Putin has time – and it could decide the outcome of the war

ANALYSIS 100 days of war later, Putin is counting on the world’s indifference

Travel back in time to February 23, the day before Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine. One might be tempted to guess that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s days were numbered.

After all, the Russian army was about ten times larger than that of Ukraine. Moscow enjoyed a double advantage over kyiv in ground forces; and the nuclear power had ten times more planes and five times more armored fighting vehicles than its neighbor.

Vladimir Putin, a visibly angry Russian president, had appeared on television a few days earlier, delivering a rambling historical monologue that made it clear that he expected nothing less than regime change in Kyiv.

The Kremlin leader appeared to be betting that Zelensky would flee his capital, just as the US-backed Afghan president had left Kabul months earlier, and that Western outrage would subside, even with the temporary pain of new sanctions. .

One hundred days later, whatever Putin’s plans for a victory parade in Kyiv are on indefinite hold. The morale of the Ukrainians has not dropped. Ukrainian troops, equipped with modern anti-tank weapons supplied by the United States and its allies, devastated Russian armored columns; Ukrainian missiles sank the missile cruiser Moskva, the pride of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet; and the Ukrainian planes remained in the air, against all odds.

In late March, the Russian military began withdrawing its battered troops from around the Ukrainian capital, saying it had focused on capturing the eastern Donbass region. Three months after its invasion, Russia no longer seems to be aiming for a short and victorious war in Ukraine – nor capable of achieving it.

The problem of prognosis

Does this mean that Russia is losing? It is tempting to paint a picture of the situation on a given day and jump to conclusions.

The Ukrainians managed to kill Russian generals with stunning speed; Moscow was forced to reorganize its military command after the initial mess; and Russian losses, elusive as the official figures are, are shockingly high.

But Russia now controls expanding Ukrainian territory that stretches from Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv, continues through the breakaway cities of Donetsk and Luhansk and reaches Kherson, forming a land bridge linking the Crimean peninsula (forcibly annexed by Russia in 2014) with the Donbass. Region.

Russia’s main direction of effort is now in the Donbass region, where things have settled into a war of attrition. Recent fighting has centered around Severodonetsk, an industrial city where Ukrainian forces hold the last piece of eastern Luhansk.

Ukrainian troops ceded most of Severodonetsk to the Russians. The city’s fall will be a symbolic loss, but one that military analysts say will spare Ukrainian forces a prolonged siege — and one likely to lose.

“kyiv could have allocated more reserves and resources to the defense of Severodonetsk, and its failure to do so has drawn criticism,” analyzed the American Institute for the Study of War in a recent review.

“The decision to avoid committing more resources to save Severodonetsk and the decision to withdraw from it was strategically sound, painful as it is. Ukraine must marry its most limited resources and focus on recovering the critical ground and not on the defense of lands whose control will not determine the outcome of the war nor the conditions for the resumption of the war”.

In the midst of the Severodonetsk offensive, Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzianyk said Russian forces were “now trying to encircle our troops in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions”, and were regrouping to launch an offensive towards Sloviansk, a strategic point. city ​​that could become the center of the next crucial battle.

The battles in eastern Ukraine are fought in much more open terrain than the more densely populated urban environment around Kyiv. This explains the urgency with which the Ukrainians demanded heavier weapons – especially artillery systems capable of hitting targets at greater ranges – from the United States and its allies.

President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that the United States would send more advanced rockets, including high-mobility artillery systems with ammunition that can launch rockets up to 49 miles, a range far beyond anything the Ukraine has sent so far.

This is good news for Kyiv, but Russia’s eastern offensive is attracting international media attention in Ukraine. And that may be what Putin is counting on, perhaps aware that high energy costs and rising consumer prices – both exacerbated by the war in Ukraine – are more likely to be the focal point. public opinion (and boost election results) in the United States and elsewhere.

Putin can also count on short bursts of diplomatic attention. This is the same Russian leader who doubled his support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015 after Damascus suffered a series of defeats. This war – now entering its 12th year – continued even as the world’s attention turned to Ukraine.

In this regard, Zelensky has been one of Ukraine’s greatest assets in the information war. He made a series of virtual appearances before parliaments around the world, while reminding other world leaders that they might be inclined to appease Putin by pressuring Ukraine to cede territory, which it it is the Ukrainian people, not them, who should decide the results.

During Zelensky’s appearances with wounded Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, the Ukrainian leader takes selfies and projects a warm, humane and thoughtful style of leadership. This contrasts with the Russian leader’s solitary public visit to a military hospital: Putin, dressed in an oversized white lab coat, met wounded soldiers and officers who remained loyal to their commander-in-chief.

But Putin, who has shut down all domestic political opposition and effectively controls his country’s airwaves, does not face the same domestic pressure as Zelensky. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Putin’s Security Council, said in recent remarks that Russian forces were not “chasing deadlines” in Ukraine, suggesting that Putin had a much more open timetable for his war in Ukraine. Ukrainians, on the other hand, fear international fatigue, which could lead the international community to pressure their government to make concessions to Putin.

“You have the watches, but we have the time.” This saying, sometimes attributed to a captured Taliban fighter, embodied the American dilemma in the war in Afghanistan, a grudging recognition that insurgencies operated across different political and time horizons, and that insurgents only needed to survive – not to defeat – the technologically superior American military.

To use this phrase, perhaps the decisive factor in Ukraine is who has time: a Russian dictator likely to retain power until his death or a Ukrainian people struggling for national survival.

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