Defeat on the battlefield poses a fatal risk to Putin personally
The time was when Vladimir Putin thought he could invade Ukraine in three days. Even as the Russian president was attacking the Kremlin last week over the irreversible nature of his annexation of southeastern Ukraine, the momentum of the war was tearing strips of his new Russian territory.
The pace of the Ukrainian advance and the inability of the Russian military to counter it raises the real possibility that Kyiv will roll back its territorial seizures from February to its main prize from 2014 – the unsinkable aircraft carrier of Crimea itself.
The loss of the peninsula that dominates the Black Sea would be a fatal blow to the master of the Kremlin. So far, the aura of Putin’s political supremacy is starting to wear out in Russia. For now, disaffected warlords such as his Chechen vassal Ramzan Kadyrov, or the patron of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, target their criticism of Putin’s generals, but many Russian hardliners openly say the president chose the incompetent. We must share the blame for the defeats.
Putin’s attempt to transform the war from a war against David of Ukraine into an all-out struggle for survival against Western Goliath shows that it is failing. His war is now on a knife edge. With Kyiv looking to advance in Crimea, Putin’s grip on the Kremlin has suddenly been shaken.
Not so long ago, the restoration of Crimea seemed to be a strategic fantasy. But last month, the Ukrainian military repeatedly surprised Russians, revealing that Putin’s sluggish forces were learning lessons from the previous six months’ war.
Mass mobilization changes little if the new Russian forces use old tactics, they will lose the old style.
New recruits are badly needed to fill in the gaps in the line. Training new troops is not easy. But the Russian method of absorbing conscripts into the current unit to get on-the-job training does not work well in wartime, particularly when many junior officers and NCOs are executed on the job and are no longer available to share their skills and experience.
Of course, Ukrainians have been killed in droves too, most recently in the horrific attacks on Zaporizhia, but they are training alternatives to the NATO model and the new men enter the fray feeling they are on the winning side because they have new skills and new weapons.
It is unlikely that Russia’s old ally, General Winter, will come to the rescue of the Kremlin next November. After an autumn rain made armored warfare difficult in the watery terrain of eastern Ukraine, Putin’s new recruits haven’t had time to learn how to take battle with the toughest Ukrainians, but many are thrown into battle.
The Ukrainian army hopes to repeat its humiliation of the Russians at Lyman with a renewed attack on a similar enclave in Kherson. This will open the way for her to advance south into the Crimea. Surely the Ukrainians can hope to cut off the land bridge to the peninsula and possibly the water supply from the Ukrainian mainland. If they also manage to hit the bridge linking Crimea to the Russian mainland in Kerch, Putin’s whole new Russian project could unravel.
If Putin can’t count on the “Russian steamship” to stop setbacks on the ground during the winter, won’t he succeed in his nuclear blackmail?
The Russian president may want to drop tactical nuclear weapons at the advancing Ukrainian forces. This would be a horrific taboo-breaking but it might not change the course of the battle. After all, throwing nuclear weapons into rage is one thing, and hitting moving targets is another. Even Putin might hesitate to launch huge clouds of precipitation to smash Moscow. If he doesn’t, so might his generals.
Defeat on the battlefield poses a mortal danger to Putin personally. Russia itself appears to be in danger of disintegration as the initial signs of conflict within the Russian elite emerge as the blame game begins. The fall of Kherson and Crimea may open those cracks wide open.
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