Russian military strategists argue that modern wars are decided in the high-intensity initial period; and the multi-pronged large-scale offensive into Ukraine was indeed launched, on February 24, 2022, with the aim of achieving a decisive success in the first couple of weeks. Yet as the war crossed the symbolic 100 days milestone last weekend (June 4), nothing resembling a victory was discernible on Russia’s strategic horizon, even if the aims have been reduced to conquering the devastated Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Russian troops keep pushing into the ruins of Sievierodonetsk behind heavy artillery barrages, but they cannot deliver anything resembling the elegant enveloping operations that are so highly valued by Russia’s military theorists (Svoboda.org, June 3). The sequence of minor tactical successes over the last couple of weeks may, in fact, bring strategic defeat closer, as tired battalion tactical groups take more casualties and can only be merged together rather than reinforced due to the lack of reserves (Riddle, June 3).
Russian high command has given up on concepts describing the modern battlefield as an interplay of high-technology weapons systems, and it has fallen back on Soviet-era field manuals prescribing massive applications of firepower. This archaizing of operational planning is accompanied by the de-modernization of Russian force structures: legacy weapon systems are being reintroduced, while vintage armaments such as T-62 tanks are recovered from old depots (Ferra.ru, May 30). The Russian Air Force can neither establish control over the airspace nor provide effective ground support, so it is artillery that dominates the open but densely built-up front lines of the battle for Donbas (Meduza, June 3). Numerical advantage in large guns is still on the Russian side, but the accelerated delivery of various Western artillery systems, including M777 howitzers from the United States and its allies, will soon give the Ukrainian army a significant edge (Izvestia, May 19). What makes Russian command even more nervous is Washington’s decision to supply Ukraine with the M142 HIMARS guided missiles with a range of 70 kilometers, which could punish the Russian tactics of amassing artillery in fixed positions (Svoboda.org, June 1).
The Kremlin has issued a stream of warnings that the delivery of US missiles heightens the risks of escalation (RBC, May 1). But President Joseph Biden pointedly excluded the possibility of supplying Ukraine with medium-range missiles that could strike deep into Russian territory, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has denied any intentions of executing such attacks (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 1). The real aim of those Russian warnings is to exacerbate concerns among the presumably risk-averse Europeans and to convert natural fatigue with the protracted war into a reluctance to sustain and increase support for the hard-pressed Ukrainians. Moscow-based pundits have eagerly pounced on former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s opinion that Ukraine should buy peace with territorial concessions, pointing to his remarks as evidence of Western pressure on Zelenskyy to accept Russian-dictated compromises (Valdaiclub.com, May 30). Such wishful thinking, however, diverges widely from the reality of transatlantic populations’ and governments’ largely unwavering embrace of Ukraine. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, frustrated with the futility of his telephone diplomacy, rebuked President Vladimir Putin for the latter’s “historic mistake” in launching the 2022 re-invasion (RBC, June 3).
Disagreements among the Europeans are serious, but in fact less tumultuous than usual, and the European Union managed to approve last week its sixth package of sanctions, disappointing many expert opinions in Moscow (Kommersant, May 30). The main content of this latest package (besides a long list of personal penalties) consists of various restrictions on the export of Russian oil and natural gas, including a documented commitment by most EU member states to reduce or eliminate their dependency upon these supplies in the shortest possible timeframe. The pledge goes further than most observers had expected amidst a situation of market volatility and rising inflation (The Bell, May 31). But the Europeans’ resolve is underpinned by the assumption that, with the Russian energy sector so badly hit by the departure of Western partners and service companies, its oil and gas production is set to contract sharply, so Russia cannot possibly be a reliable supplier (Rosbalt, May 31).
The inevitable decline in petro-revenues will be painful for the Russian budget, but it is not necessarily the most impactful economic setback. The Russian transport system is progressively disorganized by the breakdown of supply chains and the closure of many plants built by Western companies, which have opted to discontinue business in Russia. Millions of Russian car owners are beginning to experience the consequences of this first-hand (The Insider, May 30). Putin held another virtual government meeting last week, focused on the traditionally underfunded agenda of road construction. But the allocation of proverbial truckloads of rubles cannot advance the problem too far in the absence of necessary equipment and technology (Kommersant, June 2).
Putin appears to have no grasp of the depth of his country’s economic problems beyond the direct costs associated with the Russian military offensive against Ukraine. But he has fewer concerns about the exasperation of his ministers than about the rising anger among the top brass. He cannot blame his generals for their failure in conquering Donbas and unleash Stalin-style purges, because the pool of experienced Russian commanders has been depleted as war casualties; replacing them with loyal siloviki from the special services is not an option (Meduza, June 1). Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu continues to command respect in the officer corps. He is aware not only of the fighting generals’ frustration with the lack of reserves and resources but also of the discontent in the vast state bureaucracy caused by ineffectual leadership and official denials of the unfolding disaster (Svoboda.org, June 2).
Putin’s war looks to have become unwinnable, whatever spin the agitated propaganda puts on every square kilometer of “liberated” Donbas. Ukraine, meanwhile, shows courage and tenacity in defensive battles, demonstrates strategic patience in letting the tired Russian army exhaust its last reserves in senseless attacks, and trains fresh battalions equipped with Western weapons. The threat of a penetrating Ukrainian counteroffensive is apparent for Russian commanders, but they cannot prepare defensive positions because the orders demand pushing forward. Neither Russia’s gradually degrading economy, nor the badly damaged military machine can sustain the protracted war of attrition, and this is the course Putin is committed to. His only hope is that Ukraine will break under the pain of bombing, but he seems unable to understand the unbreakable will of the Ukrainians to uphold their state.