Russia’s defeats in Ukraine have strategists worried about Moscow’s next move

Russian President Vladimir Putin watches with binoculars the Tsentr-2019 military exercise at the Donguz range near Orenburg city on September 20, 2019.

Alexey Nikolsky | Afp | Getty Images

Russia has been tight-lipped about its latest defeats in Ukraine, and strategists fear Moscow could look to punish Kyiv severely for its victories on the battlefield in an effort to save face.

Kyiv’s forces launched a massive counterattack in the northeast of the country, reclaiming thousands of kilometers of Russian-occupied land over the last few days.

Now thoughts are turning to potential Russian retaliation, with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov telling the Financial Times he was expecting a counterattack. “A counteroffensive liberates territory and after that you have to control it and be ready to defend it,” Reznikov said, adding, “Of course, we have to be worried, this war has worried us for years.”

Russia has already launched intense shelling on the Kharkiv region, starting Sunday night, leaving it without electricity and water. Ukraine’s deputy defense minister told Reuters it was too early to say Ukraine had full control of the area.

Russian airstrike hits Kharkiv as Russian troops are pushed out of region

Close followers of the Kremlin say President Vladimir Putin is likely weighing his options now.

“The military story for the Kremlin is becoming worse,” Ian Bremmer, Eurasia Group president, said in a note Monday. “To the extent that continues, it pressures Putin into calling for a mobilization — likely a partial one but still a politically and socially costly move for the Russian president at home, that will force him into declaring war with Ukraine, and tacitly admitting that Russia is facing military problems,” he said in emailed comments. Russia has insisted on calling its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation,” not a war.

“Further, it makes Russian willingness to mete out Grozny-like ‘punishment’ onto the Ukrainians higher, both in terms of inflicting mass casualties on Ukraine through greater targeting of urban centers, as well as, in the worst case, using chemical or even tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield to sow mass panic,” Bremmer added.

“If there’s a likely near-term change in the russia war going forward, it’s escalatory and not a negotiated breakthrough.”

Frustration rising

Ukraine’s victories on the battlefield in recent days, and its ability to reclaim dozens of towns and villages in the Kharkiv region, puts Russia on the back foot. It is now scrambling to defend its territory in Donetsk and Luhansk, where two pro-Russian “republics” are located, in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine.

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Russian forces are widely believed to have been taken by surprise by Ukraine’s counterattack in the northeast of the country and were heavily outnumbered. There were signs that Russian forces had beaten a hasty retreat, with stores of equipment and ammunition abandoned.

Ahead of these counterattacks in the northeast, Kyiv had heavily promoted a counteroffensive in the south of Ukraine — leading Russia to redeploy troops there.

Firefighters of the State Emergency Service work to put out the fire that erupted after a Russian missile attack at an energy facility in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine. On Sunday evening, Russian invaders launched 11 cruise missiles at critical civilian infrastructures in Ukraine, strikes which were seen as “revenge” for its reclaiming of occupied land.

Future Publishing | Future Publishing | Getty Images

On Monday, the Kremlin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia’s aims in Ukraine remain the same — to “liberate” the Donbas — and insisted that fighting would continue.

There are rumblings of discontent in Russia, however, with even staunch supporters of the Kremlin questioning the war in public forums, including on state-run TV.

“We’ve been told that everything is going according to plan. Does anyone really believe that six months ago the plan was to be leaving [the city of] Balakliya, repelling a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region and failing to take over Kharkiv?” usually pro-Putin political expert Viktor Olevich said on the state-run NTV channel, the Moscow Times reported.

Another public figure, former lawmaker Boris Nadezhdin, said that Russia would not win the war if it continued to fight as it was, and said that there needed to be “either mobilization and full-scale war, or we get out.”

Analysts at global risk consultancy Teneo noted in emailed comments Monday evening that military losses and the humiliation of Russian troops “pose risks to President Vladimir Putin’s regime, as domestic criticism of the conduct of the so-called special military operation is mounting from various sides.”

“As a result, Putin faces growing pressure to respond to increasingly unfavorable dynamics on the frontline, which might include either escalatory moves or calls to start ceasefire talks,” they added.

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Putin’s ‘stark choice’

Putin’s regime now faces a difficult choice; the war is dragging on and its undersupplied forces are likely becoming demoralized as they come under pressure from Ukraine’s well-organized and well-armed army.

“Moscow faces a stark choice now I think: face humiliating defeat in Ukraine — which seems inevitable given the current troop force deployments, supply chains and momentum on Ukraine’s side — and sue for peace,” Timothy Ash, senior emerging markets sovereign strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, said in a note Monday.

An infographic titled “Ukraine has reclaimed control of 40 settlements” is created in Ankara, Turkiye on September 12, 2022. More than 40 settlements regained from Russian forces during the Ukrainian army’s offensive in Kharkiv region.

Elmurod Usubaliev/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“Or escalate with mass mobilisation and WMD [weapon of mass destruction], or perhaps Syrian style indiscriminate levelling of Ukrainian cities.”

Ash said Putin had likely balked at the mass mobilization option, which would put Russia on a war footing and see the conscription of many of its citizens. The “risk is that they come home in body bags and cause domestic social and political unrest in Russia,” he said, but added that Putin was also unlikely to resort to unconventional weapons — such as WMDs.

“Putin had the chance and failed to pull the trigger as he knows these are only really deterrents and once he does unleash them we are in a whole new ball game, risk of World War 3, and a chain of events which will be very difficult to manage but where he is clearly seen as the aggressor/mad guy and loses most of his friends internationally, including China, et al,” Ash added.

He said that, after what he expected would be intensive airstrikes in Ukraine, Putin might attempt to begin “serious” peace talks. “But he will have to hurry up as the ground in Ukraine, and possibly even Moscow, is shifting quickly under his feet,” Ash noted.

“At this stage a total collapse of Russian forces across Ukraine is entirely possible – including that held before Feb. 24, including Crimea, and even talk about potential splits in Moscow and risks to Putin’s stay in power. Watch this space.”

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