Ukraine, moreover, despite its heavy losses, is now able to mobilize seven times as many troops as Russia has on the ground—so much so that manpower is no longer an issue for Kyiv. Ukraine’s pool of military manpower has always been larger than it’s been portrayed by the news media, and the country has been inundated with volunteers. Many Western observers seem to miss the fact of Ukraine’s superiority here, still living in an era when America was fighting Saddam Hussein and his “fourth largest army in the world.” Observers should know by now that numbers can be deceiving, and should have learned also to appreciate the impact of modern weapons. A military can shoot a lot of artillery or drop a lot of bombs in a conflict, but a few well-aimed weapons, hitting the right targets, has a greater effect. Ukraine now excels at this.
“Putin was wrong in his assumptions about breaking the alliance and breaking Ukrainian will,” Burns says. And because things have gone so wrong on the ground, Burns says, the CIA believes Putin “has shrunk his objectives.” Putin is no longer seeking to take over Ukraine or hold territory beyond Donbas.
BARELY THREE WEEKS INTO THE WAR, PUTIN MADE the decision to withdraw from the Kyiv front. He fired battlefield commanders and even installed a new general as commander-in-chief in the south. Putin fought with his own intelligence chief and defense minister and sidelined naysayers and skeptics, according to multiple U.S. government sources. And then Putin made things even more complicated: He undermined the plan to advance on the Donbas front to capture territory—the central mission—by insisting on expanding the southern goal, declaring that all of Ukraine along the Black Sea coast would be taken.
The move widened the trust gap between Putin and the uniformed military, said Lt. General Sir Jim Hockenhull, director of British military intelligence, in early August.
“Political meddling by the Kremlin is taking its toll,” a senior American military intelligence official, granted anonymity to speak candidly, tellsNewsweek. “Putin screams for more innovation while at the same time insisting on strict centralization of decision-making. Without decentralization and openness to accepting initiative and risk on the battlefield, you’re back to a rigid strategy. Thus the reversion back to Russian reliance on firepower, long-range strikes by artillery, MRLs [multiple rocket launchers] and missiles.” Russia is lumbering forward while causing great damage as a result. There is no chance to get behind the Ukrainian defenders.
As many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in Ukraine; the Russian Ministry of Defense is at the bottom of the barrel in terms of finding and strong-arming people to serve, offering bonuses and benefits and yet still failing to man the force.
Though there has been much criticism of Russian mercenaries—especially those from the private Wagner group who have augmented the uniformed armed forces and employ more brutal tactics—they have actually become integral to the war effort. Moscow is bringing in contractors precisely to avoid the paperwork and the laws that govern conscription, soldier rights and pay. They have also raised Chechen and other “volunteer” battalions, many of which have been mustered outside the laws governing contracts and conscripts. And with so many young Russian men and women declining to fight in Ukraine, Russia is trying to entice prisoners and other disadvantaged civilians to join, granting them special pay and veteran status immediately upon their arrival.
Putin is also instituting a new nationwide youth movement reminiscent of the Pioneers of the Soviet era—a program that U.S. intelligence says is aimed as much to militarize society and create support for the armed forces as it is to counter the growing infiltration of global media and Western culture into Russia. Press and internet freedoms are increasingly being targeted on the pretense that a free press is promoting “fake news” about Ukraine. Any sympathies citizens might express for the human cost of the war is being blamed on “excessive permissiveness” in society. Thousands of anti-war demonstrators have been arrested since the war began. The effect of Putin’s crackdowns on Russian society is difficult to gauge, but U.S. intelligence officials tell Newsweekthat the CIA observes that Russians who can afford to leave the country are leaving, with the number of those who left and didn’t return doubling year over year—as many as two million people since the war began.
Ever since the Russian withdrawal from the Kyiv region, and the start of Putin’s second offensive in Donbas almost four months ago, Russia has been unable to deliver any knockout blow. It scored territorial victories in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk (at great human cost) and then took most of the Luhansk region, but then Putin’s army again stalled into a stalemate. When Russian ground troops have moved forward, it has been at an excruciatingly slow pace and at great cost, the ebb and flow of warfare steadily weakening Moscow’s demoralized force. U.S. and NATO intelligence agree that Ukraine has suffered as many deaths and injuries as Russia, but the morale of the defending force remains strong. And while Putin sends exhausted Russian soldiers into the meat grinder, Ukraine has managed to bring in fresh troops and units, many of its strategic shifts specifically intended to protect and preserve Ukrainian soldiers on the ground.
With Putin at the helm, the fighting to take the other half of Donbas (the Donetsk region) has been more bombing than bullets. With its forces held back on the ground, Russia has reverted to its historic way of war, conducting air and missile strikes, shooting rockets, and pounding Ukraine’s defenders with thousands of artillery shells daily. Ukraine has always been outgunned here, but with new Western supplies it is increasingly able to engage in long-range strikes, applying quality over quantity, precision over brute force.
Further to the southwest of Donbas, the battlefield looks different. Russia is stuck on the ground and losing territory, its positions west of the wide Dnieper River cut off because Ukraine has managed to damage or destroy the major road and rail bridges over the river, cutting off Russian forces from supplies. U.S. intelligence observes Russia moving additional forces to the area, but also assesses that the 25,000 Russian troops west of the river are on the verge of being isolated.
Ukraine’s shift—from holding the front lines to starving off Russia’s front line forces by hitting their supplies—is ironically also prolonging the war. Attrition is no longer just a matter of killing troops and tanks on the front lines. Ukraine is attacking ammunition depots and supplies, fuel and other necessities of war behind the front lines.
Ukrainian Maj. General Dmytro Marchenko, a commander in the south, told RBC Ukraine, “Kherson will be liberated 100 percent.” Marchenko isn’t offering any specific dates when the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kherson region will bear fruit. “I would not like to make predictions,” he says. “But if we have the amount of weapons that we were promised that we actually need, then, I think, we will celebrate victory in the spring of next year.”
Putin thought the war would be over long ago. His tough and determined foes are looking ahead with confidence: next year.
Publicado en la revista Newsweek la semana pasada.