As Ukraine advances, Putin continues to retreat into a corner

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The war in Ukraine could be entering a crucial new phase. Last week, Ukraine’s counter-offensive met with overwhelming success around the northeastern city of Kharkiv, taking Russian forces across vast territory stretching to the Russian border. In addition to significant casualties, Russian troops lost significant amounts of materiel, including dozens of tanks and armored vehicles. One resident of a liberated town described the Russian withdrawal to my colleagues as so hasty that “their pants flew off.”

Not since the early days of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor – when stubborn Ukrainian defenders repulsed Russian columns advancing on the capital Kyiv – has there been this level of optimism about Ukraine’s ability to win. On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled to the recaptured city of Izyum and greeted his compatriots at the front. “The heroes are here,” said Zelenskyj at a flag ceremony. “It means the enemy is gone, ran away.”

Russia has presented its losses as part of a strategic “regrouping”. But analysts are clear that the recent Ukrainian offensive has exposed some of the mounting problems within the Russian war effort, which are being hampered by organizational weaknesses not anticipated by many Western military experts before the Russian invasion began.

“Many of the key elements of a strong defense are the skills of your soldiers, the skills of logistics and command, and we’ve seen breaches in all of these elements playing out over time in many places in the East,” a senior US official said -Defense officer my colleagues.

Recent successes also offered another display of Ukrainian skill and daring. “It is too early to say if this is a turning point in the war,” said a Western official to the British Economist, “but it is a moment that is strong both operationally, logistically and psychologically. … Ukraine has shown impressive operational skill.”

The Ukrainian offensive has thwarted Russia’s plans to annex Kharkiv

Many Ukraine supporters hope Kyiv can play to their advantage. Even as Ukraine’s armed forces consolidate their gains in the north-east, they hope to gain further ground in the southern Kherson region. Experts believe Russia is on the back foot, reeling from recent setbacks, facing exhaustion, plummeting morale and the steady deterioration of its combat capability.

“What we’re seeing around Kharkiv is the psychological breaking point of certain Russian forces,” said Gen. HR McMaster, a former White House national security adviser in the Trump administration. McMaster was speaking at a roundtable Monday at Stanford University hosted by the Hoover Institution, a right-wing think tank, which Today’s WorldView attended.

McMaster called for an increase in shipments of arms and military equipment to Ukraine, including heavy armor and tanks demanded by Kyiv, to “maintain momentum and initiative.” He also suggested Ukraine’s allies are helping the country “project power at greater depths across the Black Sea,” pushing the Russian fleet away from Ukraine’s coast, and targeting Russian bases in annexed Crimea with threats of missile attacks “unsustainable.” close.

Russia is so vulnerable, McMaster quipped that “I think the Lithuanian army could march on St. Petersburg now.”

Of course that doesn’t happen. President Biden warned this week that it is premature to speak of victory and that the war “will be a long road”. Zelenskyy acknowledged how “extremely difficult” the fighting for Kharkiv had been for his country’s troops and urged the soldiers, whom he addressed on Wednesday, to take care of themselves as they prepare for new battles.

Here’s what Russian soldiers left behind when they retreated from Izyum

Russian President Vladimir Putin now faces a narrower, stricter set of options for litigating the war of his choice. For months, Putin has clung to fictions of inevitable triumph over Ukraine’s “artificial” state, peddling contradictory storylines to his compatriots – that the war they are fighting is an existential struggle for Russia’s future and yet also a mere “special operation” of the Kremlin’s is well at hand. As the edifice of Putin’s propaganda begins to crumble, he finds himself in a scenario in which he can neither bear defeat nor seek decisive victory.

Ultranationalist radicals close to the Kremlin complain about the defeats in Kharkiv and call for drastic measures, including a general mobilization of the Russian public. “In a sign of pressure from pro-war pros on Putin to crack down, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a longtime Putin ally, on Wednesday called for martial law and mandatory military mobilization, moves so far ruled out by the Kremlin. ‘ remarked my colleague Robyn Dixon.

“Putin certainly has the will to continue this war, but he operated largely under the illusion that the Russian military would win and would eventually win,” Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the Center for Naval Analyzes in Arlington, told my colleagues. Once that illusion is dispelled, the political cost to the incumbent autocrat could increase.

“Many Russians have been pretty lukewarm about either supporting or not caring about this war, and they see their lives as largely untouched because they believe their children won’t be sent to fight,” Kofman said . “People’s attitudes really change when they believe their children are going to be sent into battle.”

Meanwhile, Putin himself seems mired in strategic confusion and increasingly isolated. “Putin is completely unclear about where we are going, what our goals are and how we are going to win,” political scientist Tatiana Stanovaya told Robyn. “He broke away from the elites. And following Putin without knowing where we are going cannot last forever.”

A recurring question is whether Putin would resort to unthinkable measures, who decides to use a nuclear weapon as his ability to defeat Ukraine diminishes. Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow, argued at the same Hoover Roundtable that Putin is not “that crazy”. A nuclear attack would make him a “global outcast” and likely sever ties with countries that have remained relatively warm to Moscow, such as China and India.

Invading Ukraine, McFaul sees Putin repeating the ill-fated maneuver of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who attempted to conquer Afghanistan in 1980 only to end up embroiled in a long war that heralded the dissolution of the USSR.

“This is the end of Putinism,” McFaul said, although he warned it was unclear when Putin would actually fall. McMaster, meanwhile, argued that no Western government should try to force the warring parties into a compromise that could allow Putin to save face. “For Putin, every exit means looking for the next ramp,” he said.

“A new reality has been created: the Ukrainians could win this war,” wrote Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum. She added: “We have to reckon that a Ukrainian victory, and certainly a victory in the Ukrainian understanding of the term, also means the end of Putin’s regime.”

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