Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces have suffered potentially significant setbacks in recent days in the longest and bloodiest battle of the Kremlin’s stumbling effort to conquer Ukraine.
Two top commanders of Russian forces deployed around the shattered eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut were killed in combat, the Russian Defense Ministry disclosed Sunday.
Four military aircraft were shot down enroute to northern Ukraine’s Chernihiv region on a bombing mission, Russian media and military bloggers reported the same day. All crew members aboard the two fighter jets and two Mi-8 helicopters died in the aerial shootdown over Russia’s border with Ukraine, an air-defense success neither claimed nor denied by Kyiv.
An entire Russian battalion retreated from the Bakhmut front last week, ahead of the threat by Wagner mercenary force chief Yevgeny Prigozhin to withdraw his fighters unless the Kremlin sent ammunition he’d been demanding for weeks. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov described the retreat as “regrouping” in the face of 1,000 Ukrainian troops and 40 tanks bearing down on the Russian battalion from the north. Prigozhin called the Russian forces’ retreat a “rout” of Putin’s army by the long-heralded Ukrainian spring counteroffensive.
Prigozhin threatened to withdraw his soldiers of fortune in a profanity-laced video in which he stood in front of a pile of corpses he said were those of his slain fighters.
“In the absence of ammunition, they are doomed to senseless death,” the warlord said. It is not known whether he made good on the vow to pull out his mercenaries, mostly recruited from Russia’s prisons, nor is it clear whether Moscow has resumed ammunition deliveries.
Putin’s failure to take Bakhmut after eight months of stalemated combat and casualties in the tens of thousands dealt an embarrassing blow to the Kremlin leader during last week’s WWII Victory Day celebrations. Putin casts his unprovoked war on Ukraine as a battle for Russian survival against aggression from the West and equates the widely condemned invasion with WWII allies’ hard-fought defeat of Nazi Germany.
The May 9 anniversary of Soviet troops’ 1945 war-ending sacking of Berlin is usually marked with a huge parade showcasing Russia’s most sophisticated tanks, guns and missiles and a thunderous aerial flyover of the Red Square event. This year, the show of combat aircraft was canceled and the parade featured only a single vintage tank from the military’s ceremonial stock. Most of the 8,000 soldiers goose-stepping across the cobblestones were drawn from cadet ranks and railway and military police.
Moscow’s scaled-back celebration of the victory nearly eight decades ago “highlighted the materiel and strategic communications challenges the military is facing 15 months into the war in Ukraine,” Britain’s military intelligence service observed in a tweet.
The grinding eight-month fight for Bakhmut inflicted severe casualties on both sides. Russian forces still control most of the city once home to 70,000 now depopulated and bombed into smoldering rubble. Much like Russian forces’ monthslong struggle last year to take the southern port city of Mariupol, the battle of attrition in Bakhmut destroyed any strategic or economic value in taking what is now a macabre ghost town.
Beyond Bakhmut, Russian forces face a newly armed and trained Ukrainian military that has been gearing up for the spring counteroffensive for months. Britain is now supplying Kyiv with long-range Storm Shadow missiles, capable of taking out Russian command and control sites as far away as 155 miles, compared with their U.S.-made air-defense systems with a range below 50 miles. During winter’s weather-induced slowdown in fighting, Ukraine’s Western allies were busy delivering state-of-the-art tanks and and training Ukrainian troops on how to use their new firepower.
While the United States has provided about half of the $156 billion in economic, humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine by Western countries, Britain has taken the lead in training about 10,000 of Ukraine’s citizen-soldiers into a professional military force, compared with 3,100 by U.S. advisors. Ukraine has said it needs to prepare 6,000 new recruits per month to replace fallen soldiers as the spring campaign aims to recover its Russian-occupied territory, a goal NATO-member trainers are helping to reach. Australia, Canada and all European states other than neutral Austria have contributed to the provision of basic combat training for 2,500 Ukrainians each month for the past year, according to Foreign Affairs in a lengthy article last week by U.S. scholars at Texas A&M and the U.S. Naval War College.
Russia’s demoralized army and squabbling mercenary forces also confront an opponent that is motivated to defend freedom and independence from Putin’s imperialist ambition to erase Ukrainians’ identity as a separate nation from Russia.
After 15 months of Putin’s failed quest to nullify Ukrainian statehood and horrific losses of troops, mercenaries, ammunition, armor and respect as a major power, the question begs: When will he admit defeat and end a war that has wreaked disaster on Ukraine and international opprobrium on his own Russian people?
The answer is probably no time soon, at least not by Putin deciding to abandon his mission to destroy his neighboring people’s sovereignty. The end could come from an internal Kremlin coup – one honest general wanting to stop the senseless deaths of his troops being thrown into the meat grinder of Bakhmut and the coming death traps as Ukraine wages its counteroffensive.
Putin has himself to blame for his failed “Special Military Operation.” He has managed it with his 23-year-long strategy of divide-and-conquer among his own lieutenants. He never lets an oligarch or a government minister acquire more power than other cohorts, on the theory that inner-circle rivalry curbs the authority of all.
Signs of overdue backlash for his aggression are closing in on Putin. He has had to send his regrets to the August summit in South Africa of the BRICS alliance of second-tier countries behind the Group of Seven wealthy industrial nations. A March arrest warrant for Putin issued by the International Criminal Court compels signatory nations of the ICC to detain wanted war crimes suspects when they enter those countries’ jurisdictions. Host nation South Africa – the S in BRICS which unites Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – has warned the Kremlin Putin could be arrested and delivered to The Hague if he attends the summit.
Putin has already been ostracized from United Nations meetings of global leaders. He is locked in his Kremlin fortress (or one of his villas on the outskirts of Moscow), being briefed by military leaders too fearful of the consequences of telling him the truth.
His military brass getting candid reports from the Ukrainian fronts are feeding Russian bloggers the truth of their troops’ predicaments, likely less sugar-coated than the reports the cowed defense and intelligence chiefs are brave enough to deliver to the commander-in-chief. How long that can persist has been the question hanging over the Kremlin since Putin launched his international norm-shattering invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.