With Its Invasion Force Losing Steam, Russia May Need To Pick a Priority Front
KYIV, Ukraine — More than five months into Moscow’s full-scale war against Ukraine, Russian ground forces appear to have paused their advance in the eastern Donbas region. Stiff Ukrainian resistance, bolstered by Western weapons deliveries, has nearly exhausted the Russian invasion.
The war is at a crossroads. With their units losing offensive momentum, some experts say that Russian commanders may need to choose a priority — whether to focus their increasingly limited troops and equipment in bolstering the southern front lines near Kherson against an imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive, or to continue pressing ahead on the eastern front.
“Russia, having large but limited forces on such a wide front, must choose — to continue the offensive in the East or to start active defense in the South,” independent analysts and researchers from the open source intelligence community Molfar stated in a July 25 release.
Richard Moore, the UK’s foreign intelligence chief, recently said that Russia could be “about to run out of steam” in Ukraine.
“I think our assessment is that the Russians will increasingly find it difficult to supply manpower material over the next few weeks. They will have to pause some way and that will give the Ukrainians opportunities to strike back,” Moore, chief of the UK’s MI6, told CNN’s Jim Sciutto during the Aspen Security Forum on July 22.
“Ukrainians may have a window in which they can take advantage of what may turn out to be only a temporary Russian weakness,” Moore said.
Recent Western weapons deliveries are siphoning away Russia’s offensive strength in Ukraine, especially the US-supplied M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS. A senior Pentagon official told reporters on July 22 that Ukrainian forces, including those armed with HIMARS rocket launchers, have destroyed more than 100 “high-value” Russian targets, including command posts, ammunition depots, air-defense sites, radar and communications nodes, and long-range artillery positions.
According to an announcement by Ukraine’s military on July 25, Russian forces suffered 179 combat fatalities during the previous 24 hours, as well as seven destroyed tanks, nine destroyed armored vehicles, and a downed helicopter. Of those losses, it was not immediately clear how many were attributable to Western weapons.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense reported in a July 27 website post that 40,070 Russian military personnel have been “liquidated” since the full-scale invasion began on Feb. 24. The US intelligence community puts the number of Russian dead at about 15,000, CIA Director William Burns said July 20.
A senior US defense official told reporters on July 22 that Russia has committed about 85% of its military to the invasion of Ukraine. According to news reports, Western officials estimate that Russia has lost about a third of its equipment in Ukraine. Despite that high level of engagement and attrition, some experts say that Russia has ample amounts of military hardware in storage, and the Kremlin still retains the option of a nationwide mobilization to bolster troop levels. Thus, Russia may be overextended on the battlefield, such as it is, but only because its leaders are still operating within the bounds of what is, essentially, a peacetime military posture.
Russian forces made quick inroads into southern Ukraine during the war’s opening weeks but never made it farther west than Kherson — well short of the key port city of Odesa, which many experts say was Moscow’s original objective in the south. After Russia’s failed attempt to take the capital city of Kyiv (a military defeat compounded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s refusal to evacuate; a move that galvanized Ukrainian resistance nationwide), Russian forces refocused their offensive efforts on eastern Ukraine.
Over the summer, the war devolved into an artillery slugfest in which Russia used overwhelming, indiscriminate firepower to creep ahead on the eastern front. During the battle for the city of Severodonetsk, Russian forces fired as many as 20,000 artillery rounds per day. However, the intensity of Russia’s rolling artillery barrages diminished after the arrival of long-range Western weapons into Ukrainian units. Underscoring the toll, Russian forces have prioritized targeting Ukrainian HIMARS and long-range artillery — to date, this effort has been unsuccessful, mainly due to the Ukrainians’ “shoot and scoot” mobility tactics.
A HIMARS wheeled launch vehicle can leave a launch site within two minutes at a speed of about 60 mph. Moreover, even armed with precise intelligence about a HIMARS launch vehicle’s location, Russian forces may not have enough precision weapons on hand to carry out a successful strike. According to US defense estimates, Russian forces have already expended much of their high-precision weapons and are increasingly relying on Soviet-era cruise missiles and unguided, so-called dumb bombs.
Many experts agree that Kyiv is preparing a counteroffensive against the southern city of Kherson. A Ukrainian partisan movement has been active in the Russian-occupied area, which is of vital economic and military interest for Kyiv.
Ukrainian forces have begun to incrementally take back territory and small settlements around Kherson and have advanced to within about 50 kilometers of the city. Once the attack begins in force, it is likely to last through the summer, Ukrainian officials have said.
Ukraine’s military is also exhausted after months of tough fighting. Many of the country’s most experienced fighters have been on the line under heavy fire for months, and many have been killed or wounded. At the height of fighting in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian officials estimated their front-line forces were suffering up to 200 fatalities a day. To replenish front-line units, fresh recruits will need time to complete training.
Ukraine is also dependent on Western arms shipments to continue its war effort. Should Russia find a way to successfully interdict Western arms transfers, Ukraine’s war effort would be in jeopardy. Yet, Russia’s air force never achieved air superiority over Ukraine.
With Ukraine’s skies still contested, and Russia running low on precision, long-range missiles, the flow of Western arms to front-line Ukrainian units remains steady. Even so, Ukrainian commanders may need to balance their commitment to retaking Kherson against the corresponding risk of weakening their defenses on the eastern front and in other areas.
“The pace of Russian offensives may have dropped off, and the Ukrainians claim each day that they have repulsed probing actions, but it could be risky to over-commit to Kherson if that meant losing out in Donetsk,” Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London, recently wrote, referring to a region in eastern Ukraine.
Although Russia’s invasion may be grinding to a halt, Moscow’s overall goals in Ukraine appear to be expanding. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently suggested that overthrowing Ukraine’s democratically elected government, a goal that lost traction after Russia’s defeat in the Battle of Kyiv, may now once again be on Moscow’s to-do list.
Speaking at an Arab League summit in Cairo on Sunday, Lavrov said, “We will certainly help the Ukrainian people to get rid of the regime, which is absolutely anti-people and anti-historical.”
Lavrov’s comments blatantly contradict the ground-level reality in Ukraine.
A poll conducted last month by the Ukrainian sociological group, Rating, found that 98% of Ukrainians held a “negative attitude” toward the Russian government. Additionally, the poll found that 87% of Ukrainians would support joining the European Union, 76% would support a decision to join NATO, and 93% of Ukrainians believe their country will defeat Russia.
A May poll by the International Republican Institute, a US think tank, found that 94% of Ukrainians “strongly approve or somewhat approve” of Zelenskyy’s job performance.
“The people of Ukraine have rallied around President [Zelenskyy] as their country continues to withstand Putin’s brutal attacks,” Stephen Nix, director of IRI’s Eurasia Division, said in a release.