Russia Reels From New Post-Vilnius Challenges

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 114

(Source: Republic)

The outcome of the NATO summit in Vilnius on July 11 and 12 left the Russian leadership confused and anxious. The controversial issue on Ukraine’s membership in the alliance was left pending, as had been planned. Thus, some official mouthpieces in Moscow and many “patriotic-military” bloggers have rushed to pronounce the meeting as an “epic fail” (Izvestiya, July 12;, July 15). Debates among more serious experts, however, suggested that Ukraine received greater support for its desire to join NATO than it could have expected and that a further step in consolidating the United States leadership within the alliance was achieved (, July 13). Despite the self-deceiving propaganda, the Kremlin must face several new challenges, for which the “experts” cannot recommend any effective countermeasures.

One such challenge is the reinforcement of the message that the pro-Ukrainian coalition is much broader than just NATO, even if the alliance has gained the position of power along its newly extended border with Russia (, July 15). The key question of security guarantees to Ukraine was addressed in Vilnius firstly by the Group of Seven countries, and it was Japan, which currently presides over this “club” of democracies, that made this political commitment possible (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 13). South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol opted to travel from Vilnius to Kyiv, and the key message from his visit was about Seoul’s readiness to increase its export of ammunition to Europe, where the arsenals have been depleted due to the sustained supply for Ukraine (Meduza, July 15).

China has expressed its reservations about the intentions to strengthen NATO’s role in the Asia-Pacific, but the signal from Vilnius on the consequences of expanding its partnership with Russia has been duly registered in Beijing (Moskovsky komsomolets, July 15). Moscow pins much hope on the escalation of tensions between China and the US, and the participation of several ships from the Pacific Fleet in Chinese naval exercises in the Sea of Japan is meant to confirm Russia’s relevance in this contestation (RIA Novosti, July 15). China has, however, shown a preference for normalizing relations, and the meeting between US State Secretary Antony Blinken and top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi on the margins of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations talks in Jakarta, Indonesia, was yet another step in that direction—much to the chagrin of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (Kommersant, July 13).

Another challenge is the distinct shift in Turkey’s balancing act signified by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assertion that Ukraine deserves membership in NATO (RBC, July 8). What made this embrace of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s ambition particularly unpleasant for Moscow was Erdogan’s surprising benevolence regarding Swedish accession (Rossiiskaya gazeta, July 11). Cultivating a personal relationship with Erdogan, President Vladimir Putin was prepared to overlook Turkey’s military ties with Ukraine, but his consent for returning to Ukraine five commanders of the Azov regiment, who had been captured after the heroic defense of Mariupol in the spring of 2022 and exchanged on the condition that they remain under strict isolation in Turkey, was a bitter pill to swallow (, July 10). Russian “patriotic-military” bloggers decried the Turkish “betrayal” and demanded harsh retribution; however, the only step Putin was prepared to take was to threaten yet again to cancel the “grain deal” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 12;, July 15).

Turkey’s expanding military support to Ukraine sharpens yet another challenge for Russia: the heavy losses in artillery duels that have slowed the Ukrainian offensive operations but may open breaches in Russia’s defenses (RBC, July 15). The supply of cluster munitions from the US stocks can grant Ukrainian artillery a new edge, and the uncensored reports from some Russian battalions are already confirming their impact and complaining about poor artillery support (Svoboda, July 12;, July 14). The expected US decision to deliver the MGM-140 ATACMS missiles will add to Ukraine’s longer-range capabilities, which have been boosted by the supply of the Storm Shadow and SCALP air-launched missiles from the United Kingdom and France, respectively (The Moscow Times, July 11). Ukrainian artillery can presently target Russian supply hubs only to the depth of some 50 kilometers from the trenches, and it is up to the air force to deliver hits on command posts in the rear—such as the strike that hit Berdyansk on July 11, putting an end to the career of Lieutenant-General Oleg Tsokov, deputy commander of the Southern Military District (Komsomolskaya Pravda, July 14).

The generals who are exposed to high-precision strikes and see the limited resilience of their troops are increasingly frustrated with the top brass who are playing politics and reassuring the commander-in-chief of the impenetrability of the defensive lines (, July 13). This discontent among the fighting generals constitutes yet another challenge for the Russian leadership, which is still shaken by the Wagner Group mutiny caused by the clash between Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had cultivated ties with such key figures in the high command as General Sergei Surovikin (, July 14). Surovikin’s fate will be decided by Putin, but it is Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov who seeks to suppress such demarches from his subordinates as the critical report by Major-General Ivan Popov, who was abruptly removed from as commander of the 58th Combined Arms Army (Meduza, July 13). Major-General Vladimir Seliverstov, commander of the 106th Airborne Division, which engaged in hard fighting around Bakhmut, may be another casualty in the unfolding crisis in the Russian High Command (Vazhnye istorii, July 15).

The Vilnius NATO summit, even if some among Ukraine’s staunchest supporters are disappointed with its proceedings, has added considerably to the sum of challenges Russia has to deal with, and the confusion in the chain of military command reflects this shift in the balance of power. Fighting generals may care little about the precise extent of security guarantees granted to Ukraine, and Putin’s court may be blissfully unaware of the lost artillery duels, but the premonition of defeat is spreading from the trenches to the Kremlin’s corridors. Neither the demoralized and diminished battalions nor the servile and corrupt top brass are fit to withstand the protracted pressure of a long war. The combination of a breakthrough and a breakdown may transpire suddenly or evolve more gradually, but the drivers propelling it have gained a new acceleration, and, in Vilnius, Ukraine has acquired new capabilities for punishing the aggressor and new confidence in shaping its European future.