By William Tucker
To say that the current Ukrainian counteroffensive is having success is something of an understatement.
Ukrainian forces around the southern city of Kherson hindered – and almost made impossible – Russia’s resupply efforts, and Kyiv’s attempts in retaking the region have significantly progressed. In the week that followed this counteroffensive, Russian forces are reportedly discussing terms of surrender.
Ukraine’s Military Breaks Through Russian Lines
In eastern Ukraine, near the nation’s second largest city of Kharkiv, the Ukrainian military broke through Russian lines – expecting a vicious fight – only to witness the collapse of Russian forces over a vast swath of territory. In fact, Russian troops were in such a hurry to flee the oncoming Ukrainians that many fled on foot leaving behind vehicles, munitions, and fuel. What’s worse for the Russian position in the east is Ukraine has managed to cut off the few remaining rail hubs outside of the Donbas, again, affecting the Russian ability to resupply their forces. This places Russia in a difficult position as their overinvestment in Ukraine has not only damaged their military, perhaps irreparably, but also undermined Russia’s position as a regional power.
Russia’s Rail System
For Russia to be considered a regional power it must have a military capable of protecting Russian national interests and handling challenges in Russia’s neighbors and beyond. Modern Russia is still a land made of various, non-ethnic Russians that Moscow has long suppressed with a large internal security force. That security force – along with the military – depends almost entirely on Russia’s rail system to move around the country. Since Russia is a vast land with a large population spread over seemingly countless miles of territory, Moscow has long struggled to move anything – whether people, food, or military equipment – across the nation.
Since Russia doesn’t have year-round access to water, it relies on rail for most of its internal logistics needs. Without rail, the Russian military – and indeed much of the nation – cannot efficiently function. This hindrance played a significant role in the failures of the Russian military early in the current Ukraine campaign. The Russian military was dependent on the few railways that connected to Ukraine to get into the neighboring nation, but even then, the poor state of Russian equipment prevented the military from operating off road. Ukrainian forces may not have been able to stop the initial invasion, but they knew Russian forces could only operate on certain roads and rail lines – making those forces vulnerable to Ukraine’s anti-tank weapons.
Russia’s Combat Power
After Russia withdrew some of its forces to focus on smaller goals closer to the Russian border, the military performed better but still relied on the few rail lines that connected to Ukraine. Ukraine’s current counteroffensive has targeted these rail lines and has now limited Russia to the rail lines that Russia controlled before the invasion, though these lines are now within Ukraine’s artillery range. Ukraine has been working diligently to degrade these Russian supply lines, often forcing Russian soldiers to flee because they were running out of ammunition.
The degradation of the Russian military in Ukraine will have far reaching consequences for Moscow since Russia applied nearly 90% of its combat power to the operation. Russia may have a large military, but only a portion of those soldiers are fully-trained combatants, and Moscow has lost a substantial portion of these soldiers and their equipment in Ukraine. It is not clear how Russia could respond to any conventional threat on its borders making the nation vulnerable. The recent flare up between Armenia and Azerbaijan demonstrates this. Armenia called for Russian assistance, but Moscow couldn’t respond in any meaningful fashion. The south Caucasus is an area of vital interest to Moscow and already Russia seems to be unable to defend it.
Is Putin In Danger?
Russia has bitten off more than it can chew. Moscow needs a functional military, internal security force, and competent intelligence apparatus to sustain its power and status, but the war in Ukraine has sapped much of that capability. We have yet to see any signs of political destabilization within Russia, but there have been several high-profile deaths, some of whom would likely be viewed as a potential threat to the ruling regime. There doesn’t yet appear to be any indication of a direct threat to Vladimir Putin himself, and Putin appears to have little to fear of any potential coup in the near term. That said, the significant loss of Russia’s military capability and the economic downturn emerging within the nation could quickly change the situation. I’ve previously called Putin an eternal president for Russia’s twilight – and though Russia is not yet facing collapse – the lights are getting dim.