Russia’s Ukraine War might not be won or lost on the battlefield but in the backrooms of the Kremlin and maybe even the streets of Moscow.
That’s an odd conclusion to draw, I’ll admit, given Ukraine’s battlefield wins that we’ve all witnessed these last few weeks — and probably even bigger victories to come.
I privately joked with one of my online military buddies this week that by the time both sides come to the peace table, they might be arguing over who gets to keep border cities like Belgorod — on the Russian side of the border.
Ukraine’s progress since July 3 has had observers recognizing that young country’s evolving combat capabilities:
- June: Maybe Kyiv can stop Russia at the Donbas.
- August: Maybe Kyiv can win back some lands, but never Crimea.
- October: Maybe Moscow can’t even stop them at Crimea.
The crowd-sourced mappers at MilitaryLand don’t publish anything they can’t confirm, and here’s the key bullet point from yesterday’s report:
Ukrainian forces maintain steady progress and liberated another bunch of settlements in Kherson, Kharkiv and also Luhansk Oblast. Ukrainians also continue to successfully defend the remaining parts of frontline and don’t allow Russians to advance and capture new positions.
Russian forces are falling back everywhere they’re pushed, and over the last week, Ukraine hasn’t even had to push very hard.
“Effectively, the Russian front has started to collapse,” British military expert Ed Arnold told Sky News on Wednesday.
Even the Dupuy Institute’s Christopher A. Lawrence, who has been very cautious in his assessments, is now asking whether this is “a controlled withdrawal by Russia across this front or are they collapsing?”
“In the end,” he wrote on Wednesday, “this war is going to be won on the field of battle.”
I’m not so sure.
It’s a fair question to ask though; if Russian forces are performing so badly now, why can’t Ukraine win on the battlefield?
It’s mostly because the battlefield is limited to Ukraine, which means that Russia can stay in the game for as long as strongman Vladimir Putin can scrape up men to send there. Ukraine can’t just march on Moscow and dictate peace terms — that simply isn’t done to a country with a vast nuclear arsenal.
It’s unwise (ahem) to threaten the existence of a regime with the power to end the existence of your nation. Just sayin’.
Besides, neither Putin nor Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appears to have any peace feelers out.
Putin has staked everything on this war. He didn’t merely annex four Ukrainian provinces last week: he signed a decree amending the constitution to forbid any Russian leader from turning them over.
Even as part of a peace deal, even though Russia never fully controlled those provinces, even though Ukraine is busy pushing them out.
ASIDE: One caveat is that Putin has left some wiggle room regarding just how much of those four provinces he’s formally annexed. Maybe that’s a pretext for a peace deal in which Russia keeps only some of its conquered territories. It takes two to negotiate peace, and Kyiv doesn’t seem to think it should (I disagree) while it’s winning.
By Putin’s decree, Russia’s borders are constitutionally inviolate, even when Russia’s leader just makes them up.
That’s not the kind of ledge from which a man like Putin can gracefully climb down.
Maybe he’ll have to be pushed. The Defenestration Retirement Plan is pretty popular in Russia these days.
But when? By whom? For what proximate cause? Would there be fighting in Moscow? Another civil war?
There are so many possible scenarios and really no way to predict which one — if any — might come true. So I won’t bore you with a laundry list of What Ifs.
Already there is evidence of growing fissures in the Putin regime.
ISW’s daily roundup of Ukraine War news didn’t cover much of the battlefield reports on Tuesday. Instead, their staff focused on the increasing factionalism between the military, the veterans’ community, influential milbloggers, and others. This “fragmentation,” they write, “could have significant domestic impacts and could even affect the stability of Putin’s regime.”
The cleaner-cut things begin to look on the battlefield, the messier they look in Moscow.
I’d love to be wrong about this. Nothing would be better than a relatively quick end to this war with a battlefield victory so one-sided that it will be generations before Russia again risks upsetting the European peace.
But almost nobody I’ve read or spoken with who understands these things better than I do is counting on it.