The Ukrainian attack on the battlefield, which has seen it gain thousands of miles of territory Moscow once lost, portends bad news for Russian President Vladimir Putin at home and abroad.
The Ukrainians’ performance has amplified opposition in Russia, strengthened President Biden’s position in garnering support for the country, opened up new opportunities for Kiev, and is expected to make it difficult for Russia to find support from its allies.
A senior US defense official told reporters on Monday that Ukrainian forces are “obviously fighting hard,” noting that Russian forces have “largely ceded their gains to the Ukrainians” in the vicinity of Kharkiv Province, with “many” of Russian troops returning across the border to Russia.
The Ukrainian army started last week counterattack which quickly regained territory and pushed Russian forces to the country’s northeastern borders in some places.
The defense official said the rapid advance had forced thousands of Kremlin troops to retreat rapidly, leaving behind stocks of ammunition and equipment, and reports of abandonment that may be “indicative of disorganized Russian command and control.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday that his forces had retaken 6,000 square kilometers of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine since the beginning of September. The reclaimed cities included the city of Izeum, a major city in the fighting.
The loss of Izyum represented Russia’s worst military defeat since March, when its forces were unable to capture the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and were forced to turn back.
For Ukraine, the rapid advance may be a turning point in the six-month-old war that is taking the fighting out of a battle of attrition.
For Russia and Putin, it could dictate some very difficult decisions about conscription and the future of the war that Moscow still insists is just a special military operation.
“The time has come to be chosen for President Putin,” said Eric Hollande, the undersecretary of state for civil security, democracy, and human rights under former President Trump. “For allies in the West, it is a time for vigilance, constant communication and clear lines about what will not be acceptable to Russia, especially on the military front, as President Putin and his leadership continue to address what is going on in Ukraine.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on economic issues via video link at the Kremlin in Moscow on September 12, 2022 (Photo by Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/AFP)
Heidi Kripo-Redeker, an associate senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, indicated that Putin may react strongly to the growing momentum from Ukraine.
“To the extent that Ukraine can make any gains, thanks in large part to that, I now fear that the retaliation we could see from Putin in the coming days and weeks may be more brutal against civilians than we’ve already seen,” she said.
In an effort to obstruct Russia and aid Ukrainian forces, the United States has been at the forefront of imposing harsh sanctions on Moscow and sending military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the war began. To maintain Ukraine’s supply of a steady flow of weapons, the United States has since April led a 50-nation effort known as the Ukraine Contact Group to coordinate the flow of military assistance.
US officials announced last week New package worth 675 million dollars of arms and equipment to Kiev as well as $2.2 billion in “long-term” military support to enhance the security of Ukraine and 18 neighboring countries at risk of any future Russian attack.
“We see how brave Ukrainians are fighting to fight for their freedom and we support that,” White House Press Secretary Karen-Jean-Pierre said Monday, adding that the White House was “grateful” for bipartisan support to help Ukraine.
In Russia, the withdrawal has caused problems for Putin beyond embarrassing his seemingly failing forces. More than 30 Russian city lawmakers have signed a petition calling for the long-time leader’s resignation, a rare criticism of the president who has sought over the years to crush dissent.
Russian nationalists also called on Putin to make immediate changes to the Kremlin’s military campaign, Reuters reported.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a key ally of Putin, on Sunday criticized the Russian army for its withdrawal.
Kadyrov said in a message posted on his Telegram account and translated by Watchman.
Putin has also faced opposition since the surge in Ukraine’s counterattack by commentators in the Russian media, which Hollande said could lead to a change in his strategy.
“So what does he choose to do if there is a steady erosion of popular support for him and Russia? Does that mean he’s redoubling his efforts in Ukraine? Does that mean he’s moving to try to suppress domestic opposition? Does that mean he’s moving to scapegoat some of the failures here?” “No one knows,” he said, “which is very unpredictable.”
Crepo-Redeker said she was “relieved” by the “little crack in the ice” with the speech, which was broadcast on Russian television over the weekend, but said it could lead to further action by Putin.
“I think Putin’s likely path forward is more indiscriminate attacks, more internal televised calls for more mobilization, a possible intensification or recruitment of military recruits from all over Russia,” she said. “Russia will somehow need to increase its troop levels to counter Ukraine going forward.”
Russia’s staggering losses come as Moscow desperately seeks arms and aid from allies, including Iran and North Korea, and has bolstered its support from China. Beijing has so far offered no public assistance, but it has refused to condemn the war and has criticized sanctions against Russia.
Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to speak this week on the sidelines of a regional summit in Uzbekistan, the first time the two sides have met face to face since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The United States is watching the interaction closely, as the two countries have become closer partners in recent years.
“We have made clear our concerns about the depth of China’s alliance and relations with Russia, even as Russia wages a war of aggression in Ukraine,” said Jean-Pierre.
Samar Ali, a White House fellow at the Department of Homeland Security under former President Obama, said that if China were to withdraw its support for Russia, it could lead to a withdrawal of support from other Russian allies such as North Korea and Iran.
“If we see that China has decided that Putin is not a comeback horse now, then obviously I think that’s a good fit for the world, for global stability and order,” she said. “So, we’ll have to see if China shifts its energy away from Putin, will other countries follow, and will that weaken Putin and strengthen Ukraine, the United States and our allies?”
However, Crepeau-Redeker argued that China is unlikely to denigrate Putin despite Moscow’s problems.
“I don’t know if there is any hope behind the scenes that at some point China will play a more constructive role than it has so far. But certainly in this upcoming meeting, I don’t imagine there will be any public display of discord.