Putin has diverted attention from the grim battlefield picture in recent days by orchestrating referendums, declaring annexations and making nuclear threats – all part of an effort to freeze Russian territorial gains built up since February and unraveling by the day .
But these political machinations in Moscow, carried out with great fanfare and bravado, have not been able to mask the reality some 600 miles away in Ukraine: Russia’s strength is beleaguered and mismanaged—and for the immediate future there may not be a silver bullet to fix it.
Military analysts agree that Russia’s haphazard mobilization of at least 300,000 reserves is unlikely to help Putin on the battlefield in a matter of days. Whether that can help Moscow stabilize the situation in the longer term — in the late fall, winter and spring — is an open question, they said.
Searching for corpses of the Ukrainian captain who collects Russian corpses
The effectiveness of the new soldiers depends partly on whether they can be trained effectively – and how the Russian military organizes and deploys them.
“People are not beans. Units are not units, except on a map,” said Frederick Kagan, a senior fellow and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. “If you take a bunch of angry, demoralized, scared, untrained people , give them weapons and throw them into a fighting force, you have no soldiers.”
Putin will first have to focus on restoring the basic combat capability of a military with severely depleted units that will need large-scale rearmament, which is difficult, Kagan said. “Before we talk about flooding the zone, we’re really talking about restoring combat units to something like combat capability,” he said.
How much territory the Russians lose before reinforcements arrive is not entirely up to Moscow. Ukraine has been beating back the Russians on two major fronts for more than a month. It is unclear how long Ukrainian forces, suffering their own casualties, can sustain the pressure.
“One of the hardest things to know is when to stop,” said Christopher Doherty, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Just as you have achieved this huge gain, you have stretched your entire logistic line, many people have been fighting for days. There’s a psychological bump you get from winning and being on the offensive, but everyone runs out of juice at some point.”
Currently, Ukraine is maintaining its momentum. In the east, its forces retook the town of Lyman over the weekend and are advancing deeper into the occupied territories of the Luhansk region. The Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south, meanwhile, has gained momentum in recent days, with forces moving down the Dnieper River towards Kherson.
Where and when the Ukrainian counteroffensive ultimately stops will also depend on weapons and ammunition, much of it coming from the United States.
On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced an additional $625 million in aid to Ukraine, including four more HIMARS rocket launchers, 16 155mm howitzers and 75,000 155mm artillery pieces. Ukraine has asked for longer-range missiles and tanks, but has so far not received them. The United States has committed more than $16.8 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, according to the White House.
Russia regularly warns of consequences if the US and its allies continue to arm Ukraine, but has proven unable to disrupt the flow of weapons. The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that the amount of US weapons given to Kiev had reached a “dangerous limit”.
Disappointment over Moscow’s position on the battlefield has seeped into the public sphere in Russia, primarily through Telegram channels but also at times on tightly controlled state television.
Russian military blogger Maxim Fomin, who posts under the pseudonym Vladlen Tatarsky, said in a video uploaded Tuesday to Telegram that the situation on the front for Russian forces is “not great, to put it mildly.”
Russia does not have enough forces on the battlefield “to resolve the Ukrainian issue decisively,” he said, expressing concern that draftees to be sent to the front in many cases do not receive proper training.
“You can fight with unprepared people, but it is fraught with great losses,” he said.
Andrei Marochko, a Russian-backed militia official in Luhansk, told the Russian state television program “60 Minutes” that the Ukrainians, backed by NATO, operated with superior battlefield intelligence capabilities.
“They are literally watching in real time online with satellites our movements, our fortification structures,” Marochko said. “It gives them certain privileges and makes their chances of success much higher than ours.”
He said the Russian side had fewer forces than the Ukrainians in a number of locations, providing a rationale for Putin’s recent mobilization.
Rapid loss of territory in Ukraine reveals used Russian military
There are few indications that any of the major problems that have dogged the Russian military since the start of the invasion have been resolved. For months, it has struggled to carry out combined ground and air strikes, lead troops with a variable willingness to fight and organize a complicated logistics pipeline to get supplies to the front.
After more than seven months, no clear leader of the Russian campaign has emerged in public, and recent reports have suggested Putin is stepping in personally to make decisions on the battlefield. Hardliners in Russia have publicly attacked the country’s generals for poor decision-making.
The problems facing Putin in Ukraine are compounded by risks at home. The mobilization has made the war in Ukraine real for many Russians who had not been paying much attention.
The result is likely to be that many more Russians – including those with sons, brothers and husbands now headed for the front – are searching for information about how Russian forces are doing.
“They’ve given people a reason to pay attention to what’s happening on the battlefield,” said Sam Greene, professor of Russian politics at King’s College London. “When you’re not sent there, you can kind of get news from the television, and the television isn’t going to tell you much. Now it suddenly means something to you.”
At the same time, the Russian state has fumbled in its execution of the draft, calling up men who should have been disqualified.
Russia restructured its military 10 years ago, dismantling much of the mobilization system that was expensive to maintain and considered largely unnecessary — and now it’s showing, said Dara Massicot, a senior police researcher at the Rand Corp.
Massicot said there is little reliable public information about how Russia intends to train and deploy draftees, making it too early to say exactly what kind of impact the mobilization is likely to have. She said the new troops are likely to have poor combat capability, but could free up personnel in the rear to fight at the front, provided there are soldiers to free up.
“Creating a tank battalion out of these guys is going to go as we all would expect,” Massicot said. “But if they’re using them in a support role or a non-combat role in the occupied territories, there’s probably a significant benefit to what they’re trying to do — which is to hold on.”
The situation has shown the limits of Putin’s ability to control the functions of his own government and military.
“One of the things we should have learned through this is that there are things that Putin doesn’t know — one of them is how good his army is, how effective his state is,” Greene said. “He’s never tried this before. So he’s not going to know how effectively it’s going to work until push comes to shove.”
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees on Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine after staged referendums that were widely condemned as illegal. Follow our live updates here.
The answer: The Biden administration announced a new round of sanctions against Russia on Friday in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascent” into NATO, in an apparent response to the annexations.
In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on September 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly conscripted men, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.
The fight: Ukraine launched a successful counteroffensive that forced a large Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war, leaving behind large amounts of military equipment.
Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground since the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.
How you can help: Here are ways that those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people, as well as what people around the world have donated.
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