Russian annexation cannot hide the gap between what Putin wants and what his forces can control

Kramatorsk, Ukraine

It is the moment of two completely incompatible events. Staged in Moscow, of pen and paper, theater and imperialist expansion. The other is the slow and methodical advance of Ukrainian forces through poorly equipped and commanding Russian positions.

On Friday, the stark gap between Russia’s ambitions and its reality is revealed. As Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts a high-profile, fake ceremony – complete with giant television screens and orchestrated crowds of supporters in Moscow – his forces are waning in a strategic town in an area he claims to hold.

The Potemkin farce began with the signing of two decrees on the annexation of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia areas on Thursday night. A part of Zaporizhzhia remains in the hands of Ukraine, and slowly parts of Kherson are being valued. However, Moscow said that the moment the decree was published online, those occupied territories suddenly became Russia. In fact, Ukrainian officials say 23 civilians were killed when an apparent S300 missile trike hit a car convoy they were planning to drive into occupied territory outside the city of Zaporizhzhia to provide aid and evacuate those allowed to leave. He started the act of brutality on the first day of the area that he considers the protection umbrella of Russia.

Ukraine’s progress is increasing. Their focal point is the railway station of Lyman, which has become extremely important due to its strict Russian defense and its potential strategic role in controlling the entire Luhansk region. Putin will sign documents on Friday declaring that this region has now become Russia, and he will do so against a backdrop of very bad news.

A Ukrainian soldier posted a video on Friday in front of the administration building in Yampil, a small settlement east of Lyman, from which Russia has apparently withdrawn, suggesting that Lyman is isolated in the rear from the rest of the Russian military. Regular Russian army forces, national guards and some volunteer units are said to remain in significant numbers in the city. Cut off, the decision to fight or surrender has little bearing on Ukraine’s progress.

The encirclement in Ukraine may once again highlight one of the strategic flaws in Russia’s positioning: it appears to fight hard for a position in the belief that its defenses will hold it, and then struggle to regroup when the “impossible” happens. The Ukrainians surrounding the Izium supply base was central to the defeat of Russian forces throughout the Kharkiv region. The coming days will tell whether Lyman’s fate is also key in the Luhansk region.

This methodical and deliberate progress is a cold dose of reality for a Kremlin that still seems to believe it can create reality by force of its own will. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said on Friday that parts of Luhansk and Donetsk not controlled by Russia will have to be “liberated”, a statement that does not fully acknowledge that the direction of travel on the battlefield is heading in a different direction.

So what should be done? Moscow seems to believe that “partial mobilization” will eventually improve their fortunes. However, it seems to reveal again the gap between fact and fiction, between modern warfare and the belief in volume and permanence. Russia continues to attack its targets with maximum force, and can expect tens of thousands of soldiers, poorly equipped and trained, to overcome the positions it has had to occupy until now. But they are faced with a modernizing Ukrainian military, equipped with precise Western weapons and useful tactical advice, which is merely maneuvering. Why attack a town head-on when you can surround and cut off the rear?

The cracks in Putin’s Potemkin world are beginning to see light. His public appearance admonishes his officials for the terrible execution of the partial mobilization: it is rare that he announced a policy, and therefore the families that have been torn by fathers and husbands. He wants to see things turn quickly to war, before the body bags start coming home, and they are unlikely to be appeased by a “benevolent tsar” admitting that things should have been handled better. 200,000 Russians have fled the country since the mobilization was announced, probably many more than have been forced into army uniform.

Once again, we must ask what a nuclear power does when its conventional forces are shown to be unable to achieve its military goals? It is important to remember that nuclear power becomes so normal because of its strong conventional base of forces. With the exception of Pakistan and North Korea, most nuclear powers would be able to achieve their military goals without resorting to the Bomb. But Russia is constantly proving that its real army is not up to the task. And that failure reflects the readiness of its nuclear forces: how can the Kremlin be sure that your nuclear arsenal is empty if your tanks can’t get diesel 40 miles from your border?

The coming days will be feverish enough that it’s a question no one needs to answer. But we are slowly seeing the gap between what Russia wants, what it can do, and what is actually happening – a chasm usually filled with fear and threatening rhetoric – being exposed on the world stage. How Moscow reacts will determine the world we live in for decades to come.