Putin's Next Move

Does Russia's retreat from Kharkiv mark a turning point?

putins next move3

The retreat of Russia’s forces from the Kharkiv district marks the most significant defeat for Russia since the start of war in Ukraine. The conflict however, is far from over argues Tchantouridze, Putin will now seek to decimate Ukraine’s economic and military infrastructure in a war of attrition, knowing that if Russia incur and further losses in the Black Sea and Kherson, they could lose more than just the war. 

In early September 2022, the Russian military forces suffered the most significant defeat since Moscow unleashed the war in Ukraine. The Russian troops retreated from the Kharkiv district in the Northeast of Ukraine and its surrounding areas ahead of the advancing Ukrainian forces. The Russian withdrawal was neither planned nor orderly, as evidenced by the large number of heavy equipment pieces left behind.

Despite this success by the Ukrainian forces fighting to liberate their country from the Russian invader, the war in Ukraine is far from over. Moscow will try to use this defeat in northeastern Ukraine to regroup and ready its troops for a winter campaign, hoping to achieve better success elsewhere in the active military theater.

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The Russian troops deployed in the Donbas region, located East of Ukraine, accelerated their attacks as their comrades retreated from Kharkiv. Ukraine's south and southeast will now be the main operational focus for Russia's war machine this autumn and winter.

From the beginning of this war, Russia has had about 100 enhanced combat battalions deployed in Ukraine. After the initial disorderly and chaotic invasion, which quickly fell to pieces and resulted in significant losses for the Russians, Moscow abandoned its highly ambitious objective of capturing Kyiv.

After Russia’s retreat from northern Ukraine 14th May 2022, the active front from Kharkiv to Mykolaiv, about 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) remained unacceptably long for just 100 combat battalions. Each enhanced battalion can control a front of no more than 3.5 kilometers (about 2.2 miles) wide. Thus, an adequate deployment would require over three times the number of battalions. With the autumn rains and light snow in early winter, the Russian battalions in northeastern Ukraine would have been impossible to support -- not that they were even adequately equipped and fueled in the summer months.     

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Moscow will try to use this defeat in northeastern Ukraine to regroup and ready its troops for a winter campaign, hoping to achieve better success elsewhere in the active military theater

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The logistical lines for the Russian forces, however, are better developed in south and southeastern Ukraine. Not only have they operated there since 2014, southern Ukraine is warmer meaning that it is easier to wage a winter campaign there. The geographic environment of southern Ukraine is more step-like, with flat and wide-open areas as opposed to the heavily forested areas of the northeast. This means that the Ukrainian partisans, sabotage groups, and special forces have had more difficulties harassing the enemy there.

Ukraine map

Map of the relevant Ukrainian territories

It is worth noting that the war maps presented on television screens, in printed and electronic media are somewhat misleading as they depict large swaths of Ukraine controlled by the Russian troops. It is true that the Russians have enough manpower to control populated areas and important intersections. However, sparsely populated rural areas are beyond their immediate control, including major highways that remain vulnerable to ambushes and sabotage in remote and forested locations.    

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Shifting the center of gravity of the war fits Moscow's newly evolved objective in Ukraine. During the opening phase of the war, the Russian leadership and its propaganda machine aimed at the destruction of Ukraine as a nation and at the dismemberment of the Ukrainian state. After a series of setbacks in the war, the Kremlin's war objective has become more modest but also more long-term.

Moscow hopes to win a war of attrition in Ukraine by outlasting the Ukrainian armed forces and its Western supporters. But to achieve this, they have to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea entirely and gradually destroy its industrial and economic infrastructure.

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If the Ukrainian forces manage to liberate Kherson before winter sets in, it will send the Russian leadership a clear and unmistakable signal that they are losing this war

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During the colder seasons of the fall and winter, the main targets of Russia's long-range attacks will be power generating facilities, the power grid, and the energy sector. With more concentrated troop numbers in southern and southeast Ukraine. Moscow intends to organize more traditional mechanized infantry attacks with at least two or three echelons deep, the type that brought them success in Donbas this May and June.

The Russian troops in the southern, Kherson region will be tested hard in the coming weeks. Currently, they are overextended and vulnerable as the Ukrainian army effectively controls their supply lines through artillery fire. If the Ukrainian forces manage to liberate Kherson before winter sets in, it will send the Russian leadership a clear and unmistakable signal that they are losing this war.

It must be clear to most people that the Russian war in Ukraine has not gone the way its planners intended it, not by a long shot. To minimize the losses and maximize whatever gains can be had, Moscow will have to concentrate its efforts around the Black Sea basin. Russia's Black Sea Fleet has suffered heavy losses in this war, but control over the Black Sea remains the linchpin for Russia's great power status.

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If Russia's Black Sea Fleet suffers further losses, Russia risks losing control over the Black Sea. It will also lose its influence in the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean alongside with its capabilities for future military exploits in these resource rich regions. They know in Moscow that Russia has violated many international treaties and agreements in unleashing this war, including the 1936 Montreux Convention which sets limits on entry and the presence of non-littoral state warships in the Black Sea.

Moscow should expect that after the war in Ukraine, Western powers, specifically the United States, may walk out from some of these treaties, including Montreux. To minimize the damage from such potential diplomatic setbacks, Russia will have to maintain credible military capabilities, including that still available in the Black Sea. However, if the Ukrainian forces continue to get closer to those assets and keep destroying them, Russia will lose more than the war in Ukraine. 

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