Why Putin has No Path to Victory in Ukraine this Year
Paul Niland looks at how even Russia’s minimal war aims in Ukraine are vague and impossible, eroded by the attrition of the Ukrainian armed forces and a failing mobilisation
As we enter the new year it’s wise to look at what’s in store over the coming 12 months. For Russia’s dictator, Vladimir Putin, what is not in store is any kind of victory in his war against Ukraine, because he has no path to victory.
Back in February of 2022, Putin gathered his Security Council to appear to poll them on one question, should Russia declare that the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic” are independent states in their own right?
It was pure theatre and the outcome was predetermined. But that fateful meeting set the stage for a larger war because of one deliberate ambiguity – Russia was not fully in control of these two Ukrainian regions since its preliminary invasion in 2014. However, it was the whole of them both that Putin decided would no longer be considered, by Russia, to be a part of Ukraine. So this mean that war was coming, in order to at least take the remainder of Luhansk and Donetsk.
As we saw a few days later, when Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, Putin had much larger aims. Over the last ten months, those aims have since been constantly dialled back.
Putin’s desire to take control over the whole of Ukraine through the swift capture of the capital, Kyiv, was defeated. His desire to take Kharkiv in the northeast was also defeated. His desire to freeze Ukraine’s export capabilities was defeated with the recapture of Snake Island. What now remains of his grand 2022 invasion plans is a brutal war in those same two eastern regions, along with partial control of two southern regions, those of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which give Russia a land bridge to occupied Crimea.
Despite these four regions not being fully under Russian control, back in September of 2013 Putin declared them (again, with borders unspecified) and their local inhabitants to be “forever Russian!”
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The Border Issue and the Minsk Accords
Here’s where the issue of borders becomes important, because it’s not at all a matter of ambiguity between desire and facts on the ground, it is a matter of control.
A state needs to have secure and stable borders that can be defended. The expanded version of Russia as it is envisaged in Putin’s mind has not constructed any defendable borders on the lands it has occupied since 2014 or since February 2022. And it cannot do so under warring conditions, so it cannot “control” any of the land it is temporarily occupying.
Another important mistake Putin made back in February, preceding the massive mistake to invade Ukraine, was to declare the Donetsk and Luhansk statelets were independent. At a stroke he invalidated the Minsk Accords, which were drafted in 2014 by a Trilateral Contact Group of Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to end the war in Donbas.Those deals (which Russia had never complied with anyway) contained a condition which was limiting Ukraine’s ability to use heavy weapons.
The ultimate aim of Minsk was the return of Donetsk and Luhansk to Ukrainian control. By (illegally) decreeing those regions to be independent, the central aim of Minsk was annulled, and with that Ukraine is now free to use whatever weapons it has in its arsenal.
As we have seen also, thanks to allies, Ukraine has been given larger and larger numbers of heavy weapons during this new phase of the war. Weapons that have been put to good use in (for example) liberating the city of Kherson, 40 days after Putin called it “forever Russian!”
Ukrainian Attrition and Russian Mobilisation
The reason why Russia does not have a path to victory is not just that it doesn’t have borders that it can defend around the territories it occupies in Ukraine, or that Ukraine is now free to use the big guns supplied to it by the West: it is also because Ukraine has learned how to fight this Russian army.
The tactics that have evolved in this war and that were used to liberate the only major regional capital Russia captured last year, Kherson, will be replicated over and over again. This is not a secret: it is being done very publicly and very loudly, such as the destruction of a commandeered school in occupied Donetsk on New Year’s eve which reportedly led to the deaths of hundreds of recently mobilised Russian conscripts in Makiivka.
As this and other recent attacks have proved, the weapons that Ukraine has at hand now are not only big, but they are also extremely accurate. Day after day HIMARS and other rocket systems are being used to destroy Russia’s logistics, troop concentrations, and fuel and ammunition storage points.
This strategy of attrition lead to the Russians concluding that their hold on Kherson was no longer tenable, and their subsequent withdrawal from the city. This tactic is already being repeated in other parts of occupied southern Ukraine, where there are frequent attacks on Russian assets in or around the cities of Berdyansk and Melitopol.
While Russia is rushing reinforcements to Berdyansk and Melitopol, that leaves their numbers weakened on the eastern front, and numbers can also indicate another factor that is leading to Russian forces culminating in their invasion of Ukraine, manpower.
By early January Russia has lost, according to Ukrainian estimates, something like 110,000 soldiers. Though the Ukrainians measure these as combat fatalities killed in action, a more modest and impartial account would probably be in the range of 100,000 casualties, which combines both killed and wounded in action.
By these estimates, the Russian army has suffered more casualties in the last few weeks than in the entirety of its ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan over nine years from 1979 to 1988.
To cover these staggering losses, and the likelihood of more losses to come, Russia has mobilised another 300,000 men into the Russian army. (Ukrainians called these new recruits ‘mobiks’ – a combination of the word mobilised and the term “vatnik” used to describe a “steadfast follower of jingoistic propaganda from the Russian government”.) The failure of the mobilisation to bring results in terms of battlefield success will be down to a combination of factors.
These men cannot be properly trained, because the most experienced Russian troops who could train them have already been killed in action. These men cannot be properly equipped, because Russian corruption has left their military warehouses bare. And then incorporating these poorly-trained and ill-equipped ‘mobiks’ into the existing Russian army will necessarily water down the efficiency of fighting units in general.
While footage of these ‘mobiks’ shows them on marches happily talking about coming to kill Ukrainians, all they have is hatred. They do not, unlike the Ukrainians they face, have honed fighting skills.
Walking the Walk
The final contributing factor to the Russian defeat in Ukraine is the lack of a defined mission, as that has consistently changed throughout the 2022 war.
In the east of Ukraine, the Russian focus has been trying to take control over the city of Bakhmut – a goal that they have fought for since August and failed to accomplish. The fight for this city has cost the Russians many thousands of dead, even though the city itself is not of strategic military value. Is that the mission? Just take, or destroy, one more settlement? Who would fight for this, if they stood back and looked at the rationale?
When the mission was the capture and subjugation of the entire country, that was clear. When the mission was securing the land corridor to Crimea, with the capture of Mariupol, Melitopol and Berdyansk, that was also a clear strategy with a purpose. But those last two cities are now subject to multiple strikes on their logistics by Ukrainian forces. If the land corridor to Crimea is lost, the military leadership of Russia have to ask, what was this all for?
The Russian army has been fought to a standstill in the east, has been defeated in the north and northeast, and it is a matter of time before they will be defeated in the south.
Contrary to this, Ukraine not only has defined goals, but also a tested path to victory and the means by which to accomplish that victory.
The goal is the complete liberation of all Ukrainian land. The path to victory is already being trodden.