Over the past several weeks, Russia’s political and military prospects have reversed in its war against Ukraine. As with all large-scale wars, shifts in momentum are likely and are not necessarily indicative of the final outcome. However, the types of political and military setbacks Russia has experienced in the past weeks point to a need for Moscow to reassess its goals as well as look at the means it will have at hand in the coming months or years to achieve them. Some indications point to such a reassessment on Putin’s part.
Since early September, the Ukrainian armed forces have made significant headway in pushing back Russian forces in the northeast of Ukraine, and they continue to press Russian forces in the south near Kherson. While estimates vary, the Ukrainian government claims that its forces have recovered 3,000-3,500 square miles of territory since the beginning of September. Most accounts still have Ukraine on the offensive in both its northeast and the south. The reasons behind the sudden shift in momentum are not fully known, but some of the best analysis points to a handful of factors that are important not just for the changes over the past three weeks but also for the months, and possibly, years ahead.
The first is that – despite overall population differences favoring Russia – Ukraine has an advantage in military manpower and increasingly so in trained military manpower. Even if Russian President Putin were to declare an all-out war and enact a full mobilization, Russia would struggle to produce trained and equipped units due to the lack of competent trainers and modern equipment. Russia’s thin lines in the northeast – it had transferred its better-trained units to the south in anticipation of a Ukrainian offensive there – broke quickly and allowed Ukrainian forces to advance rapidly and surround Russian forces.
Second is the supply of intelligence and highly effective weapons from the West to Ukraine.
A final critical factor is the morale of the forces themselves with Ukrainians fighting to liberate their territory and many Russian soldiers simply not believing in or understanding why they are at war with Ukraine.
Change in Russia’s Goals
None of these are factors that Putin can address in a way that will allow Russia to seize more or even hold what it currently has of Ukrainian territory. Instead, Putin has to change both his war goals and his methods of prosecuting it if he wishes to continue. He has begun to speak of the war’s goals as liberating Donbas, something far more modest than his February goals. In addition, the Russian army may have to consolidate its forces to hold smaller amounts of Ukrainian territory and then resort to long-range strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure and key military forces. We saw the beginning of this with a missile strike on a dam soon after Russian forces were routed in the northeast and the increasing use of Iranian-made kamikaze drones against Ukrainian artillery and armor. Of course, Ukraine has regained territory sufficiently close to strike back into Russia proper with long-range artillery, so it is unclear how a long-range duel plays out over time.
In addition to military setbacks, the Ukrainian offensive has quieted international voices that were earlier calling on Kyiv to negotiate. Military assistance continues to flow. In addition, President Putin was publicly questioned about the wisdom of the war in meetings with the heads of both China and India. While Beijing will continue providing political support and both China and India will buy discounted Russian energy, Putin is testing the limits of these critical partners.