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Putin is running out of time to achieve breakthrough in Ukraine

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Moscow on June 1, 2024. (Alexander Kazakov/Pool/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
June 11, 2024

For months, Russia’s army has made only limited gains on the battlefield against Ukrainian troops starved of weapons and ammunition. That’s a growing challenge for President Vladimir Putin as his military’s advantage starts to erode.

With Kyiv now taking delivery of billions of dollars in fresh arms from its U.S. and European allies, the window for a Russian breakthrough is narrowing even as it continues to fire missiles and drones at Ukrainian cities including energy infrastructure.

A Russian attempt to open a new front in Ukraine’s northeast Kharkiv region already appears bogged down without achieving Putin’s goal of creating a buffer zone along the border. Ukraine claims to be inflicting “very high losses” on Russian troops in battles around the town of Vovchansk.

Russian forces advanced only marginally since taking the strategic eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka in February at the cost of huge casualties in months of fighting. They’ve been trying for weeks to take the key settlement of Chasiv Yar in the eastern Donetsk region.

Russia’s strategy of attrition to exhaust Ukraine’s forces is “very expensive and bloody for the Russian army itself,” said Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. “It can lead to excessive exhaustion of forces on the Russian side, which in turn, gives Ukrainians a chance to counterattack.”

While Russia is mounting attacks at several points along the front line, “we have chances to change the situation in our favor,” Ukrainian armed forces Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrskyi said Wednesday on Telegram.

Putin insists his war goals are unchanged and that Russia will fight for as long as needed to win in Ukraine, regardless of mounting casualties in a war that’s in its third year with no end in sight. Ukraine and its allies face the challenge of sustaining resistance in a war that’s largely reached a stalemate.

While Ukrainian officials raised the alarm about the threat of a Russian breakthrough during months of delays over U.S. arms deliveries, Kyiv’s troops mostly held the line despite being outgunned as much as 10-1 by Moscow’s invading army. With President Joe Biden’s administration rushing U.S. arms to Ukraine after Congress finally approved $61 billion in funding in April, the balance of firepower is beginning to shift.

“Ukraine was in a deep hole due to the delay” in sending U.S. weaponry “and they’ve been digging out of that hole,” U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Tuesday on board Air Force One. “We have seen them withstand the Russian assault,” and in a situation that’s developing dynamically “weapons arriving on the battlefield at scale and quantity in the last few days and weeks have made a difference,” he said.

European Union nations are also ramping up aid and weapons supplies to bolster Kyiv, even as Hungary’s Russia-friendly government continues to block billions of euros in wider military support.

Putin must also now contend with a shift in attitude from Ukraine’s allies, with the U.S. and Germany joining nations including the U.K. in authorizing Kyiv to use their weapons to strike targets in border areas inside Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday said he’s working on sending a coalition of instructors to train thousands of soldiers in Ukraine, despite threats of retaliation from Moscow.

Group of Seven leaders will meet next week in Italy to weigh plans to provide loans to Ukraine using windfall profits from about $280 billion in frozen Russian central bank assets.

“The prospects of Russia achieving victory this year have greatly reduced as a result” of the resumption of weapons supplies and aid, said Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Russia might have the largest number of soldiers, but a lot of their first rate armored vehicles have been destroyed” and it’ll take years to rebuild the army to its 2022 level, he said.

Putin’s decision to appoint Andrey Belousov, an economist, as defense minister last month in place of his long-serving ally Sergei Shoigu underscored Russia’s need to squeeze more from the stretched resources of an economy that’s overheating, even if unprecedented international sanctions failed to trigger a collapse.

Defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product is nearing levels last reached at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s under the Soviet Union, limiting Russia’s ability to continue ratcheting up military production.

While Russia massively increased output of missiles, artillery, tanks and munitions since the February 2022 invasion, “building an effective economy for the Armed Forces is essential today,” Putin told a May 25 meeting with defense industry officials. It must “generate returns on every ruble we invest in it.”

To be sure, both sides face formidable challenges, particularly in recruiting replacements for killed or wounded troops. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a new mobilization law lowering the age of the draft, though manpower remains a problem for the military.

The Kremlin is determined not to repeat Putin’s September 2022 order to draft 300,000 reservists, a mobilization that shook public support and triggered an exodus of as many as a million Russians from the country. It’s relying instead on offering generous pay and signing bonuses to attract recruits as the Defense Ministry aims to enlist at least 250,000 more soldiers this year.

While the policy avoids social tensions inside Russia over the war, it’s unlikely to allow the army to amass enough troops for a successful offensive in Ukraine, according to Pukhov, the Moscow-based military analyst. “For a real breakthrough the Kremlin would need far more people,” he said.

Putin said in December that Russia had 617,000 troops deployed in Ukraine. At a meeting with foreign media in St. Petersburg late Wednesday, he appeared to imply that some 10,000 Russian troops a month were being killed or wounded, by claiming the total was five times lower than Ukrainian losses he put at 50,000.

Ukraine rejects such estimates of its casualties. Zelenskyy said in February his military had lost 31,000 soldiers since the start of the war.

The U.S. in December put the number of killed and wounded Russian troops at 315,000, close to 90% of the original invasion force. The U.K. Defence Ministry last week raised its estimate of total Russian casualties to 500,000 and said losses were running at 1,200 per day in May.

Russia hasn’t translated its battlefield advantages into major gains because its commanders “waste manpower in pursuit of their goals and Ukrainian forces are effective on the defense when they are supplied with men and materiel,” said Dara Massicot, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There are still meaningful limits to Russian military power.”


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