The Tsar might suddenly have no clothes. It’s been an amazing week on both sides of the border between Ukraine and Russia.
What’s left of the fabric protecting the dignity of the Russian military has been pulled back, and it’s certainly not the second strongest in the world.
Russia’s withdrawal from the Kharkiv area – a planned “regrouping” that some state media did not even dare to mention – is arguably more significant than the collapse of its positions around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. These units had been dug in for months, effectively defending their positions — as CNN saw during the weeks they spent on the art trails north of Kharkiv — and were sometimes literally minutes’ drive from the Russian border.
Moscow’s inability to sustain a force so close to its own territory speaks volumes about the true state of its supply chain and military. It’s almost as if these retreating units are going back to nothing, not to the nuclear power they hoped to overtake their neighbor within 72 hours in February.
Second, the Russian units do not appear to have made a careful and prudent retreat. They ran, leaving their armor and other precious supplies of ammunition behind. The open-source intelligence website Oryx estimated that between Wednesday and Sunday, at least 338 fighter jets or tanks or trucks were left behind.
Pockets of Russian troops may remain to harass Ukrainian forces in the coming weeks, but the nature of the front line has inevitably changed, as has its size. Kyiv is suddenly fighting a much smaller war now, on a much reduced front line, against an enemy that appears much smaller.
Indeed, the Russian military relies on forced mobilization and prisoners for its depleted ranks. Ukraine has been quite surgical, hitting supply lines to cut off depleted units, detecting which were the least trained and manned. It has been incredibly efficient and fast.
Whether Ukraine’s counteroffensive turns out to be decisive depends on how far its forces are now able to reach: would going after even more territory risk stretching it too far? Or is Ukraine simply facing an enemy with no more fight left? Russia’s forces were over-inflated during the chaotic decades of America’s counter-terrorism, the military required to shell North Korea and punish St. Petersburg depends on the minimum force required to protect Russia itself.
So what? Unless we see a significant setback, Russia’s bid to take over all of Donetsk and Luhansk regions is over. Kherson is still the focus of persistent pressure on Ukraine. And suddenly, a return to the borders Russia stole in 2014 doesn’t seem far-fetched.
For months, the received wisdom was that Russia would “never let that happen.” But now Crimea looks quite vulnerable: it is connected to Russia by a land corridor along the Sea of Azov along the coast of Mariupol and a bridge across the Kerch Strait. What remains of Moscow’s overstretched, depleted, under-supplied and under-supplied forces deeper in Ukraine may face the same deadly encirclement of its supply chain around Kharkiv.
Despite what Kyiv is pushing now, we have had a big change in the dynamics of European security. Russia is no longer a match for NATO.
Last week, Russia was no match for its NATO-armed neighbor – as recently as December its power mostly in agriculture and IT – which it has been slowly tormenting for eight years. The UK Ministry of Defense said on Monday that elements of Russia’s First Guards Tank Army — an elite unit meant to defend Moscow from any NATO attack — were part of the chaotic retreat from Kharkiv. They ran.
NATO member states’ defense budgets have been slowly rising to the suggested 2% over the years. But are those billions really necessary to deal with Pyongyang’s army that needed shells after just six months in Ukraine?
It would also be a mistake to misinterpret Russia’s silence – apart from critical analysts, politicians and talk shows – as a sign of residual power about to be unleashed. This is not a system capable of looking at itself in the mirror. The Kremlin remains silent on these matters because it cannot cope with its own ambitions and rhetoric and the hungry and confused mercenaries it has left stuck around Kharkiv.
Not talking about their mistakes makes them worse. The Ferris wheel that President Vladimir Putin opened in Moscow over the weekend does not become invisible when it breaks and cannot spin. The same can be said of the monolithic, uncompromising force that Putin tries to project: when it breaks, it’s not in private.
The most glaring foreign policy mistakes of the past few centuries have stemmed from hubris, but Europe now faces some stark choices. Do they keep pushing until Russia calls for peace that will keep its neighbors safe and keep the energy pipelines open again? Or are they holding on to the old flawed logic that a humiliated and wounded bear is even more dangerous? Would a possible successor to Putin, who we don’t know, seek détente with Europe and prioritize the Russian economy, or prove their worth in another mindless and heavy-handed act of brutal militarism?
It is also a pivotal moment for non-proliferation and nuclear force in the post-Cold War era. What does a nuclear power do when it is weak and conventional power is not convinced? Russia faces no existential threat now: its borders are intact, and its military is hampered only by a brutally chosen mishap. But it appears close to the limits of its conventional capabilities.
It would be a telling confirmation of the theory of mutually assured destruction that has always governed the age of nuclear weapons if weapons that could end the world as we know it are off the table. Moreover, the West’s full support for Ukraine would add to the re-raised possibility that the horrors of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine have not irreparably damaged the West’s moral and strategic compass, and it is still not naïve. hope to see these values in action.