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Putin faces limits of his military power as Ukraine recaptures land

Russia’s leader is betting an impending infusion of drafted troops can change the dynamic on the battlefield in Ukraine, but he is losing time as Ukraine’s counteroffensive advances

After Russia’s illegal annexation of provinces in the eastern Donbas region, Russian troops withdrew from Lyman, leaving a path of death and destruction. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin is betting that an impending infusion of drafted troops can change the dynamic on the battlefield in Ukraine, but analysts say he is losing time, as his military operation succumbs further to Ukrainian advances and shows signs that it needs more than just raw personnel to regain the initiative.

Putin has distracted attention from the bleak battlefield picture in recent days by orchestrating referendums, declaring annexations and making nuclear threats — all part of an attempt to freeze Russian territorial gains amassed since February that are unraveling by the day.

But those political machinations in Moscow, carried out with great fanfare and bluster, have been unable to mask the reality some 600 miles away in Ukraine: Russia’s force is beleaguered and poorly managed — and in the immediate future, there may not be a silver bullet to fix it.

Military analysts agree that Russia’s haphazard mobilization of at least 300,000 reservists is unlikely to help Putin on the battlefield in a matter of days. Whether it can aid Moscow in stabilizing the situation longer term — into the late fall, winter and spring — is an open question, they said.

Searching for bodies with the Ukrainian captain collecting Russian corpses

The impact of the new soldiers depends partly on whether they can be trained effectively — and how the Russian military organizes and deploys them.

“People are not beans. Units are not units, except on a map,” said Frederick Kagan, a senior fellow and director of the critical-threats project at the American Enterprise Institute. “If you take a bunch of pissed-off, demoralized, scared, untrained humans, give them weapons and throw them into a fighting force, you don’t have soldiers.”

Putin will have to focus first on restoring basic fighting capability to a military with badly depleted units that need to be reequipped at scale, which is difficult, Kagan said. “Before we are talking about flooding the zone, we are really talking about restoring combat units to anything like combat capability,” he said.

How much territory the Russians lose before the reinforcements arrive isn’t entirely down to Moscow. Ukraine has been beating back the Russians on two major fronts for more than a month. It is unclear how long Ukrainian forces, which are suffering losses of their own, can sustain the push.

“One of the hardest things to know is when to stop,” said Christopher Dougherty, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Just as you’ve made this huge gain, you’ve stretched all of your logistical line, many people have been in combat for days on end. There is a psychological bump you get from winning and being on the offensive, but everybody runs out of juice at some point.”

At the moment, Ukraine is keeping up its momentum. In the east, its forces wrested back the city of Lyman over the weekend and are advancing into the occupied Luhansk region. The Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south, meanwhile, has quickened in recent days, with forces moving down the Dnieper River toward Kherson.

Where and when the Ukrainian counteroffensive ultimately pauses will also depend on weaponry and ammunition, much of it coming from the United States.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced an additional $625 million in aid to Ukraine, including four more HIMARS rocket launchers, 16 155mm howitzers and 75,000 155mm artillery rounds. Ukraine has asked for longer-range rockets and tanks but so far hasn’t received them. The United States has committed more than $16.8 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, according to the White House.

Russia regularly warns of consequences if the United States and its allies continue to arm Ukraine but has proved unable to disrupt the flow of weaponry. The Russian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that the amount of American arms being given to Kyiv had reached a “dangerous line.”

Disappointment about Moscow’s battlefield position has seeped into the public sphere in Russia, primarily through Telegram channels but also at times on tightly controlled state television.

Russian military blogger Maxim Fomin, who posts under the pseudonym Vladlen Tatarsky, said in a video uploaded Tuesday to Telegram that the situation on the front for Russian forces is “not great, to put it mildly.”

Russia doesn’t have enough forces on the battlefield “to solve the Ukrainian question decisively,” he said, expressing concern that draftees about to be sent to the front in many cases are not receiving proper training.

“You can fight with unprepared people, but it’s fraught with big losses,” he said.

Andrei Marochko, a Russian-backed militia official in Luhansk, told the Russian state television show “60 Minutes” that the Ukrainians backed by NATO were operating with superior battlefield intelligence capabilities.

“They literally look in real time online with satellites at our movements, our fortification structures,” Marochko said. “That gives them certain privileges and makes their chances of success a lot higher than ours.”

He said the Russian side had fewer forces than the Ukrainians in a number of locations, offering up a rationale for Putin’s recent mobilization.

Rapid loss of territory in Ukraine reveals spent Russian military

There are few indications that any of the major problems that have been dogging the Russian military since the start of the invasion have been solved. For months, it has faced difficulty carrying out combined ground and air attacks, leading troops with a variable will to fight and organizing a complicated logistics pipeline to get supplies to the front.

More than seven months in, no clear commander of the Russian campaign has emerged in public, and recent reports have suggested that Putin is intervening personally to make battlefield decisions. Hard-liners within Russia have attacked the country’s generals publicly for poor decision-making.

The problems Putin is facing in Ukraine are compounded by risks at home. The mobilization has made the war in Ukraine real for many Russians who had been paying little attention.

The result is likely to be many more Russians — including those with sons, brothers and husbands now headed to the front — searching out information about how Russian forces are faring.

“They have given people a reason to pay attention to what is happening on the battlefield,” said Sam Greene, a professor of Russian politics at King’s College London. “When you are not being sent there, you can just kind of get news off the television, and the television isn’t going to tell you much. Now all of a sudden it matters to you.”

At the same time, the Russian state has fumbled in its execution of the draft, calling up men meant to be disqualified.

Russia restructured its military 10 years ago and dismantled a lot of the mobilization system, which was expensive to maintain and seen as largely unnecessary — and now it is showing, said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corp.

Massicot said there is little reliable public information about how Russia intends to train and deploy the draftees, making it too early to say exactly what kind of impact the mobilization is likely to have. She said the new troops are likely to have poor combat capability but could free up personnel in the rear to fight at the front, assuming there are soldiers to free up.

“Creating a tank battalion out of these guys is going to go how we all would expect,” Massicot said. But if they are used in an auxiliary or noncombat role, she said, they could help Moscow hold on to territory.

The situation has demonstrated the limits of Putin’s ability to control the functions of his own government and military.

“One of the things that we should have learned through this is that there are things that Putin doesn’t know — one of which is how good is his army, how effective is his state,” Greene said. “He has never tried this stuff before. So, he is not going to know how effectively it’s going to work until push comes to shove.”


A previous version of this article misspelled Christopher Dougherty’s name. The article has been corrected.