Russian President Vladimir Putin watches through binoculars the Tsentr-2019 military exercise in the Donguz Mountains near the city of Orenburg on September 20, 2019.
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Russia has been tight-lipped about its recent defeats in Ukraine, and strategists fear that Moscow may, in an effort to save face, punish Kyiv harshly for its battlefield victories.
Kyiv forces have launched a massive counteroffensive in the country’s northeast, reclaiming thousands of kilometers of Russian-occupied land in recent days.
Now thoughts are turning to potential Russian retaliation, with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov telling the Financial Times that he was they expect a counterattack. “A counteroffensive liberates territory, and then you have to control it and be ready to defend it,” Reznikov said, adding: “Of course we have to worry, this war has worried us for years.”
Russia has already begun intense shelling of the Kharkiv region since Sunday night, leaving it without electricity and water. Ukraine’s deputy defense minister told Reuters it was too early to say Ukraine was in full control of the area.
According to close Kremlin supporters, President Vladimir Putin is now likely weighing his options.
“The Kremlin’s military narrative is getting worse,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, said Monday. “To the extent that it continues, it is pushing Putin to call for mobilization — a likely partial but still politically and socially costly move for the Russian president at home that would force him to declare war on Ukraine and tacitly admit that Russia faces military problems,” he said in an e – email comments. Russia insists it will call its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation,” not a war.
“It further increases Russia’s willingness to inflict Grozny-like ‘punishment’ on Ukrainians, both in the sense of causing mass casualties in Ukraine by targeting urban centers more, and in the worst case, using chemical or even tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield to sow mass panic,” he added Bremer.
“If there is a likely short-term change in the Russian war that will continue, it is an escalation and not a negotiated breakthrough.”
Ukraine’s battlefield victories in recent days and its ability to retake dozens of towns and villages in the Kharkiv region put Russia on the back foot. It is now scrambling to defend its territory in Donetsk and Luhansk, where two pro-Russian “republics” lie, in Donbas in eastern Ukraine.
Russian forces are believed to have been surprised by the Ukrainian counterattack in the northeast of the country and they were greatly outnumbered. There were signs that Russian forces had beaten a hasty retreat and Russian equipment and ammunition depots had been abandoned.
Prior to these counterattacks in the northeast, Kyiv had strongly pushed for a counteroffensive in southern Ukraine — prompting Russia to move troops there.
Firefighters of the State Rescue Service are working to extinguish a fire that broke out after a Russian missile attack on an energy facility in the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine. On Sunday evening, Russian attackers fired 11 cruise missiles at critical civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, strikes seen as “retaliation” for its recapture of the occupied country.
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On Monday, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said Russia’s goals in Ukraine remained the same — to “liberate” Donbas — and insisted the fighting would continue.
But discontent is running rampant in Russia, with even staunch Kremlin supporters questioning the war in public forums, including on state television in Russia.
“We’ve been told everything is going according to plan. Does anyone really believe that six months ago the plan was to leave? [the city of] Balakliya, the repulse of the counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region and the inability to control Kharkiv?” usually pro-Putin political expert Viktor Olevich he said on the state channel NTV, the Moscow Times reported.
Another public figure, former MP Boris Nadezhdinhe said that Russia would not win the war if it continued to fight as it had been, saying that there was a need for “either mobilization and total war or we’re out.”
Analysts at global risk consultancy Teneo noted in emailed comments Monday night that the military casualties and humiliation of Russian troops “pose a risk to President Vladimir Putin’s regime as domestic criticism of the conduct of the so-called special military operation grows from various quarters.” “
“As a result, Putin faces increasing pressure to respond to increasingly adverse dynamics on the front lines, which may include either escalating moves or calls for ceasefire talks,” they added.
Putin’s regime now faces a difficult choice; the war drags on and its undersupplied forces are likely to become demoralized as they come under pressure from the well-organized and armed Ukrainian army.
“I think Moscow now faces a serious choice: face a humiliating defeat in Ukraine — which seems inevitable given current troop deployments, supply chains and momentum on Ukraine’s side — and sue for peace,” Timothy Ash, chief sovereign strategist for emerging markets in BlueBay. Asset Management, it said in a note on Monday.
“Or escalate with mass mobilization and WMD [weapon of mass destruction]or perhaps, in the Syrian way, indiscriminately comparing Ukrainian cities to the ground.”
Ash said Putin had probably dropped the option of mass mobilization, which would have put Russia on a war footing and many of its citizens would have to be drafted. “The risk is that they will come home in body bags and cause domestic social and political unrest in Russia,” he said, but added that Putin is also unlikely to resort to unconventional weapons – such as weapons of mass destruction.
“Putin had a chance and failed to pull the trigger because he knows these are only real deterrents and once he triggers them, we’re in a whole new ball game, the risk of World War 3 and a chain of events that will be very difficult. handle but where he is clearly seen as the aggressor/crazy guy and is losing most of his friends internationally including China and others,” Ash added.
He said he expected Putin to try to open “serious” peace talks after further attempts at intensive airstrikes in Ukraine. “He’ll have to hurry, though, because the ground in Ukraine and possibly Moscow is shifting quickly under his feet,” Ash noted.
“At this stage, a total collapse of Russian forces across Ukraine is entirely possible – including what took place before February 24, including Crimea, and even talk of potential splits in Moscow and risks to Putin’s stay in power. Watch this space.”