Why Ukraine’s successful offensive is such bad news for Vladimir Putin

The Ukrainians’ performance has amplified dissent in Russia, has strengthened President Biden’s hand in rallying support for the country, has opened up new opportunities for Kyiv and is expected to make it harder for Russia to find support from its allies.

“Clearly they’re fighting hard,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Monday of the Ukrainian troops, noting that Russian forces have “largely ceded their gains to the Ukrainians” in the vicinity of Kharkiv province, with “many” of the Russian forces moving back over the border into Russia.

The Ukrainian military last week began a counteroffensive that quickly reclaimed territory and pushed Russian troops back to the northeastern border of the country in some places.

The lightning advance forced thousands of Kremlin troops to make a quick retreat, leaving behind ammunition stockpiles and equipment, reports of abandonment that could be “indicative of Russia’s disorganized command and control,” the defense official said.

On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his forces had recaptured 6,000 square kilometers of land in the east and south of Ukraine since the start of September. Included in the towns reclaimed was Izyum, a key city in the fight.

The loss of Izyum marks Russia’s worst military defeat since March, when its troops were unable to take the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and were forced back.

For Ukraine, the rapid advance could be a turning point in the 6-month-old war that moves the fighting out of a battle of attrition.

For Russia and Putin, it could force some very tough decisions on conscription and the future of a war that Moscow still insists is merely a special military operation.

“It’s a time of choosing for President Putin,” said Eric Ueland, the under secretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights under former President Trump. “For allies in the West, it’s a time of vigilance, constant communication and clear lines about what would not be acceptable from Russia, especially on the military front, as President Putin and his leadership are continuing to process what’s going on in Ukraine.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on economic issues via a video link at the Kremlin in Moscow on September 12, 2022. (Photo by Gavriil Grigorov / SPUTNIK / AFP)

Heidi Crebo-Rediker, adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that Putin could react harshly to the increasing momentum from Ukraine.

“To the extent that there can be any gains made by Ukraine, so much to their credit, I fear now the retaliation that we could see from Putin in the coming days and weeks could be even more brutal against civilians than we’ve seen already,” she said.

In an attempt to kneecap Russia and help Ukrainian forces, the United States has been at the forefront of imposing harsh sanctions on Moscow and sending military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the war began. To keep Ukraine supplied with a steady stream of weapons, the U.S. since April has led a 50-country effort known as the Ukraine Contact Group to coordinate the flow of military assistance.

Last week, U.S. officials announced a new $675 million package of weapons and equipment for Kyiv as well as $2.2 billion in “long-term” military support to bolster the security of Ukraine and 18 nearby countries at risk of any future Russian attack.

“We see how bravely the Ukrainians have been fighting to fight for their freedom and we support that,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday, adding that the White House is “grateful” for the bipartisan support for Ukraine aid.

In Russia, the retreat has caused problems for Putin beyond the embarrassment of his forces appearing to be caught flat-footed. More than 30 Russian municipal deputies have signed a petition calling for the longtime leader’s resignation, a rare criticism of the president who over the years has sought to quash opposition.

Russian nationalists have also called on Putin to make immediate changes to the Kremlin military campaign, Reuters reported.

And Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a key Putin ally, on Sunday criticized Russia’s military for the retreat.

“They have made mistakes and I think they will draw the necessary conclusions,” Kadyrov said in a message posted to his Telegram account and translated by The Guardian.

Putin has also faced dissent since Ukraine’s increased counteroffensive from Russian media commentators, which Ueland argued could spark a change in his strategy.

“So what does he choose to do if there is a steady erosion of public support for him and Russia? Does that mean he redoubles his efforts in Ukraine? Does that mean that he moves to try to suppress internal dissent? Does that mean he moves to put scapegoats out front for some of the failures here? Nobody knows,” he said. “And it’s very unpredictable.”

Crebo-Rediker said she was “heartened” by the “small crack in the ice” with the discourse on Russian television over the weekend but said it could lead to more action from Putin.

“I think that the likely path for Putin moving forward is more indiscriminate attacks, more internal televised calls for more mobilization, a potential staged ramp-up or conscription of military recruits from throughout Russia,” she said. “Russia will in some way need to build up its troop levels to take on Ukraine moving forward.”

The stunning losses for Russia come as Moscow has desperately sought weapons and aid from allies including Iran and North Korea and has played up its support from China. Beijing so far has not publicly provided any help but has refused to condemn the war and has criticized sanctions against Russia.

Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping this week are expected to speak on the sidelines of a regional summit in Uzbekistan, the first time the two will meet face to face since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

The United States is carefully watching the interaction, as the two countries have become closer partners in recent years.

“We’ve made clear about our concerns about the depth of China’s alignment and ties with Russia, even as Russia prosecutes a war of aggression in Ukraine,” Jean-Pierre said.

Samar Ali, White House fellow at the Department of Homeland Security under former President Obama, said that if China were to pull support for Russia, it could lead to the withdrawal of support from other Russian allies such as North Korea and Iran.

“If we see that China decides that Putin’s not the horse to back right now, obviously I think that’s favorable for the world, for global stability and order,” she said. “So, we’ll have to see if China shifts its energy away from Putin, will other countries follow, and will that weaken Putin further and strengthen Ukraine, U.S. and our allies?”

Crebo-Rediker, however, argued China is unlikely to discredit Putin despite Moscow’s problems.

“I don’t know if there’s any hope that behind the scenes, China might play at some point a more constructive role than it has to date. But certainly in this upcoming meeting, I don’t imagine that there would be any public display of disunity,” she said.