“I am wicked and scary with claws and teeth,” Vladimir Putin reportedly warned David Cameron when the then-British prime minister pressed him about the use of chemical weapons by Russia’s ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, and discussed how far Russia was prepared to go.
According to Cameron’s top foreign policy adviser John Casson — cited in a BBC documentary — Putin went on to explain that to succeed in Syria, one would have to use barbaric methods, as the U.S. did in Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq. “I am an ex-KGB man,” he expounded.
The remarks were meant, apparently, half in jest but, as ever with Russia’s leader, the menace was clear.
And certainly, Putin has proven he is ready to deploy fear as a weapon in his attempt to subjugate a defiant Ukraine. His troops have targeted civilians and have resorted to torture and rape. But victory has eluded him.
In the next few weeks, he looks set to try to reverse his military failures with a late-winter offensive: very possibly by being even scarier, and fighting tooth and claw, to save Russia — and himself — from further humiliation.
Can the ex-KGB man succeed, however? Can Russia still win the war of Putin’s choice against Ukraine in the face of heroic and united resistance from the Ukrainians?
Catalog of errors
From the start, the war was marked by misjudgments and erroneous calculations. Putin and his generals underestimated Ukrainian resistance, overrated the abilities of their own forces, and failed to foresee the scale of military and economic support Ukraine would receive from the United States and European nations.
Kyiv didn’t fall in a matter of days — as planned by the Kremlin — and Putin’s forces in the summer and autumn were pushed back, with Ukraine reclaiming by November more than half the territory the Russians captured in the first few weeks of the invasion. Russia has now been forced into a costly and protracted conventional war, one that’s sparked rare dissent within the country’s political-military establishment and led Kremlin infighting to spill into the open.
The only victory Russian forces have recorded in months came in January when the Ukrainians withdrew from the salt-mining town of Soledar in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. And the signs are that the Russians are on the brink of another win with Bakhmut, just six miles southwest of Soledar, which is likely to fall into their hands shortly.
But neither of these blood-drenched victories amounts to much more than a symbolic success despite the high casualties likely suffered by both sides. Tactically neither win is significant — and some Western officials privately say Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may have been better advised to have withdrawn earlier from Soledar and from Bakhmut now, in much the same way the Russians in November beat a retreat from their militarily hopeless position at Kherson.
For a real reversal of Russia’s military fortunes Putin will be banking in the coming weeks on his forces, replenished by mobilized reservists and conscripts, pulling off a major new offensive. Ukrainian officials expect the offensive to come in earnest sooner than spring. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov warned in press conferences in the past few days that Russia may well have as many as 500,000 troops amassed in occupied Ukraine and along the borders in reserve ready for an attack. He says it may start in earnest around this month’s first anniversary of the war on February 24.
Other Ukrainian officials think the offensive, when it comes, will be in March — but at least before the arrival of Leopard 2 and other Western main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. Zelenskyy warned Ukrainians Saturday that the country is entering a “time when the occupier throws more and more of its forces to break our defenses.”
All eyes on Donbas
The likely focus of the Russians will be on the Donbas region of the East. Andriy Chernyak, an official in Ukraine’s military intelligence, told the Kyiv Post that Putin had ordered his armed forces to capture all of Donetsk and Luhansk by the end of March. “We’ve observed that the Russian occupation forces are redeploying additional assault groups, units, weapons and military equipment to the east,” Chernyak said. “According to the military intelligence of Ukraine, Putin gave the order to seize all of the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”
Other Ukrainian officials and western military analysts suspect Russia might throw some wildcards to distract and confuse. They have their eyes on a feint coming from Belarus mimicking the northern thrust last February on Kyiv and west of the capital toward Vinnytsia. But Ukrainian defense officials estimate there are only 12,000 Russian soldiers in Belarus currently, ostensibly holding joint training exercises with the Belarusian military, hardly enough to mount a diversion.
“A repeat assault on Kyiv makes little sense,” Michael Kofman, an American expert on the Russian Armed Forces and a fellow of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. “An operation to sever supply lines in the west, or to seize the nuclear powerplant by Rivne, may be more feasible, but this would require a much larger force than what Russia currently has deployed in Belarus,” he said in an analysis.
But exactly where Russia’s main thrusts will come along the 600-kilometer-long front line in Ukraine’s Donbas region is still unclear. Western military analysts don’t expect Russia to mount a push along the whole snaking front — more likely launching a two or three-pronged assault focusing on some key villages and towns in southern Donetsk, on Kreminna and Lyman in Luhansk, and in the south in Zaporizhzhia, where there have been reports of increased buildup of troops and equipment across the border in Russia.
In the Luhansk region, Russian forces have been removing residents near the Russian-held parts of the front line. And the region’s governor, Serhiy Haidai, believes the expulsions are aimed at clearing out possible Ukrainian spies and locals spotting for the Ukrainian artillery. “There is an active transfer of (Russian troops) to the region and they are definitely preparing for something on the eastern front,” Haidai told reporters.
Reznikov has said he expects the Russian offensive will come from the east and the south simultaneously — from Zaporizhzhia in the south and in Donetsk and Luhansk. In the run-up to the main offensives, Russian forces have been testing five points along the front, according to Ukraine’s General Staff in a press briefing Tuesday. They said Russian troops have been regrouping on different parts of the front line and conducting attacks near Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region and Lyman, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Novopavlivka in eastern Donetsk.
Combined arms warfare
Breakthroughs, however, will likely elude the Russians if they can’t correct two major failings that have dogged their military operations so far — poor logistics and a failure to coordinate infantry, armor, artillery and air support to achieve mutually complementary effects, otherwise known as combined arms warfare.
When announcing the appointment in January of General Valery Gerasimov — the former chief of the defense staff — as the overall commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, Russia’s defense ministry highlighted “the need to organize closer interaction between the types and arms of the troops,” in other words to improve combined arms warfare.
Kofman assesses that Russia’s logistics problems may have largely been overcome. “There’s been a fair amount of reorganization in Russian logistics, and adaptation. I think the conversation on Russian logistical problems in general suffers from too much anecdotalism and received wisdom,” he said.
Failing that, much will depend for Russia on how much Gerasimov has managed to train his replenished forces in combined arms warfare and on that there are huge doubts he had enough time. Kofman believes Ukrainian forces “would be better served absorbing the Russian attack and exhausting the Russian offensive potential, then taking the initiative later this spring. Having expended ammunition, better troops, and equipment it could leave Russian defense overall weaker.” He suspects the offensive “may prove underwhelming.”
Pro-war Russian military bloggers agree. They have been clamoring for another mobilization, saying it will be necessary to power the breakouts needed to reverse Russia’s military fortunes. Former Russian intelligence officer and paramilitary commander Igor Girkin, who played a key role in Crimea’s annexation and later in the Donbas, has argued waves of call-ups will be needed to overcome Ukraine’s defenses by sheer numbers.
And Western military analysts suspect that Ukraine and Russia are currently fielding about the same number of combat soldiers. This means General Gerasimov will need many more if he’s to achieve the three-to-one ratio military doctrines suggest necessary for an attacking force to succeed.
But others fear that Russia has sufficient forces, if they are concentrated, to make some “shock gains.” Richard Kemp, a former British army infantry commander, is predicting “significant Russian gains in the coming weeks. We need to be realistic about how bad things could be — otherwise the shock risks dislodging Western resolve,” he wrote. The fear being that if the Russians can make significant territorial gains in the Donbas, then it is more likely pressure from some Western allies will grow for negotiations.
But Gerasimov’s manpower deficiencies have prompted other analysts to say that if Western resolve holds, Putin’s own caution will hamper Russia’s chances to win the war.
“Putin’s hesitant wartime decision-making demonstrates his desire to avoid risky decisions that could threaten his rule or international escalation — despite the fact his maximalist and unrealistic objective, the full conquest of Ukraine, likely requires the assumption of further risk to have any hope of success,” said the Institute for the Study of War in an analysis this week.
Wicked and scary Putin may be but, as far as ISW sees it, he “has remained reluctant to order the difficult changes to the Russian military and society that are likely necessary to salvage his war.”