Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 18 September 2022

Vladimir Putin should be worried as Kyiv seizes the momentum


Ukraine military forces achieved remarkable success last week in retaking around 9000sq km of territory east of the city of Kharkiv. That is about 10 per cent of the territory taken by Russia since its invasion in February.

Reports of panicked Russian troops abandoning equipment and heading for the border suggest Russian military morale continues to crumble. Russian artillery strikes on Kharkiv are reportedly lessening as units are hit by more accurate Ukrainian weapons with superb targeting. Russian air defence systems are retreating to avoid being hit, thus exposing Russian troops to Ukrainian air strikes.

The Institute for the Study of War, an authoritative Washington think tank, reports that Russian military bloggers increasingly are critical of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, blaming him for the defeat in the Kharkiv Oblast.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and president Vladimir Putin. Picture: Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / AFP

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and president Vladimir Putin. Picture: Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / AFP

A close confidant of Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is being presented as the face of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine. Known as Putin’s Chef because that is what he once was, Prigozhin created a fortune from Moscow catering contracts that he used to finance a mercenary force called the Wagner Group.

The ISW reports that “Prigozhin gave a recruitment speech on September 14 announcing that Russian prisoners have been participating in the war since July 1 when they were instrumental in seizing the Vuhlehirska Thermal Power Plant” in Donetsk.

None of this bodes well for Russia’s campaign. Relying on prisoners, foreign mercenaries, Chechens and battalions of newly recruited volunteers funded by Russian city councils is a world away from the promise of the so-called modernised force Putin deployed around Ukraine. It would be wrong to forecast a Ukrainian victory in this conflict on the strength of the recent tactical successes, but after several months of a hard-fought stalemate in the east and south of the country the war is entering a new phase where Kyiv has the momentum.

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Russia is not making appreciable battlefield gains. Ukraine continues to show that it has superiority in manoeuvring forces around the country, better and faster intelligence systems, better targeting and, thanks to support from the democracies, better weapons.

Following the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva and several well-executed attacks on air bases and ammunition facilities in Crimea, the Russian navy and air force in the south seem to have largely left the fight. What Moscow has left is a dwindling number of missiles and artillery.

Russian precision missiles largely have been a failure in the war, with the US intelligence system assessing that 60 per cent fail to hit planned targets. Russia is using artillery to target cities indiscriminately, but in that role artillery is becoming less effective because Ukrainian weapons and the US-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) is destroying Russian artillery formations, ammunition dumps and command posts, pushing them farther away from their targets.

All of this suggests there is a plausible pathway to victory for Kyiv. I can see no such pathway for Moscow. What Russia has is weight and the capacity to grind the conflict out in a way that, Putin must hope, means the democracies lose interest in supporting Volodymyr Zelensky.

However, the longer the conflict goes on, the more Russian soldiers will be killed and equipment destroyed, the more visibly savage Russian behaviour becomes to Ukrainians and the more discontented Russian elites will be about Putin’s desperately failing gamble.

Western military, economic and humanitarian support for Ukraine is the vital factor. If the flow of weapons and ammunition stops the Ukrainian military will not be able to continue its agile campaign. I would expect European NATO countries and the US will continue providing military equipment and support.

On September 9 the US Defence Department announced a further $US675m ($1bn) in military support, including more munitions for HIMARS, four 105mm howitzers with 36,000 rounds, additional high-speed anti-radiation missiles, and 1.5 million rounds of small arms ammunition. The total American military support for Ukraine amounts to $US14.5bn.

Last week a 50-nation Ukraine Defence Contact Group, including Australia, met in Germany to consider more support. Wars are won by better logistics. It’s hardly surprising that international support is giving Kyiv the edge.

Here is an opportunity for Australia. Our Bushmaster vehicles played a role in the successful Ukrainian offensive northeast of Kharkiv. The Albanese government should double down on success by providing more Bush­masters, Hawkei protected mobility vehicles with remote weapons stations and 155mm ammunition. Anthony Albanese clearly understands the importance of the democracies working together to support Ukraine. Failure to do so hands a victory to Moscow, Beijing and quisling suppor­ters of authoritarianism in our own country.

Australia should expect no one to come to our defence if we can’t help a fellow democracy in its most desperate hour.

Russia, by contrast, has fewer options for international weapons supply. In July, the White House announced that Russia was negotiating with Iran to buy hundreds of drones. Last week Ukrainian forces shot down an Iranian Shahed-136 loitering munition or kamikaze drone in the Kharkiv Oblast.

US intelligence also has reported that Russia is buying millions of artillery rounds and rockets from North Korea. There is a 17km land border between the two countries and a single rail crossing moving freight and passengers between North Korea and Vladivostok. Using that route to avoid China and to avoid at sea UN-mandated ships enforcing sanctions on North Korea, those munitions would travel around 11,000km by train to get to eastern Ukraine. That’s one measure of Putin’s desperate efforts to sustain the war without having to mobilise his population.

China’s position on Russia’s war remains critical. Beijing appears not to have provided Russia with military equipment and is working hard not to be targeted by sanctions for supporting the war effort. By buying Russian oil and gas at discounted prices Xi Jinping is cementing a dominant position for China in the relationship.

This weekend may show some results from the bilateral meeting of Putin and Xi in Uzbekistan at a Shanghai Co-operation Organisation Summit. This is Xi’s first trip outside of China since the Covid-19 pandemic began and the second meeting of Putin and Xi this year.

China's Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin pose together in Uzbekistan at the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation Summit. Picture: Alexandr Demyanchuk / SPUTNIK / AFP

China's Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin pose together in Uzbekistan at the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation Summit. Picture: Alexandr Demyanchuk / SPUTNIK / AFP

Putin and Xi met in Beijing in February, just before the invasion. Presumably at the second meeting Putin will have some explaining to do about the disastrous failure of his military and intelligence agencies to read Ukraine’s determination to fight. The Uzbekistan meeting will show a much diminished Putin. Behind closed doors he may well be pleading for more support from Xi. I would not expect China to offer much beyond lip-service and willingness to buy cheap commodities.

The Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, the People’s Daily, presented a somewhat unusual perspective in its preview of the meeting. The paper editorialised: “As more countries have been struggling in energy crisis amid Russia-Ukraine conflict and rampant inflation, trade activities between China and the Central Asian countries have been keeping their momentum. Such close partnership also triggered some speculation from the West on whether Russia’s influence in the region has been overshadowed by China’s presence.

“This is the typical intention of sowing discord between China and Russia” the paper lukewarmly concluded. But why raise the issue at all? And note that the editorial now does not use Putin’s preferred term “special military operation”; this is a “conflict” creating an “energy crisis”. Some measured distancing is under way. Beijing is not losing an opportunity to stake its own claim to leadership in Central Asia at Russia’s expense.

At a media event prior to the talks Putin said to Xi referring to Ukraine: “We understand your questions and concerns about this. During today’s meeting, we will of course explain our position.” His words sound quite apologetic. Putin is worried about China, as he should be.

 It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the longer the war drags out, the weaker and more diminished Putin becomes, the more dependent he makes Russia on China and the less likely his forces will prevail in the war.

Will Putin ultimately resort to using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Ukraine? Russian military doctrine in 2014 anticipated the possibility of using nuclear weapons to “escalate in order to de-escalate” if the Russian state faces an existential threat.

Russian use of nuclear weapons is a horrendous possibility. It can’t be ruled out, but it is noteworthy that Putin has pulled his punches in other respects. He had not put Russia on a war footing and has not mobilised. The Russian military seems incapable of massing force on the ground beyond battalion-sized operations. Putin is wary of NATO and particularly US power.

Could it be that the realisation is dawning for Putin that the Ukraine war is a busted flush? If he uses nuclear weapons it will be the end of his regime and probably the end of him. Like most dictators, an instinct for personal survival is the ultimate objective.

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