Ukraine’s battlefield offensive, which has seen it gain thousands of miles of territory previously lost to Moscow, is bad news for Russian President Vladimir Putin, both at home and abroad.
The Ukrainians’ performance has amplified dissent in Russia, strengthened President Biden’s hand in rallying support for the country, opened up new opportunities for Kyiv and is expected to make it harder for Russia to find support from allies.
“Clearly, they are fighting hard,” a senior US defense official told reporters Monday of the Ukrainian troops, noting that Russian forces “have largely ceded their gains to the Ukrainians” in the vicinity. from Kharkiv province, with “many” of the Russian forces return to the Russian border.
The Ukrainian army last week began a counteroffensive which quickly recaptured territory and pushed Russian troops to the country’s northeastern border in places.
The lightning advance forced thousands of Kremlin troops into a rapid retreat, leaving behind stockpiles of ammunition and equipment, reports of abandonment that could be “indicative of Russia’s disorganized command and control,” the defense official said.
On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his forces had retaken 6,000 square kilometers of land in eastern and southern Ukraine since early September. Included in the claimed towns was Izyum, a key city in the fighting.
The loss of Izyum marks Russia’s worst military defeat since March, when its troops failed to take the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and were forced back.
For Ukraine, the rapid advance could be a turning point in the six-month war that moves the fighting away from a battle of attrition.
For Russia and Putin, it could force some very difficult decisions about conscription and the future of a war that Moscow still insists is simply a special military operation.
“It is time to elect President Putin,” said Eric Ueland, former President Trump’s assistant secretary of state for civil security, democracy and human rights. “For allies in the West, it is a time of vigilance, constant communication and clear lines on what would not be acceptable from Russia, especially on the military front, as President Putin and his leadership continue to process what is happening 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 Crebo-Rediker, deputy senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that Putin could react harshly to Ukraine’s growing momentum.
“To the extent that Ukraine is able to make gains, in its favor, I now fear that the retaliation we could see from Putin in the coming days and weeks could be even more brutal against civilians than we have already seen. ,” she said.
In an attempt to defeat Russia and help 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 keep Ukraine supplied with a steady flow of weapons, the US since April has led a 50-nation effort known as the Ukraine Contact Group to coordinate the flow of military assistance.
Last week, US officials announced a new $675 million package of arms and equipment for Kyiv, as well as $2.2 billion in “long-term” military support to bolster the security of Ukraine and 18 neighboring countries at risk of any future Russian attack.
“We see how bravely the Ukrainians have been fighting to fight for their freedom and we stand by it,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday, adding that the White House is “grateful” for the bipartisan support. to aid to Ukraine.
In Russia, the withdrawal has caused Putin problems beyond embarrassment that his forces appear to be caught flat-footed. More than 30 Russian municipal deputies have signed a petition calling for the longtime leader to step down, a rare indictment of the president who over the years has tried to crush opposition.
Russian nationalists have also called on Putin to make immediate changes to the Kremlin’s military campaign. Reuters reported.
And Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a key Putin ally, on Sunday criticized the Russian military for the pullout.
“They made mistakes and I think they will draw the necessary conclusions,” Kadyrov said in a message posted on his Telegram account and translated by The Guardian.
Putin has also faced dissent since the escalation of Ukraine’s counteroffensive by Russian media commentators, which Ueland said could prompt a change in his strategy.
“So what does he choose to do if there is a steady erosion of public support for him and Russia? Does that mean that it is redoubling its efforts in Ukraine? Does that mean that it acts to try to suppress internal dissent? Does that mean he’s moving to scapegoat some of the failures here? Nobody knows,” he said. “And it’s very unpredictable.”
Crebo-Rediker said she was “encouraged” by the “little crack in the ice” with the speech on Russian television over the weekend, but said it could prompt Putin to take further action.
“I think the likely path for Putin to move forward is more indiscriminate attacks, more internal televised calls for further mobilization, a possible ramp-up, or the recruitment of military recruits from across Russia,” he said. “Russia will need to somehow increase its troop levels to deal with Ukraine in the future.”
The staggering losses for Russia come as Moscow has desperately sought arms and help from allies, including Iran and North Korea, and overstated its support of China. Beijing has so far not publicly provided any help, but 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 have met face-to-face since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
The United States is carefully watching the interaction as the two countries have become closer partners in recent years.
“We have made clear our concerns about the depth of China’s alignment and ties with Russia, even as Russia conducts a war of aggression in Ukraine,” Jean-Pierre said.
Samar Ali, a White House staffer at the Department of Homeland Security under former President Obama, said that if China were to withdraw support from Russia, it could lead to the withdrawal of support from other Russian allies such as North Korea and Iran.
“If we see China decide that Putin is not the horse to follow at the moment, obviously I think that’s good for the world, for stability and global order,” he said. “So we will have to see if China turns its energy away from Putin, will other countries follow and will that further weaken Putin and strengthen Ukraine, the United States and our allies?”
However, Crebo-Rediker argued that China is unlikely to discredit Putin despite Moscow’s troubles.
“I don’t know if there is any hope behind the scenes that China can ever play a more constructive role than it has to date. But certainly in this next meeting, I don’t imagine there will be any public display of disunity,” she said.