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What to expect from a Russian rebound

What to expect from a Russian rebound

Despite strong sanctions from the West, the Ruble has begun to show signs of a recovery.

The first wave of the Russian offensive in Ukraine has fallen short of Russian autocrat Vladmir Putin’s ambitions. Most analysts deduced that Putin had hoped to achieve a decapitation strike of the Ukrainian government- taking Kiev and replacing Ukrainian President Vladimir Zolinski with a pro-Kremlin voice. Kiev has been threatened repeatedly through the course of the invasion but it has consistently remained in Ukrainian control, and despite Putin’s desire to make Zolinski “disappear”, Zolinski has risen to the level of international acclaim where, even if he were killed in the defense of Kiev, he would sooner rise to martyrdom than be forgotten.

Despite failing to achieve its initial objectives, the Russian military has suffered heavy losses. At the time of this writing some 850 Russian tanks have been destroyed by drones or towed off by Ukrainian tractors. Some 180 Russian planes have met similar fates at the hands of Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems or Ukrainian fighter pilots who have well outperformed their initial expectations. Over 2,000 armored transport vehicles and other units of supply infrastructure have been knocked out on the front lines. More than that, the flagship of the Russian navy in the Black Sea, the Moskva, was sunk by Ukranian weaponry dealing a significant blow to both Russia’s capacity and morale.

The Ukrainian military achieved these early results by targeting the Russian military’s most notorious shortcoming- thin logistical supply lines. During the first few weeks of the invasion there was regular reporting of abandoned Russian tanks and artillery pieces- this was in part due to Russia’s minimalist approach to logistics and in part a consequence of the Ukrainian military’s decision to target supply shipments and Russian logistical hubs. For every six Russian combat units in Ukraine, only one unit is employed in supporting roles- in comparison, the U.S. employed a ratio of six supporting personnel for every individual American fighter during its counter-insurgencies in the Middle East.

None of this yet mentions Russia’s enlisting conscripts, or the almost 22,000 Russian soldiers who have been wounded or killed in action. Among these casualties are a large number tactical commanders, including at least five generals. These sorts of losses among commanding officers have not been seen since the Second World War, and unstable leadership surely exacerbates the problem of managing already stressed supply lines.

If we can believe the reports that Putin has become increasingly isolated from his advisors and ill-informed about the situation in Ukraine, then each of these problems become more severe for the Russian military. The less accurately informed the autocrat is, the less likely it is that he will be able to implement the sort of tactical adjustments that would allow for greater Russian successes.

By decapitating Russian tactical command and disrupting resource shipments, the Ukranians have made it difficult for the Russian military to put the full volume of its military to bear.

We must celebrate the early success of Ukraine’s resistance. In earning these early victories Ukraine’s fighting men and women likely guaranteed that their homeland will continue to exist as an independent and democratic nation.

However, it is important to keep the larger context in mind. Large swaths of eastern Ukraine are occupied by the Russian military and only 16% of the world’s population live in nations with governments that have actively condemned Russia’s invasion. In truth, we have achieved little more than avoiding the worst case scenario and forcing Putin to reevaluate his strategy. More to the point, there is a chance that the Russian military’s many early mistakes give Putin the opportunity to make the necessary strategic adjustments before even more of Russia’s fighting capacity is rendered useless.

Yes- Ukrainian forces have survived the initial shock of the invasion, much of the early commitment of Russian heavy weaponry has been taken out of the field, and Russian tactical command structure is shaken. However, as a consequence of these Ukrainian successes, the Russian military may have begun to adapt. Since mid-April, the Russian military has carried out a retreat from some of the most far-flung battlefields in order to restructure command of the military operation and refocus firepower in eastern Ukraine where the Kremlin employs the trumped-up casus belli of liberating the “breakaway republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk.  

This refocused military strategy coupled with some indications that the Russian economy has adjusted to the impact of sanctions and apparent growing support for the conflict within Russia should create anxiety among those of us who wish to see a free and prosperous Ukraine. This anxiety should be amplified by the fact that the American public has a short memory as it pertains to foreign policy issues- this is particularly the case when other concerns (both real and hyperbolic) come increasingly into focus with the 2022 elections on the horizon.

We cannot allow ourselves to believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is mere days or weeks from ending- to do so would be to make the same mistake that Putin apparently made when first authorizing the conflict. As any student of foreign policy knows, occupations (and the counter-insurgencies they beget) are long-term commitments that are costly in terms of both blood and treasure. Unless we are willing to believe that Putin launched his invasion without this knowledge, we must believe that he is prepared for a long term conflict that takes numerous twists and turns.

Putin’s initial attempt to strike at the heart of Ukraine has failed, but we should not be lulled into the sense that this war is over. The war will continue to rage in eastern Ukraine much as it has for the last eight years in Crimea. The United States and its global partners should continue to apply economic pressure and focus the international community on Russia’s imperialistic behavior. In addition, anti-imperial nations around the world should continue to supply the Ukrainian military with the information, supplies, and weaponry needed to sustain the fight for Ukrainian independence without risking escalation into an even more destructive war. 

Not only is the principle of national self-determination at stake in Ukraine, but so too is our shared commitment to democratic values and our opposition to violent expansionism. We cannot afford to avert our attention just as Putin corrects the missteps of his initial invasion.

Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association