Why is Vladimir Putin seemingly exercising restraint? There is no lack of bombast in the Russian president’s speeches and TV pronouncements, but he could, if he so wished, have escalated the war in Ukraine rapidly and intensively.
Yet the Kremlin appears to have avoided destroying key Ukrainian infrastructure and areas of substantial economic or military value.
In fact, it actually seems that NATO is demonstrating its power – with the coming days seeing the start of extensive military exercises stretching from the Arctic to the Mediterranean – while Putin is slowing down the war, rather than accelerating it.
There are many explanations why this may be, but two stand out.
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One is that the Kremlin now recognises that the war cannot be won. If so, on 9 May – Russia’s much-celebrated Victory Day, which marks the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 – Putin may claim victory in Mariupol and impending victory in Donbas, regardless of the facts on the ground. In this scenario, it is likely that Russia would continue but not expand the war, while actually being prepared for negotiations.
The other possibility is that Putin will use 9 May to announce Russia-wide military mobilisation and intensify the war, seeking a much broader victory. He would argue that NATO has now gone to war with Russia and the future of the country is at stake, leaving him with no alternative.
Which direction he leans on Victory Day will give us a clear view of whether this war will end within weeks or is entering its most dangerous phase.
A revised war plan
Putin’s original intention to terminate Volodymyr Zelenskyi's government has long since failed. But his overall aim – extending Russian influence westwards in pursuit of a renewed ‘Eurasia’ superpower – is still very much on the table.
Far from his original deranged war plan, the Russian president has now determined on the rational path of occupying eastern Ukraine while extending control of the Black Sea coast right through to Transnistria.
The revised plan has two elements – both of which sound simple but are problematic.
The first has been the strengthening of land forces in the east by amalgamating weakened units and reinforcing them with fresh troops including mercenaries.
The Russian army’s experience over the whole ten weeks of the war has been of very poor performance against high-morale Ukrainian army units that are increasingly well-equipped with NATO weapons and munitions. Even though Russian forces may outnumber Ukrainian defenders in Donbas by up to 3:1, the advantage still lies with the defender and many of the Ukrainians are veterans of years of combat in the region.
Moreover, as the war continues, NATO states, especially the United States, have made it abundantly clear that Ukraine will not lose, meaning weapons, matériel and intelligence will continue to flood into the country. The intelligence-sharing element is of particular value, often enabling the Ukrainian military to act rapidly and accurately, including in the targeting of Russian generals and the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
The Ukraine Air Force has also recently been able to increase its fleet of available aircraft, not by acquiring new planes but by refurbishing existing non-operational ones with parts and assistance from the US.
What’s more, the pre-conflict connections between the Pentagon and Ukraine are far more extensive than normally appreciated. One recent report stated that, over the past seven years, the Pentagon has spent $126m training some 23,000 Ukrainian soldiers in Ukraine itself. Hundreds are now being rushed through rapid training programmes on new weapons systems in NATO countries.
The second element of the Kremlin’s revised plan is to increase the use of cruise and ballistic missiles to carry out air attacks across Ukraine – a necessity if Ukrainians are to feel continuing pressure.
The problem here is that having failed to get air supremacy over Ukraine, the Russian Air Force is cautious in using attack aircraft to fly over the country. It is instead placing much more reliance on cruise missiles fired from aircraft in Russian or Belarusian airspace or from surface warships and submarines.
Many of Russia’s attacks so far have been in or near major cities, especially targeting arms factories or transport infrastructure, with an emphasis on the supply lines and depots used to bring in more NATO support.
The Russian army’s experience over the whole ten weeks of the war has been of very poor performance
These attacks may be important for Russia, but they have hit two recent problems that may now have an impact on the whole course of the war.
The first is the failure rate with the air-launched cruise missiles, reported by US sources to be unacceptably high. According to a senior Pentagon official, “either they’re failing to launch, or they’re failing to hit the target, or they’re failing to explode on contact”. While the official said the Russian Air Force still has more than half its stocks available, the rate of use at this stage in the war needs to increase.
This brings us to Russia’s second problem: it can’t produce enough missiles.
Back in 2002, when US forces were preparing to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime, the start of the Iraq war was delayed for months due to the rapid use of precision-guided bombs and missiles in attacking the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. American arms corporations had to work around the clock to replenish stocks.
The Kremlin now faces a similar problem, not least with its Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile, with stocks having to be brought in from distant parts of Russia. The basic problem stems from the quality of the industrial base, which has been made worse by the impact of sanctions; especially targeted sanctions aimed specifically at imported sub-components.
Given all the problems that have arisen, it is likely that Putin’s 9 May address will have two components – a claim that Donbas is now in Russian hands and a decision that the whole country will now go onto a full mobilisation to ensure the necessary forces are available to win the war.
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