ISW: Ukraine Turns Tides of War, Kadyrov Nervous, Putin Sides with Shoigu

Ukrainian forces inflicted a major operational defeat on Russia, capturing almost all of Kharkiv Oblast in a swift counter-offensive. The Ukrainian success was the result of skillful design and execution of the campaign, which included efforts to maximize the impact of Western weapons systems such as HIMARS, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said in its latest report on the operational situation in Ukraine.

The conclusions of the analysts of the international think-tank are also supported by the data of the Russian command, which on Monday morning announced the continued occupation of settlements in the Kharkiv region by ISW forces.

According to ISW, the Ukrainian capture of Izyum has ended the prospect that Russia can achieve its stated goals in the Donetsk region. After withdrawing from Kyiv in early April, the declared Russian objectives were to seize the entire territory of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. The Russian campaign to achieve these goals was an arc attack from Izyum through Severodonetsk to the area near the city of Donetsk. This attack aimed to capture Severodonetsk, Lisichansk, Slavyansk, Bakhmut and Kramatorsk and continue to the western border of Donetsk Oblast. Russian forces managed to capture Severodonetsk on 24 June and Lisichansk on 3 July after a long and extremely costly campaign. This was followed by a stalemate without the Russians succeeding in capturing large settlements and territories. However, the Russian position around Izyum still threatened the Ukrainian defenders of Slavyansk and preserved for the Russians the opportunity to return to the attack on the northern sectors of the arc, ISW commented.

The loss of Izyum doomed the original Russian campaign plan for this phase of the war and ensured that a Russian advance towards Bakhmut or around the city of Donetsk could not be decisive (if at all). Even an eventual and unlikely Russian capture of Bakhmut would not help achieve the initial objectives of this phase of the campaign, as it would not be supported by an advance from Izyum to the north. Thus, the ongoing Russian offensive operations against Bakhmut and around the city of Donetsk have lost any real operational significance for Moscow and simply waste some of the extremely limited effective combat power that Russia retains.

On the discussion question about the goals and successes of Ukraine in the Kherson direction, the ISW team claims that there is no reason to say that the counter-offensive announced by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the Kherson region is just a fiction. Ukrainian forces have attacked and achieved success at several important locations on the west bank of the Dnieper River. They cut the two bridges across the river and continue to keep them down, as well as hamper Russian efforts to maintain supplies by barges and pontoon ferries. Ukraine has committed significant combat power and concentrated a significant portion of the long-range Western-supplied precision systems it has along this axis, and is unlikely to do so solely to draw Russian forces into the area.

The Ukrainian push in Kherson, combined with the rapid counteroffensive in Kharkiv, presents the Russians with a terrible dilemma in time and space. Russia probably does not have enough reserve forces to complete the formation of a new defensive line along the Oskil River, which it is said to be trying to do, before Ukrainian forces continue to advance through this position as well, if they choose. Prudence would require Russia to withdraw forces from other sectors of the battlespace to establish defensive lines further east of the Oskil River to ensure that it can hold the Luhansk Oblast border or a line as close to that border as possible.

“Russian troops around Bakhmut and near the city of Donetsk continue offensive operations, as if unaware of the danger to Luhansk, and Russian forces in Kherson still face attack and the threat of further attacks on this axis. Russian President Vladimir Putin risks making the common but deadly mistake of waiting too long to order reinforcements to the Luhansk line, thus compromising Kherson’s defenses or ending offensive operations around Bakhmut and the city of Donetsk without timely put troops in position to defend against ongoing Ukrainian attacks in Luhansk. The Ukrainian campaign seems to aim to put Putin in just such a dilemma and benefit from almost every decision he makes,” the American institute analyzed.

Against the backdrop of euphoric sentiments both in Ukraine and the West, and critical to panicked comments in Russia itself, ISW military analysts are of the view that the current counteroffensive will not end the war. The campaign in northeastern Ukraine would eventually culminate, allowing the Russians to reestablish a solid defensive line and possibly even launch localized counterattacks. Ukraine will need to launch subsequent counteroffensive operations, possibly several, to complete the liberation of Russian-occupied territory. The institute makes the conclusion that has become evident in recent weeks that the war will probably continue in 2023.

Ukraine has turned the tide of this war in its favor. Kyiv will likely increasingly dictate the location and nature of major battles, and Russia will find itself responding increasingly inadequately to mounting Ukrainian physical and psychological pressure in successive military campaigns unless Moscow finds some way to regain the initiative.

Russian officials and military bloggers involved in Russia’s war in Ukraine increasingly blame the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) for Russia’s failures on the front line. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said that if there were no changes in Russia’s “special military operation” today or tomorrow, he would contact the Kremlin to “explain the situation on the ground.”

Kadyrov’s statement is a thinly veiled criticism of the Russian MoD for its lack of situational awareness (or honesty) and highlights that the MoD is preoccupied with maintaining the facade of a successful and swift Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russian Ministry of Defense does not acknowledge the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive operations around Kharkiv Oblast, instead spreading an apparently false narrative of deliberate Russian repositioning without any meaningful justification.

One military microblogger noted that a civilian such as the head of the private military company Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, should replace Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu because civilians can better deal with “the harmful nature of the military bureaucracy.”

Increasing public attacks on Shoigu and the Russian Defense Ministry shield Russian President Vladimir Putin from personal responsibility for setting unattainable goals for the invasion, shifting all blame for Russia’s failures to the Defense Ministry and the military high command. Putin may accept and even support these attacks to continue this shift of blame from himself.

The counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast is already damaging the Kremlin’s relationship with Russia’s defense ministry, further alienating Putin from the military high command. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had postponed all of his meetings with the leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry and representatives of the Russian defense industry in Sochi, an odd decision amid the military operational and defense industry crisis facing Russia, ISW noted.


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