Russia’s military is divided over how best to deal with unexpected military advances in Ukraine this month, according to multiple sources familiar with US intelligence, which has found itself on the defensive both east and south of Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin himself is handing over generals in the field directly, two sources familiar with US and Western intelligence said, a highly unusual management tactic in a modern military that the sources said hinted at Russia’s war-torn command structure. In the beginning
One of those sources told CNN that the intelligence intercepts had Russian officials bickering among themselves and complaining to friends and family back home about making decisions from Moscow.
And there are major disagreements over strategy with military leaders struggling to agree where to focus efforts to shore up defense lines, multiple sources familiar with U.S. intelligence said.
Russia’s Defense Ministry says it is redeploying forces in the north-east towards Kharkiv – where Ukraine has made the most dramatic gains – but US and Western sources say the majority of Russian troops are still in the south, where Ukraine has also launched an offensive. Operations around Kherson.
Putin announced a partial mobilization on Wednesday, with 300,000 reservists expected to be called up. He has held off on the move for months, and Biden administration officials said Wednesday that the move underscores the severity of Russia’s labor shortage and represents growing desperation.
It is unclear whether the mobilization will make an operational difference on the battlefield, or simply prolong the war without changing the outcome, according to Russian military analysts.
And as Russia falters on the battlefield, officials in Moscow have struggled to assign blame for Russia’s sudden change in fortunes, a senior NATO official said.
“Kremlin officials and state media pundits have been feverishly debating the reasons for the failure in Kharkiv and as usual, the Kremlin appears to be trying to shift the blame away from Putin and onto the Russian military,” this person said.
Already, a reshuffle of military leadership has occurred in response to battlefield failures, leaving Russia’s command structure even more disorganized than before, sources say. The commander, who oversaw most of the units in the Kharkiv region, had been in the post for just 15 days and has now been dismissed, the NATO official said.
Russia has sent a “small number” of troops into eastern Ukraine – some of whom fled last week amid Ukrainian battlefield advances, according to two US defense officials – in an effort to shore up weakened defense lines.
But even if Russia is able to rally around a plan, U.S. and Western officials believe Russia is limited in its ability to mount a strategically significant response to Ukraine’s counteroffensive operations, which in recent days, sources say, has given Kiev a boost. Even after the partial mobilization announcement, officials are skeptical that Russia is capable of deploying large numbers of troops in Ukraine quickly given its problems with supply lines, communications and morale.
The “small scale” of Russia’s redeployment is a sign of its inability to conduct serious operations, a senior defense official told CNN.
So far, Russia has responded to Ukraine’s advances with attacks on critical infrastructure such as dams and power plants — attacks that the U.S. sees as largely “retaliatory” attacks rather than operationally meaningful salvos, this person said.
Unless it has more manpower it doesn’t have right now, the sources said Russia has few other options to punish or push back Ukrainian forces. Putin is “struggling,” National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby said in an appearance on CNN on Wednesday. The Russian army “has poor unit cohesion, desertions are high, soldiers don’t want to fight,” Kirby said.
“He’s got terrible morale, unit cohesion on the battlefield, command and control still hasn’t been fixed. He’s got problems with desertion and forcing the wounded back into the fight. So, obviously, manpower is an issue for him,” Kirby said. “He feels that he is in the background, especially in that area in the north-east of the Donbass.”
Putin’s mobilization order is significant because it acknowledges that Moscow’s “special military operations” were not working and needed to be adjusted, military analysts said.
But for now, there are more questions than answers about its precise operational impact. This is the first such order issued in Russia since World War II, and provides military analysts with limited modern data on which to base their predictions.
Although Moscow can increase its troop numbers — either by preventing existing service members from leaving the service or by mobilizing reserves — it will struggle to train, equip and integrate those troops into existing units, said Michael Kofman, director of Russian Studies. Ship Analysis Center program. And while that solves some near-term labor problems, they likely won’t be high-quality hires, Kofman and others point out.
Even in the best case scenario, it will take some time for Moscow to deploy new troops.
“I think it’s fair to say that partial mobilization probably won’t reflect itself on the battlefield for several months beforehand, and it may extend Russia’s ability to sustain this war, but it won’t change its outcome,” Kofman said.
Russia’s long-standing failures in planning, communications and logistics have added to punishing losses in the retreat from the Kharkiv area, the sources said. Russia left behind “a lot” of equipment in its withdrawal, according to the NATO official. And at least one ground unit, the First Guards Tank Army, has been “decimated,” this person said.
“With its northern axis all but collapsed, this will make it more difficult for Russian forces to slow down their advance in Ukraine, as well as provide cover for retreating Russian troops,” the official said. “We also believe that Russia’s plans to occupy the entire Donbas will be severely damaged.”
The wild card, as always, remains the president of Russia. On Wednesday Putin again threatened to use nuclear weapons, which US officials said he was taking “seriously”, but there were no immediate signs that he intended to follow through.
Pro-Russian authorities in some of the occupied eastern regions of Ukraine have also announced plans to hold political referendums on joining Russia, a maneuver that some analysts believe Russia could use as a pretext for military action.
But the senior NATO official said: “Overall, Russia is now on the defensive. Ukraine has the initiative, forcing Russia to take action to avoid further losses.
“If Ukraine manages to conduct sustained defense operations, this could further undermine the durability of Russia’s defenses,” this person said.