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Russia tries to rebound in Ukraine as prospects for victory fade

Russian military vehicles convoy near Mariupol on Friday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)
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The Russian military, mired in a war with no end in sight, is attempting to resuscitate its sputtering offensive in Ukraine, firing commanders, splitting combat units into smaller formations, and redoubling its reliance on artillery and other long-range weapons.

The shift comes nearly three months after Russian and American officials alike predicted a quick and decisive victory for Moscow. After the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers and an avalanche of failures since the invasion began Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin has narrowed his objectives in a campaign viewed as unsustainable, unrealistic — and likely unwinnable.

At least seven people were wounded after a strike on the Palace of Culture in Lozova, Kharkiv Oblast, on May 20, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Video: Volodymyr Zelensky via Storyful)

That assessment is shared by an array of observers, including Western intelligence officials and independent analysts who have tracked the war closely. Russia, said Mikk Marran, director general of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, is losing in Ukraine militarily, politically and morally.

“When we look at the battlefield, Russia’s conventional capacity is already overstretched,” Marran said. “The losses in Russian manpower and equipment are not sustainable at the same operations tempo that we have seen so far.”

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Unless Russia launches a full-scale mobilization of its military, Marran said, it has “no remedy in sight.” And while it appears that “some sense of reality has kicked in” among Russian military leaders, Putin himself remains intent on controlling everything from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine to the western port city of Odessa and Transnistria, a breakaway republic in neighboring Moldova.

“We might be seeing a continuing military campaign that is, to a degree, detached from what is realistic, from what might be called smart or feasible in the long term,” Marran said. The Estonians had long predicted, even before the invasion, that Russia would face significant resistance from the Ukrainians.

As the war grinds on and Russia’s battlefield gains remain “uneven” and “incremental,” according to the Pentagon’s latest assessment, several of its high-ranking commanders have been sacked. Among them, according to the British Ministry of Defense, are Lt. Gen. Serhiy Kisel, who presided over the 1st Guards Tank Army’s failed effort to capture the northeastern city of Kharkiv, and Vice Adm. Igor Osipov, who was in charge of Russia’s Black Sea fleet when Ukrainian forces sank its flagship, the Moskva. The humiliating blow to Russia’s navy was carried out using the Neptune anti-ship missiles that Ukraine makes. Since then, officials in Kyiv have stepped up their requests for similar weapons from Western partners.

Citing the latest U.S. intelligence assessments of the war, a senior Defense Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, affirmed that “Russian commanders at various levels have been relieved of their duties.” Pentagon officials, this person said, want to be cautious in making predictions about the war’s next phase, but they are encouraged that Ukrainian units have not faced the morale setbacks that plague the Russians.

Russia retains considerable combat power available in Ukraine, the U.S. defense official warned, but “you’ve got to have the will to fight, you have to have good leadership, you have to have command and control.” Russia, he said, is “suffering” as a result of these and other shortcomings.

Meanwhile, sanctions against Russia have caused the country’s transport and shipping logistics to be “practically broken,” Russia’s transport minister said Saturday, a rare admission of problems.

But its defense minister asserted that its military had destroyed a large number of weapons that were supplied to Ukraine by the United States and European countries. A Pentagon spokesperson told The Washington Post that the United States had no comment on Russia’s claim.

Russia also stepped up its political campaign, permanently banning nearly 1,000 Americans, including President Biden and Vice President Harris, from entering the country. The list of those banned included a wide range of officials and citizens, including lawmakers who have died and actor Morgan Freeman.

The United States continues to send billions of dollars in military equipment to Ukraine, including heavy artillery, drones and antitank missiles. President Biden on Saturday signed a $40 billion package of new military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

Although Putin has deployed more than 100 battalion tactical groups into Ukraine, each numbering between 500 and 800 personnel, they have made little headway in Donbas, U.S. intelligence shows. There is evidence that the Russian military has divided some units, dispatching smaller combat teams into villages and hamlets there. Doing so, the Pentagon assessed, makes sense as Putin pursues smaller localized goals. But Russia has struggled to hold ground, with its forces sometimes ceding control back to Ukraine within days of having seized territory.

Russians attacking in smaller units, Pentagon says

In the south, Russia has secured two significant victories, taking control of Mariupol, a major port city, and the smaller city of Kherson. Micholeiv, home to nearly 500,000 people before the war, has been an unattainable objective, however, despite weeks of heavy fighting nearby.

Scott Boston, a former U.S. Army officer who studies the Ukraine war for Rand Corp., said it appears there are massive morale problems within the Russian military, undermining Moscow’s goals. He cited the refusal of some units to carry out orders, as well as Russia’s failure to adequately equip and feed its forces.

“Once it has been abundantly demonstrated that they don’t give a crap about their people, they get it,” Boston said of Russian soldiers. “It’s hard not to notice.”

Russia has seized only a couple kilometers per day in Donbas in recent weeks, according to the Pentagon. At that rate, Boston surmised, the offensive could continue for a year and “there will still be a lot of Ukraine left,” even as Russian military fatalities continue to mount.

“That’s just not a serious proposition,” Boston said.

Russian leaders may realize their military campaign is floundering but still reluctant to acknowledge they are losing the war, he added.

Earlier this month, dozens of Russian combat vehicles were destroyed by Ukrainian forces as the Russians attempted to cross the Siverskyi Donets River in Donbas. The attack is believed to have killed hundreds of Russian troops, and appeared to highlight their continued failings to carry out basic combat maneuvers.

Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Russian troops have been bedeviled both by their own tactical blunders and the Ukrainian’s potent capabilities that have contributed to routs like the deadly crossing near Severodonetsk.

River crossings require favorable terrain and construction of pontoon bridges by military engineers. They are inherently dangerous, Lee said, and the Ukrainian military probably anticipated likely crossing points and logged their coordinates for future attacks. Their surveillance drones allowed artillery units to observe where rounds were falling and then guided them onto Russian personnel.

A grave mistake, Lee said, was the failure of Russian commanders to send smaller numbers of troops across the river. Instead, they bunched them together. The mistake cost the 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade dearly, according to an analysis from the Institute of the Study of War, with an estimated 485 casualties and the loss of 80 pieces of equipment.

“It’s an indication there are leadership problems still,” Lee said of the botched attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces nearby.

It’s hard to say how long Russia may keep its offensive going, said Boston, the Rand Corp. analyst. Even after the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers, he said, Russia could continue to lob artillery rounds from a distance for some time.

Still, the trajectory of the conflict perplexes him. Russia defeated Georgian forces in a five-day war in 2008, but the conflict exposed failures within the Russian military, including an inability to quickly adapt when something goes wrong. Moscow set out to reform its military after that conflict, Boston said, and demonstrated improvement in others.

“You just get this feeling like they’ve abandoned everything they’ve tried to learn over the last 10 years and reverted to an older style that they’re more comfortable with,” Boston said. “Frankly, the Red Army in 1944 was more capable of fire and maneuver than a lot of what we’ve seen from this Russian military, and I don’t understand why.”

Julian Duplain, Timothy Bella and Michael Kranish contributed to this report.

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