpower advantage is growing, too. Mr Putin’s original invasion force of 200,000 was never big enough to occupy Ukraine. (He imagined, apparently, that the Ukrainian opposition would obligingly collapse.) Russia’s losses have been terrible; by one estimate 70,000-80,000 of its soldiers have been killed or wounded. Despite raiding jails and offering huge bonuses, Mr Putin is struggling to replace them.
Ukraine, by contrast, has its entire adult male population to call on. Their morale is sky-high and, thanks partly to nato, they are well-equipped and increasingly well-trained. They will only gain in confidence as Russia falters. They are fighting for their homes and fellow citizens. Russia’s troops are fighting for a basket of lies: that Ukraine is run by “Nazis”, that it poses a threat to Russia, that its people want to be “liberated” by Russia. Mr Putin could in theory order a general mobilisation and force many more young Russians into battle; but he knows this would be wildly unpopular, which is why he has not yet done it. Even if he did, it would take many months to recruit, train, equip and deploy the reluctant and terrified reinforcements.
Victory for Ukraine is not yet certain, but a path is discernible. Evicting Russia entirely from Ukraine will be hard. It will mean pushing it out of territory where it is far better dug in and organised than in Kharkiv. A general collapse of the Russian forces cannot be ruled out, but is improbable.
The West should, therefore, reinforce success. Ukraine has shown that it can use Western weapons to regain territory; the West should send better ones, such as longer-range atacms munitions for the himars launchers that have proved so effective, which it previously hesitated to supply. To avoid escalation, advanced nato weapons should not be fired into Russia; Ukraine will surely comply rather than alienate its arms supplier. It will also need a reliable flow of ammunition for future offensives and armoured vehicles to move forces fast. The West should also consider what Ukraine might need next year—and vastly expand the scale of training for Ukrainian troops abroad.
Momentum in war can be self-sustaining. If Ukrainians in occupied towns believe that the invaders are there to stay, some may eventually acquiesce or even collaborate. If they think the Russians will be booted out in a few months, they have the opposite incentive: resisters will expect to be on the winning side; collaborators, to be locked up. So the more stolen land Russia loses, the harder it will find it to hold on to the rest.
All the more reason for Europe to resist Mr Putin’s energy blackmail. Since he cut off Russian gas supplies, European governments have vowed to dig deep to prevent their citizens from freezing this winter, even as they scour the world for alternative energy supplies. You can quibble about the policy details, but the main thing is to maintain solidarity despite the pain.
Meanwhile, Mr Putin is suffering the first cracks in his carefully cultivated aura of invincibility. He has smothered most dissent, yet disquiet is being aired. Hawkish voices are criticising the conduct of the war. Ramzan Kadyrov, a fearsome Chechen warlord whose men have fought and terrorised Ukrainians, has called the situation on the ground “astounding”. A nationalist on Russian television suggested tactfully that Mr Putin had been badly advised. A few brave local politicians in Moscow and St Petersburg have even called for the man in the Kremlin to resign.
An old man’s delusions
Russia’s economy has weathered the sanctions better than expected, but it is slowly stagnating and the energy prices that benefited Russia have fallen. The West should try to drive a wedge between the regime and the Russian people. Western leaders should stress that their quarrel is with Mr Putin, not his subjects. Western countries should welcome Russian defectors, especially the most educated. Russians who serve the regime, by contrast, should be denied visas. With luck, Russia’s elite will eventually tire of isolation, as its security forces tire of being thrust into an unwinnable war by a tyrant with delusions of historical grandeur. Russia can end this conflict any time it chooses. But peace will not be on the terms Mr Putin originally envisaged.
Where next for Ukraine’s army?
After a lightning advance, Ukrainian forces must decide whether to dig in or press on
One month ago analysts wondered whether Ukraine had the capacity for a big offensive. Now they ask how far it will go. Ukraine’s army has swept through north-eastern Kharkiv province in a lightning advance, liberating huge swathes of territory. In the south it is squeezing Russian units trapped on the west bank of the Dnieper river in Kherson. Russia’s army is depleted, disoriented and demoralised. But Ukraine’s general staff must decide whether to husband their resources or press home their advantage with a third attack.
The offensive in Kharkiv appears to have largely run its course, for now, with Russian units having retreated east of the Oskil river and reservoir. But fighting continues along the ragged edges of the new front lines. Ukraine’s army has captured Studenok and Sosnove on the east bank of the Donets river (into which the Oskil flows). It is also attacking in the north of Donetsk province around the town of Lyman. These moves threaten Russian positions in neighbouring Luhansk province—positions that were captured over the summer, such as Lysychansk (Donetsk and Luhansk together make up the Donbas region). Partisan activity continues, too. On September 16th explosions in Russian-occupied Luhansk city killed the region’s top prosecutor along with his deputy.
It is unclear whether this activity is intended to pin down Russian forces, probe their strength or pave the way for another offensive. Ukrainian troops are eager to capitalise on their momentum, taking advantage of the disarray in the Russian ranks. Some had hoped that the Russian lines in Luhansk would also collapse, allowing Ukraine to drive farther south.
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, began this war by recognising the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic (dnr) and Luhansk People’s Republic (lnr), a pair of separatist statelets armed and backed by Russia since 2014. The republics have been the main rallying cause for Russia’s nationalist zealots, such as Igor Strelkov, a former commander in Donbas, and Zakhar Prilepin, a writer-turned-warmonger. “The main goal is the liberation of the entire territory of Donbas,” Mr Putin reiterated on September 16th. If he proved unable to defend it, the war would lose much of its purpose.
Russian positions in Luhansk are probably defended in larger numbers and better fortified than those in Kharkiv, so may not crack as easily. Many of the units that fled Kharkiv have now been sent to shore up Donetsk. And Russian proxy militia from dnr and lnr, who fled Kharkiv in disarray—some abandoned by regular soldiers—are more likely to stand and fight on their home turf in Donbas. A great deal depends on whether Russia’s high command can stabilise the situation and keep panic from spreading.
Ukraine’s options depend on how much it has left in the tank; no one knows for sure. Ukraine committed up to three brigades to the Kharkiv offensive, according to Christian Freuding, a German brigadier-general who leads the Ukraine team in the German ministry of defence. Some of those forces will need rest and replenishment; others will still be engaged in the residual fighting. A Ukrainian military source suggests that another issue is the urgent matter of digging in at the newly liberated border around Kharkiv city. Building defences will probably divert serious resources for up to two weeks, he says.
“I don’t want to say too much about Ukrainian reserves for obvious reasons,” said one Western official, speaking on September 12th, “but they do have some elements held in reserve which they can deploy forward.” But Ukraine, he notes, like Russia, faces a dilemma over when and where to send these—“what to reinforce and where to accept greater risks”. Other officials warn of the dangers of Ukrainian overreach.
Ukraine’s biggest military effort is still in the southern province of Kherson, where a separate offensive is about to enter its third week. Whereas the Kharkiv attack relied on speed and surprise to punch through Russian lines at a weak point, the Kherson offensive is a more cautious endeavour. It is spread across a much larger front, designed to proceed more slowly, and focused less on territory than on making life as uncomfortable as possible for the Russian soldiers based there.
It is in large part a battle of attrition. Small units are mounting raids into Russian-held territory and Ukrainian rockets have relentlessly hammered ammunition stores and bridges over the Dnieper to cut off Russian supplies. The vdv, the elite Russian airborne forces deployed to Kherson, is taking sustained casualties (though so too is Ukraine). “Morale is low, they are fragmented and…struggling to move forces [west] across the river,” says the Western official, describing the 20,000-strong Russian presence on the west bank. Ukraine may be waiting for Russia’s logistical problems in Kherson to become desperate before attempting a big push by ground forces.
There are other options, too. Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, had originally wanted his army to mount an ambitious offensive through Zaporizhia province that would cut Russian forces in Ukraine into two, slice through Russia’s so-called land bridge to Crimea and eventually recapture Mariupol, the port city which lies on the southern edge of Donbas. Ukrainian generals, and Western advisors, persuaded him that Ukraine did not have sufficient units for such a bold attack, and that it would be reckless.
Ukraine opted instead for the campaign in Kherson, along with the more opportunistic attack on Kharkiv, which initially had much more modest aims. But it still wants to shatter Russian lines in the south. “The big Zaporizhia push to Melitopol is still on unless we see a wider collapse of Russian front lines,” says Franz-Stefan Gady of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank, referring to the city that lies roughly equidistant between Kherson and Mariupol. “The question is when and whether enough reserve brigades can be generated to conduct such an offensive in the coming months.”
Ukraine’s artillery pieces are undoubtedly creaking after months of intense use. The demands of two concurrent offensive operations will also have eaten through large amounts of ammunition. But there is little sign that Western support is slowing down. On September 15th America announced yet another arms package for Ukraine, this one worth $600m, including shells and rockets, counter-artillery radars and cold-weather gear.
It is Ukraine that is now dictating the pace. Russian missiles continue to slam into Ukrainian infrastructure, including strikes on a reservoir in Kryvyi Rih, Mr Zelensky’s hometown, upstream from Kherson, on September 14th and 15th. In some places Russian troops continue to advance. They have been attacking Bakhmut in Donetsk, part of a north-south defensive line that shields the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, for several weeks. They have made progress in recent days, with Russian sources claiming that the industrial fringes of Bakhmut are now being fought over. Yet these attacks are predictable, plodding and costly in terms of casualties. They are unlikely to change the contours of the war.
One European military official says that the Russian withdrawal from Kharkiv province, now largely complete, puts paid to Russian aspirations west of the Dnieper—aspirations that looked implausible even before this month. But, adds the official, Mr Putin has not given up on the idea of severing Ukraine from the Black Sea by taking the port city of Odessa. Russia’s army has considered attacking not through Mykolaiv city, west of Kherson, where it was halted in the early months of the war, but through the northern part of Mykolaiv oblast.
In truth, Russia has neither the manpower nor the agility for a Kharkiv-like breakthrough. It is raising reserve battalions, grouped under a new 3rd Army Corps, based in Mulino and equipped with fairly powerful weapons. Ukrainian officials had thought the new corps might be held back and used for a big offensive. Instead it seems to have been fed into Ukraine piecemeal. Ukraine’s general staff says that some of the corps’ units have been sent to strengthen Russian defences in Donetsk and Zaporizhia, which neighbours Kherson province.
The depth of Russia’s manpower problems, laid bare by the stretched lines in Kharkiv, has been exposed further in recent days. One video circulating on Telegram, a messaging platform used widely by Russian military watchers, showed photographs of young Russian officers who had refused to serve in Ukraine pasted above urinals, as a form of ritual humiliation. They are thought to be from prestigious naval infantry units. “That officers who should be serving as company commanders or deputy commanders in elite units are refusing to deploy tells you something about the extent of the refusenik problem,” observes Rob Lee, an expert at King’s College London.
Another video showed a man who looks like Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group, a mercenary firm whose fighters have done much of the fighting in Donbas, addressing a group of convicts in a Russian prison. Mr Prigozhin, who once spent nine years in jail for robbery and fraud, offered the convicts their freedom if they served six months in Ukraine. “If you arrive in Ukraine and decide it’s not for you,” he added, “we will execute you.” In a later statement, Mr Prigozhin did not confirm the authenticity of the video but had words for Russians who may be squeamish about sending convicts to the front line. “It’s either private military companies and prisoners or your children,” he said. “Decide for yourself.”
Credit| The Economist