Ben Morgan: The Kharkiv offensive and Putin’s cabinet reshuffle, demonstrate that Russia is in trouble

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Since being re-elected Putin has reshuffled his cabinet. Smart money says that the reshuffle indicates he is committed to a long-term war.  However, the performance of his land forces remains subpar, their recent plans are confused and dissipate effort. A situation likely to indicate command issues within the Russian military.  At the same time the skies over both Russia and Ukraine are full of drones and missiles, both sides trying to achieve strategic impact by attacking their enemy’s infra-structure and economic capacity. 

Meanwhile, Putin must be intensely exercised by the potential impact of increasing NATO and US support on the land campaign, especially since the slow progress of his forces in the period before this support arrives makes future progress less likely. Additionally, he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russia’s relationship with China is evolving rapidly. 

The land campaign, does Russia have a plan? 

Currently, the key to Russian success in the land campaign is capturing Chasiv Yar.  In recent weeks we have discussed the importance of this town.  The ‘facts’ of ground, enemy activity and friendly forces dispositions cannot be disputed instead they can only be shaped by your actions, over time.  Like fictional fighter pilot Biggles was fond of stating “You can’t blink at facts,” instead you must accept them and plan accordingly. 

In this campaign Russia’s ‘facts’ are simple; conquering the Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts combined) is a sensible and possibly achievable objective, already considerable blood has been spilt at Bakhmut and Avdiivka capturing ground that contributes to achieving this aim and most Russian reserves are already in this area.  Based on these facts, Chasiv Yar is a sensible next step because it builds on earlier successes and occupies high ground dominating the south and eastern approaches to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.

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Military success is all about concentration of effort, or working to shape conditions so that you have more resources at a point in time and space than your opponent.  Currently, Russia is close to creating this situation near Chasiv Yar but continues to attack along the whole frontline and then, on 10 May committed a force of approximately 30,000 soldiers to an advance into the Kharkiv Oblast. Reliable analysts estimate that another force of approximately 20,000 are preparing for another advance, into Sumy Oblast.



Currently, Russia is not making operationally significant progress anywhere and Chasiv Yar is still in Ukrainian hands.   Meanwhile the new advances in Kharkiv Oblast are relatively minor but still require approximately 50,000 soldiers that could be used elsewhere. Russia is dissipating its resources along the whole frontline and the question is – Why?

If we listen to mainstream media Putin is trying to capture Kharkiv city, an unlikely objective with a force of 30-50,000 soldiers. Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second largest city and would require a much larger force to capture it.  Another option is creating a buffer zone to keep Ukraine’s artillery and anti-Russian partisans away from Belgorod. This option is logical and makes military sense. However, the force being used is relatively small and if Sumy Oblast is attacked as well, it will be even weaker. Essentially, Russia does not appear to be putting enough force ‘on the ground’ in the right places to create an effective buffer zone. 

This brings a third option into consideration, that Russia is trying to divert Ukrainian reserves away from the north-east, shaping the battle for Chasiv Yar and its surrounding area in Russia’s favour. This option is the most likely from a strictly military analysis but if this is the case, the operation appears to be poorly planned and initiated. The offensive is on a relatively broad front and may soon include an operation near Sumy, that will do little to create a buffer zone for Belgorod but extends the front even further.  A broad front, and a relatively small force reduces the chance of a deep penetration into Ukrainian territory that would require a large re-allocation of resources to defend against. 

Instead, it seems that Russia is either delivering a very clever and confusing strategy in the land campaign or its command chain has broken down. Different sectors of the campaign fighting their own uncoordinated battles rather than working together to defeat Ukraine. From a Russian perspective the approximately 50,000 soldiers currently conducting operations against Sumy and Kharkiv Oblasts would make a big difference to the fighting near Chasiv Yar.  Or they could be used to reinforce Russian success near Ocheretyne. And, either of these options would contribute to the existing offensive, one that has some momentum.  

‘Hanlon’s Razor’ is a rule of analysis that states “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” In this case it means that it is more likely that Russia’s actions are the result of incompetence rather than design.  Essentially, that the theatre commander General Valery Gerasimov is having difficulty managing his subordinates who instead of working together are vying for their own personal glory. 

This situation is not uncommon, General Eisenhower, Allied Supreme commander of US and British forces in World War Two’s European campaign had the same problem.  His subordinates; British General Montgomery and American Generals Patton and Bradley fought with each other constantly, vying for resources and glory.  Eisenhower tended to allocate resources equitably to ‘keep the peace’ and It has been argued by several historians and by some senior officers that if he had chosen to commit resources differently, reinforcing one successful general, instead of sharing resources equitably the Germans in Western Europe could have been defeated sooner. 

It is often foolish to ascribe incompetence to an opponent but this attack may be evidence that the command issues that plagued Russia’s first year of the war have returned.  And, it is at a particularly difficult time for Russia because Russian forces need to be completely focussed on making gains before Ukraine rebuilds its strength.

Putin’s cabinet reshuffle, more economists signal a long war

After his re-election Putin reviewed his cabinet and has made several changes the most notable of which is the removal of Sergei Shoigu from the Defence Minister post. Putin retained current Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, appointed some favourites and made several notable changes that reflect the realities of the war and possibly signal Putin’s longer-term plans.  Some key points are: 

  • Andrei Belousov, an economist replaces Sergei Shoigu as Defence Minister. 
  • Denis Manturov, another academic with a background in economics and sociology that has run the Industry and Trade Ministry since 2020 was promoted to First Deputy Prime Minister. 
  • Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and Economic Development Minister Maxim Reshetnikov remain in position but are likely to lead a major reform of the Russian tax system.
  • Alexander Novak, Russia’s current energy Tsar remains in the role of Minister of Energy and takes over Belousov’s previous economic portfolio. 

Essentially, these appointments indicate that Putin is concerned about the economic cost of the war and is promoting people with skills and experience to keep the economy going and to build the defence industrial base. Putin acknowledges that his threats have not ‘scared off’ Europe and the US. Now he faces the reality of a long and expensive war and understands that Russia needs to build its war economy.  He knows he can never compete ‘head-to-head’ with NATO but if he can maintain the war effort in Ukraine, he may still be able to outlast his opponent and survive.  

Hence, retaining Novak managing the energy sector that is vital for the war effort and a source of revenue. Likewise, replacing the ineffective Shoigu with Belousov an economist able to see the defence sector from factory to frontline. Growing Russia’s defence industrial base is vital for maintaining the war effort and it is currently in a poor state, able to re-furbish tanks and artillery brought out of storage but with limited capacity to build new equipment or ammunition.  

Further, tax reform is imminent to raise money for the war effort. Putin appears to be looking to two experienced Ministers to enact it and gather the revenue needed.  This reshuffle demonstrates that Russia has no intention of negotiating for peace in Ukraine and it could bode ill for Europe; because Russia is clearly preparing for a long period of conflict.

Putin and China, is time running out? 

On 14 May, Putin arrived in China to a rousing welcome including parades, bands and ceremony.  An interesting juxtaposition with the reality of his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Immediately before the war started in 2022, President Xi hosted the Olympics and discussed his country’s ‘no limits’ partnership with Russia. 

President Xi probably thought that the invasion of Ukraine would be a coup de main, resulting in regime change and re-creation of Ukraine as a Russian client state. Chances are that he believed Putin when he discussed his plan, that he believed in the military power of Russia and that Ukraine would crumble. But since February 2022, President Xi has seen Russia’s military ineptness and backwardness exposed, along with Putin’s once vaunted diplomatic skill.  Additionally, the Russian economy is suffering from the burden of war and sanctions. The reality is that instead of being a useful partner in wider Sino-American competition Russia is an embarrassment.  

Putin’s aim in Beijing was probably to get Chinese economic and military aid.  However, President Xi’s statements have been measured and non-committal.  China’s economy is in trouble and US, European and Asian markets are unlikely to look at him supporting Russia kindly.  So overt aid is unlikely, China will still buy Russian oil and gas at discounted prices but it seems likely that the Sino-Russian relationship is being re-negotiated now that the myth of ‘Superpower Russia’ has been exploded.  Russia is becoming a client state reliant on China’s largesse for survival. As Russia weakens it is increasingly likely that this war will end because of an instruction from Beijing. 

Summary 

This week’s key message is that Russia’s attack into Kharkiv Oblast is a bad decision, likely to cost Russia dearly. Ukraine is currently as weak as it is going to get and Russia is failing to take advantage of the situation. Attacking Kharkiv and possibly Sumy subtracts soldiers from the fighting in Donbas, where Russia could create momentum and convert tactical gains into operational or even strategic victories. 

Ukraine introduced new mobilisation laws last week and is already building new brigades in reserve, preparing for future offensive operations.  Brigades that will be trained by NATO armies and re-equipped with US and NATO weapons. This will take time but Ukraine has demonstrated that it can use that time effectively to hurt Russia economically by targeting its oil industry, further weakening their opponent.  Finally, China is unlikely to come to Russia’s rescue and although the war is still going to be long, Ukraine’s position strengthened this week.  


 

 

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack

15 COMMENTS

  1. Its nice to see that you have expanded your writing styles to farcically satirize western (NATO) propaganda.

  2. That headline tho…

    The only way to read Ben’s pieces is if you imagine him delivering it in full on clown make-up.

  3. Ben: Yes, Russia is winning, and the Ukrainians whose lives Ben cares no more about than Zelensky does are getting slaughtered if they fight or shot in the back by the Ukrop commissars if they retreat.

    But at what cost?

  4. Putin has broken the back of Russia with this adventurism and it’s now clear that it will effectively become a vassal state under China. China will take Russia’s mineral wealth at ten cents in the dollar and will probably occupy parts of Siberia in the fullness of time.

    • Hang on Andrew, wasn’t the plan that some neocons and banksters from the West broke up Russia and raped it’s resources? And you are saying Xi and the CCP mobsters beat them to it? Wow.

    • Funny how you anti-Chinese racists keep on trying to make human beings believe this nonsense, meanwhile the only real threat Russia has faced is when foreign looters like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Larry Summers, Boris Berezovsky, and Bill Browder destroyed Russia’s national industries and the pensions of her retirees.

  5. People have been saying that Russia is finished for some time. I haven’t seen huge amounts of evidence of it unfortunately. Again unfortunately, I think much of it is wishful thinking. People thought Russia was finished in 1942 – it wasn’t. Not that there is the same level of patriotism or depth of military training, but they have a lot of people and a lot of equipment although much of it is old. And to be honest, if you are going to use tanks for sitting back and shooting up bunkers 2 km away, it doesn’t really matter if your tank has all the latest bells and whistles. Old tanks could do that just as well as brand-new ones.

    • Damn sight better than the “ world’s best” tank the Abrams that requires 8 hours maintenance for every hour used. LOL

      • A lot of US equipment is overengineered these days. A far cry from the M113 APC, and the likes.

      • The Abrams probably is the world’s shittiest tank. No wonder the US was happy to gift some to Ukraine. (although I think they’ve recalled them now, because they were sitting ducks for Russian anti-armour weaponry).

    • Young chasp, who is threatening to invade Putin’s Russia? Ukraine to me is the same as Gaza — truth and rightness. I know you’re just talking about Ukraine’s ability to fight back. I don’t care about the ‘feelings’ of Putin.

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