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Putin Needs Something to Call a Victory, But Will a New Offensive in the Donbas be Enough?

Henry Choisser

Since the onset of his invasion, Vladimir Putin’s forces have lost a staggering 595 tanks, 2,323 vehicles, 301 artillery and AA systems, 64 planes and helicopters, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, 15,000 dead, and, as of last month's figures, upwards of 45,000 casualties. With losses on par with the entire 10-year Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and perhaps a quarter of their pre-war combat strength, the Russian army has been forced to retreat from Kyiv and their anticipated war goal of decapitating the Ukrainian government by creating a puppet government in some whole or dissected form. 

Yet the Russian president is ever more determined to claw back the initiative in this conflict and find a way to declare victory. Beyond the natural instinct to make such a tremendous sacrifice seem worth the cost, the man in the Kremlin has a variety of anxieties and ambitions that make it nearly impossible for him to walk away from this very personal conflict without being able to claim some form of victory. As Chancellor Karl Nehammer of Austria put it after meeting directly with Putin on April 10, “He is now in his own war logic… In his point of view he has to defend the Russian Federation, [and] the Russians living in eastern Ukraine." He characterized Putin as more determined than ever to counter the West and to reestablish Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet bloc. 

Brian Klaas, Stathis N. Kalyvas, and CIA Director William Burns all reiterate the same chilling assessment that Putin sees the restoration of the “Russian empire” as his destiny, and is unwaveringly determined to cement that as his legacy. Analysts, such as Fiona Hill, are worried that Putin has been ever more isolated since the Covid pandemic began, spending hours poring over old maps of the past Russian “imperium.” In speeches, Putin seems lost in the twentieth century. He is obsessed with the Germanophile Ukrainian nationalism of the 1940s - hence his frequent references to Ukrainian Nazis and his stated goal of “denazifying” Ukraine. 

Unfortunately for him, the Russian army is a shadow of its Soviet past. During the height of the cold war, the Soviet Union had a standing military force in excess of 3.5 million. The entire pre-invasion Russian military comprised some 900,000 personnel, only 280,000 of which were in the army. However, part of Putin’s bullishness about the prospects of his forces may have come from unreliable intelligence provided by his personal advisors. 

One of the classic pitfalls of an authoritarian regime is that the leader requires trusted confidants and elites to help them run the ship. These people are placed in an incredibly powerful, but precarious position. Unlike in democratic systems where disagreement or criticism of your leadership may cost you your job, in autocratic and repressive regimes, those same kinds of dissension might cost your assets, freedom, or your life. In such a stressful work environment, those who merely nod their heads and give positive assessments of the leader’s plans are most likely to keep their positions of power. Yet, an authoritarian leader often feels the need for proof of loyalty, and will conduct public charades, such as the browbeating he gave to the chief of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin, at a Feb 21st security council meeting. These anxieties stem from the dangers that the political elite pose to the leader in an authoritarian regime - as they are the most capable of removing the leader should he lose their support. 

However, when the political elite is strongly pressured to tell the leader, advice they think he wants to hear, their can be a massive disconnect between that advice and reality. There is mounting evidence of a disconnect between the military capabilities that Putin thought he had at his disposal versus the reality of the Russian army's state of affairs. The logistical nightmare that plagued the first wave of assaults against Kyiv and other deeper targets was obvious to any observer of the conflict. Supply lines were stretched by over 100 miles from the nearest points of resupply in Belarus and Crimea, Russian soldiers looted stores because they had insufficient and expired rations, and conscripts contracted for defensive operations were deployed to the front lines of a war they were never told they would be fighting. According to Michael Kofman (director of Russia studies at CNA, a think tank in Virginia), the Russians, ended up provoking a serious fight in what is the largest country in Europe outside of Russia.” This harkens back to the previous assessment that Putin was both misinformed about the tenacity of the Ukrainian’s will to defend their national identity and overestimated the ability of his military to deliver a swift and decisive victory. 

This is evident in his delusional delusional appeals to Ukrainian Soldiers to lay down their arms by slandering the administration: “Once again I speak to the Ukrainian soldiers,” he said, addressing his adversaries. “Do not allow neo-Nazis and Banderites to use your children, your wives and the elderly as a human shield. Take power into your own hands. It seems that it will be easier for us to come to an agreement than with this gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.” It is almost laughable that Putin believes his overtures would be remotely effective considering that Volodimir Zelenskyy has emerged as a global and national hero with his pitch perfect strumming of Ukrainian Nationalism. However, what makes it humorless is the fact that this reflects his genuine view of Ukraine. Based on his choice to invade Ukraine and a Russian irredentist world view, it is reasonable to infer that Putin believes Ukraine is a fictitious country “[that] was wholly and fully created by Russia”, Ukrainians are in fact Russians in denial, and as such they lack the agency to be a sovereign state - at least one independent from the Russian sphere of influence. It is these misplaced beliefs that led Putin to misjudge the dangers of his gamble, and it is likely these same beliefs that will keep him in the conflict far longer than he should persist in his attempts to subdue Ukraine. 

At this point, Putin has found himself between a rock and a hard place. One of his primary goals is to maintain Russia’s current great power status and to regain influence over the lands of the former Russian “Imperium”. However, great powers cannot persist without economic growth (the lifeblood of national development and military power projection), yet inflation in just the last month reached 17.3% and international investment in Russia has come to a grinding halt. Likewise, great powers cannot retain their status after taking repeated black eyes and losing quartiles of their military force capacity for only marginal gains. Ukraine on the other hand only has to survive - they can withstand far greater relative losses without relenting - and would likely continue to sap resources and men from the Russian army through partisan action even after a formal capitulation. All of which points to a need for negotiations and a political settlement. Yet, unless Putin believes he can come out of that process with something to call a victory he is very unlikely to participate at all. 

Myself and other analysts believe that from his perspective, even meeting with President Zelenskyy is a sign of weakness and a symbol of spurned Russian authority (similar in application to US administrations which refuse to provide legitimacy to certain governments by meeting their President). After all, Zelenskyy is presiding over a rebellious province of the “Ruskky Mir,” and his existence is a stubborn challenge to the very foundation of the Kremlin’s narrative. Moreover, authoritarian leaders have a risky track record after losing foreign and expansionist wars. Unlike Western politicians who leave office to a wealthy retirement, autocratic leaders often lose their power through ill advised wars (just ask Tzar Nicholas II about the 1905 revolution after his defeat against the Japanese). 

For his part, Zelensky said that he wanted the talks to go on, but firmly noted that negotiations would not resume if the Azov Battalion and other defenders in Mariupol are killed or if Russian authorities in the occupied region of Kherson stage a separatist referendum. While casualties have been high and Putin’s ambitions have narrowed in Ukraine, intelligence assessments have concluded that the Russian president believes the West’s efforts to punish him and contain Russia will crack over time. With the assistance of China, India and other nations in Asia, he seems to believe he can circumvent total isolation, just as he did after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

As Moscow regrouped in mid-April for its new offensive in Eastern Ukraine, a number of questions arose about whether the Russian army would be able to change their logistics and operations to counteract the success of the Ukrainian defenses and counter offensives. And a number of changes have manifested in the last two weeks: a new Russian general, Alexander Dvornikov (known for his disregard for civilian casualties and widespread destruction) has been tapped to take over the faltering invasion of Ukraine; long range Russian bombers made their first appearance in the conflict over Mariupol, signalling their probable use in the second phase of the conflict; Putin signed a decree ordering the conscription of 134,500 additional soldiers (even though he said they will not participate in the conflict, he also made the same claim before sending tens of thousands of other conscripts into the opening hours of his invasion); on April 20th, the Russian Ministry of Defense chose to classify information regarding the relatives of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine - limiting the publication of this data will allow the Kremlin to obscure the extent of their losses from the Russian people; and according to Retired British Rear Admiral Chris Parry, "It seems to me that the Russian agenda now is not to capture these really difficult places where the Ukrainians can hold out in the urban centers, but to try and capture territory and also to encircle the Ukrainian forces and declare a huge victory.” 

Despite these alterations, Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine continues to follow the pattern of their operations throughout the war, “using small units to conduct dispersed attacks along multiple axes rather than taking the pauses necessary to prepare for decisive operations” according to the Institute for the Study of War. However, the Ukrainians are bracing for a much larger offensive, one that “will remind you of [the] Second World War, with… thousands of tanks” and artillery, as per the Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba’s, speech at NATO headquarters this month. Although the Russian forces are weakened, they still have superiority in numbers and long range ordinance. Thus, these next battles could follow a historical pattern, wherein desperate Russian forces have resorted to obliterating anyone or any means of resistance within range. This penchant has been seen from the end of WWII right through recent history: such as in Afghanistan during the 1980s, in both of the Chechen wars, and Syria most recently. Now the Russian army puts millions more Ukrainians at risk of suffering the war crimes already visible across fronts of the war. Thus far, a staggering 5 million Ukrainians have fled the country as refugees, and more mass graves are being discovered in occupied (or recently liberated) territory. 

As of the writing of this article, the counter offensives have escalated in intensity on both sides. Russian massed artillery is being used to make minor gains through overwhelming firepower near Izyum, their forces continued to bombard the remaining Ukrainian defenders in Mariupol’s Azovstal Steel Plant, and may be preparing for renewed but costly assaults on the sprawling facility. As for the Ukrainian measures, a number of potentially provocative, but eye-opening strikes have been conducted against Russian oil depots and munitions warehouses in the Russian oblasts of Belgorod and Voronezh on April 27th, and oil facilities in Bryansk two days before. Likewise, a continuous cycle of limited Russian advances and overnight Ukrainian counterattacks has stymied much of their progress since the Donbas offensive began. 

Notably, Maj. Gen. Rustam Minnekayev said the goal of Russian advances was to create a land bridge from mainland Russia to the annexed peninsula of Crimea and an access point to the tiny pro-Moscow breakaway republic of Transnistria in Moldova. Although it remains unclear whether the comments are based on official Kremlin policy, it would represent a significant gain by acquisition of land and industrial infrastructure, sequestering Ukraine from the Black Sea (while vastly increasing Russian coastal access), and achieving the possible destruction of the Azov Battalion (which is trapped in besieged Mariupol and holds a special place of infamy in the Russian “deNazification” narrative). A number of analysts have suggested that Putin may be seeking a victory before May 9th, “Victory Day”, which commemorates the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945 and holds a special significance in the Russian historical psyche and modern culture. If Russian forces can achieve these objectives by May 9th, and that’s a big IF, it may be a sufficient success for Putin to declare “mission accomplished”, and pull back from a disastrous war that is stretching the Russian economy and army to a breaking point. 

Despite the Kremlin's claims to the contrary, even Moscow’s own central bank chief, Elvira Nabiullina has acknowledged that, “at the moment, perhaps this problem is not yet so strongly felt, because there are still reserves in the economy… But we see that sanctions are being tightened almost every day,” adding that “the period during which the economy can live on reserves is finite.” This is only exacerbated by the fact that US and Western sanctions have frozen $350 billion out of Russia’s $604 billion foreign reserve “war chest”, much of which was incomprehensibly held in accounts at banks in Western states. 

After the West cut off much of Russian access to its foreign reserves, limited imports of key technology, and other various sanctions, the Kremlin took drastic measures to insulate the economy. Interest rates rose to heights of 20%, the central bank instituted capital controls and measures that forced Russian businesses to convert their profits into rubles. As a result, the value of the ruble has recovered. However, Russia is undergoing its worst bout of inflation in 20 years - the state’s economic statistic agency, Rosstat, said inflation hit 17.3% last month, the highest level since 2002. Moreover, the inability of Russia to pay its debts in dollars has moved them precipitously closer to its first default on foreign debt in over a century, after a watchdog ruled that the country’s attempt to settle a $649 million dollar-denominated interest payment in rubles isn't going to fly. 

Beyond just sanctioning Russia, the United States has provided over $3.7 billion in military hardware and munitions to Kyiv since the onset of the conflict more than 60 days ago. These supplies have become steadily more powerful, high precision, and long range as Washington's expectations have continued to rise for the Ukrainian’s probability of success. And other NATO allies arms shipments have been so effective, such as the impressive efficacy of the United Kingdom’s NLAW rocket launcher, that Russia’s defense ministry has warned of an immediate “proportional response” if Britain continues its “direct provocation”. Although the U.K. dismisses these threats as “bravado”, it indicates just how frustrating their arms shipments are to the Russian offensive. 

As these expectations have risen, the United States has also changed its goals: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said while standing alongside Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Poland after their return from a high stakes trip to Kyiv on April 25th. The trip was the highest ranking U.S. delegation to visit Ukraine since the beginning of the war, and the pair also announced that American diplomats will return to Ukraine starting next week, and will look into the feasibility of reopening the embassy in Kyiv in the coming weeks. Moreover, Biden plans to formally nominate Bridget Brink, currently the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, to be its next ambassador to Ukraine. Blinken later stated, “we don’t know how the rest of this war will unfold, but we do know that a sovereign, independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene.” However, these statements are likely to fuel President Putin’s long-standing concern that NATO expansion, and their efforts to supply Ukraine in this war, are part of a broader effort to encircle Russia and foment the downfall of his regime. 

Currently Ukraine is optimistic that it can push the line of contact back further after halting Russia’s initial plan to decapitate the central government and capture Kyiv, but officials are increasingly worried that Moscow could resort to tactical nuclear weapons if it suffers further setbacks. These concerns come on the heels of a successful test of the new Russian Sarmat nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile, after which, Putin declared that the launch would “provide food for thought for those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country.” Although the deployment of Sarmat missiles would only add marginally to Russia’s already gargantuan nuclear capabilities, the test was about timing and symbolism: It came amid the recent public warnings, including by Mr. Burns, that the U.S “cannot take lightly” the chance that Putin might turn to chemical weapons, or even a demonstration nuclear detonation in his desperation for victory. 

Some analysts suspect that Putin remains unlikely to use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine during this phase of the war, as the Kremlin likely understands that the use of a nuclear weapon would cause greater NATO involvement in the war, making the Russian use of a nuclear weapon a net loss for Russia. This assessment is based, in part, on the statements of Foreign Minister Sergai Lavrov that outright ruled out the potential Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and the subsequent promotions of those statements across Russian state-media outlets. These were followed by threats from the police to jail anyone who spreads “disinformation” about Russia considering the use of nuclear weapons. Yet now it seems that based on the logic of this dictum even Lavrov himself may be eligible for arrest for disinformation, as he claimed in a state TV interview broadcast on Monday April 25th that “The danger [of nuclear war with NATO] is serious, real. It can’t be underestimated.” Neither the United States nor Russia uphold a no first use policy for their nuclear arsenals, and peddling the idea of a nuclear exchange between Russia and NATO is an eye turning escalation of rhetoric. This trend echoes a growing concern within the Biden administration: that Russia is now so isolated from the rest of the world that Putin sees little downside to provocative actions.

According to senior intelligence officials interviewed by the New York Times, “We have been so successful in disconnecting Putin from the global system that he has even more incentive to disrupt it beyond Ukraine… And if he grows increasingly desperate, he may try things that don’t seem rational.” When Fiona Hill, who has studied Putin for decades, and served as a former member of the National Security Council on Russian Affairs, was asked whether Putin could resort to nuclear weapons to secure his goals she responded bluntly: "Of course [Putin] would. And the thing is, he's already rhetorically done it, right?” Should Putin make that decision, there is nothing in the Russian system that could stop him.

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