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Tom Clonan: Putin’s military miscalculations in Ukraine may prove to be his undoing

The security analyst says the stakes are high now as Ukraine troops push back and all eyes are now on Moscow.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

TO DATE, THE war in Ukraine has been a brutal but sluggish affair. Lines of contact between Ukrainian and Russian forces have been relatively static with very slow rates of advance for Putin’s invading army.

Putin’s troops – consisting of armoured units and highly ‘mobile’ mechanised infantry units – were effectively stalled at the start of the conflict and failed to advance on Kyiv.

It took Putin’s forces almost six months to take all of the Luhansk Oblast with the final destruction of Severodonetsk and the fall of Lysychansk in early July. Since then, Russian forces – depleted by months of continuous combat – have failed to make decisive gains in the Donetsk Oblast.

It is in this context that Ukraine’s counteroffensive is best understood. In the last week, President Zelenskyy’s forces have made very rapid progress in the Kharkiv Oblast.

‘Lightning assault’

Approximately 6000 troops or three Ukrainian Brigades have mounted a lightning assault towards the Russian border, taking the Russian strongholds of Kupyansk and Izyum. In this process, Ukraine has liberated almost all of the Kharkiv Oblast.

To achieve this objective, the Ukrainian military will have had to put in place a major strategic operation with meticulous planning. Based on the ‘tooth to tail’ ratio, a major logistics and support campaign will have been mounted to sustain, re-supply and support the thousands of combat troops fighting their way to the Russian border.

To sustain an extended offensive – the most rapidly moving in the war thus far – will have required a massive logistics effort. Everything from ammunition to fuel to rations and water will have been pre-deployed to the Kharkiv region prior to the offensive. In addition, considerable air defence and artillery assets will also have manoeuvered into position in order to penetrate the Russian flank and to strike deep into the rear of Putin’s forces operating further south in Luhansk and Donetsk. For the Kremlin – aside from the shock of a sudden setback – there will be the fear of encirclement of further Russian forces in the coming days.

Russia caught

It is significant that Russia failed to detect the Ukrainian build-up in the Kharkiv region. This is another significant intelligence failure on the part of Putin and the Kremlin in this conflict.

The Russian reaction on the ground has been telling. There have been no counter-attacks thus far – almost a week into the operation. The Russians have not conducted a fighting withdrawal. Rather they have been routed. They have fled their positions. Some of their positions – such as the logistics hub at Izyum – were heavily defended and had well-established strategic strong points. Ukraine has managed to re-take them with minimal resistance.

This speaks to the morale and leadership of Putin’s forces in Ukraine. After six months of combat – many thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed or seriously injured in the war, with little to show the Kremlin by way of an unambiguous ‘victory’. For young Russians sent to Ukraine, based on estimated casualty figures, two out of every three can expect to be killed or seriously injured in this war. Putin has reacted by sacking the military commander in the Kharkiv region, Lieutenant General Roman Berdnikov. Berdnikov has only had command since 26 August, when his predecessor, Lt Gen Andrei Sichevoi was also relieved of his command.

Russia has lost a large number of its general staff in recent months – many as front-line casualties of the war and others in high profile sackings. Only recently, the commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Igor Osipov was sacked and replaced by Viktor Sokolov. This turnover of senior commanders reflects on Putin’s leadership style – autocratic and petulant.

The failure of Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine to deliver discernible ‘victory’ along with this week’s setbacks speak directly to the Kremlin’s capacity or competence to lead. As a former intelligence officer, Putin’s repeated miscalculations and missed cues in this area – militarily, politically and diplomatically – may well lead to his ultimate downfall as President of Russia.

‘Chaotic’

As of now, Russian forces have effected a chaotic withdrawal from the Kharkiv Oblast. They appear to be attempting an improvised line of defence along the eastern bank of the Oskil river – presumably to prevent Ukrainian forces from encroaching on the Russian border. Putin will find it difficult – without a formal declaration of war on Ukraine, and without the general mobilisation that would entail – to cobble together sufficient regular units to effectively reinforce and re-take his losses in Kharkiv.

In parallel with these developments, Ukrainian forces have continued to gain ground in their southern counter-offensive near Kherson. It is reported that Zelenskyy’s forces have re-taken approximately 500 square kilometres from Russian control in recent days.

In a significant development, it is also reported that Ukrainian troops have crossed the Siversky Donets river and are directing combat operations in the direction of Bilohorivka in the Luhansk Oblast. If they have sufficient reserves, Ukrainian forces may also use Izyum as a platform from which to attempt the re-taking of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. It would be possible to re-supply and reinforce such an assault from the direction of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. If Ukrainian forces can maintain their momentum in the coming days and weeks, they might conceivably unravel Russian gains in Luhansk.

In this scenario, morale along with basic command and control will constitute major challenges for Putin’s forces. Ukrainian troops on the other hand will have a heightened motivation to fight. With Winter approaching, Ukraine may seek to cut off and contain Russian forces in the Crimean Peninsula – reversing Putin’s pyrrhic ‘victory’ achieved by the destruction of Mariupol.

All eyes on Moscow

As these matters play out on the ground in Ukraine, Putin will come under ever-greater pressure in Moscow. Already, there is criticism of the Russian general staff on state channels in Russia.

The blame will eventually shift to Putin himself – unless he can achieve a dramatic military reversal in the coming weeks. Unfortunately for Putin, the military options open to him now are limited. Short of general mobilisation and mass conscription to military service, there are no conventional military solutions for Putin at this point.

In theory, he could resort to the use of a so-called ‘tactical’ or ‘mini’ nuclear weapon to halt Ukraine in its tracks. He has threatened to do so from the outset of this war. Putin has shown himself to be reckless in the use of non-conventional weapons in the past – such as chemical agents and radioactive materials.

If he were to use such a weapon – at a target in Ukraine – it is likely that there would be an immediate and devastating response from NATO. It is difficult to know if such an order by Putin would be carried out. In this regard, Ukrainian forces will have to be careful not to violate Russia’s borders or engage targets inside Russia proper.

Both sides – despite the mounting operational pressure as the war escalates – will also have to be careful to avoid a nuclear accident at Zaporizhzhia.

Dr Tom Clonan is an independent Senator and former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter.

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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