Washington (CNN) — The Russian military is in disagreement over how best to counter Ukraine’s unexpected advances on the battlefield this month, according to multiple sources familiar with US intelligence, as Moscow has found itself on the defensive in both the east and west. the South.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin himself is directing instructions to generals in the field, two sources familiar with US and Western intelligence said, a highly unusual management tactic in a modern military that these sources said suggests the structure of dysfunctional command that has plagued Russia’s war from the beginning.
Intelligence intercepts have caught Russian officials arguing with each other and complaining to friends and family back home about decision-making from Moscow, one of these sources told CNN.
Russia’s Defense Ministry says it is redeploying forces to Kharkiv in the northeast, where Ukraine has made the most dramatic gains, but US and Western sources say the bulk of Russian troops remain in the south, where Ukraine has also made the most dramatic gains. mounted offensive operations around Kherson.
Putin announced on Wednesday a partial mobilization that is expected to include the call-up of up to 300,000 reservists. He has resisted taking that step for months, and officials in the Biden administration said Wednesday that the fact that he has moved to do so now highlights the severity of Russia’s labor shortage and signals a growing desperation.
It is not clear that mobilization will make an operational difference on the battlefield, or simply prolong the duration of the war without changing the outcome, according to Russian military analysts.
spread the blame
And as Russia teeters on the battlefield, officials in Moscow have been quick to shift blame for Russia’s abrupt reversal of fortunes, a senior NATO official has said.
“Kremlin officials and state media pundits have been feverishly discussing the reasons for the failure in Kharkiv, and in typical fashion, the Kremlin seems to be trying to deflect blame away from Putin and the Russian military,” it said. person.
Russia’s military leadership has already undergone changes in response to battlefield failures, leaving Russia’s command structure even more disorganized than before, according to the sources. The commander who oversaw most of the units around the Kharkiv region had only been on the job for 15 days and has now been relieved, the NATO official said.
Russia has sent “a small number” of troops to eastern Ukraine, some of whom had fled amid Ukraine’s advances on the battlefield last week, according to two US defense officials, in an effort to shore up its weakened defensive lines.
But even if Russia is able to coalesce around a plan, US and Western officials believe Russia is limited in its ability to mount a strategically meaningful response to Ukraine’s counteroffensive operations that in recent days, the sources say, has shifted the momentum in favor of Kyiv. Even after the announcement of the partial mobilization, officials remain skeptical that Russia will be able to rapidly deploy large numbers of troops to Ukraine, given its continuing problems with supply lines, communications and morale.
The “small scale” of the Russian redeployment is a sign of its inability to mount any serious operations, the senior defense official told CNN.
So far, Russia has responded to Ukraine’s advances by launching attacks on critical infrastructure such as dams and power plants, attacks the US largely views as “revenge” attacks rather than operational significance, this person said.
In the absence of more manpower, which it simply does not have right now, the sources said Russia has few other options to punish or push back Ukrainian forces. Putin is “struggling,” National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby said in an appearance on CNN on Wednesday. The Russian Army has “poor unit cohesion, desertions in the ranks, soldiers who don’t want to fight,” Kirby said.
“He’s got terrible morale, unit cohesion on the battlefield, command and control hasn’t been worked out yet. He’s got desertion issues and he’s forcing the wounded back into combat. So it’s clear that the personnel it’s a problem for him,” Kirby said. “He feels like he’s on the defensive, especially in that area of northeastern Donbas.”
The mobilization order is a sign that Putin’s plan is not working
Putin’s mobilization order is significant because it is a direct acknowledgment that Moscow’s “special military operation” was not working and needed to be adjusted, military analysts said.
But for now, there are more questions than answers about its precise operational impact. It is the first such order issued in Russia since World War II, giving military analysts little modern data on which to base their predictions.
Even if Moscow can increase its troop numbers, both by preventing current contract service members from leaving the service and by mobilizing reservists, it will struggle to train, equip and integrate these troops into existing units, said Michael Kofman, director of the Program. of Studies on Russia at the Center for Naval Analysis. And even if that solves some short-term staffing issues, they likely won’t be high-quality recruits, Kofman and others said.
Even in the best of cases, it will take some time for Moscow to have new troops.
“I think it’s reasonable to say that partial mobilization probably won’t show up on the battlefield for several months at the earliest, and might enhance Russia’s ability to sustain this war, but not alter its outcome,” Kofman said.
Russia’s previous failings in planning, communications and logistics have been compounded by heavy losses suffered in its withdrawal from the Kharkiv environs, according to the sources. Russia left behind “a lot” of equipment in its withdrawal, according to the NATO official. And at least one big-name unit, from the First Guards Tank Army, has been “decimated,” this person said.
“With its northern axis almost collapsed, this will make it more difficult for Russian forces to stop the Ukrainian advance, as well as provide cover for retreating Russian troops,” the official said. “We believe that it will also seriously harm Russia’s plans to occupy the whole of Donbas.”
The wild card remains, as always, the president of Russia. On Wednesday, Putin again threatened to use nuclear weapons, a threat that US officials have said they are taking “seriously” but have seen no immediate indication that he is planning to carry it out.
Pro-Russian authorities in some occupied regions of eastern Ukraine have also announced their intention to hold political referendums on joining Russia, a move that some analysts say Russia could use as a pretext for military action.
But, according to the senior NATO official, “in general, Russia is now on the defensive. Ukraine has the initiative, forcing Russia to take stopgap measures simply to avoid further losses.”
“If Ukraine manages to undertake sustained defensive operations, this could further undermine the sustainability of Russian defenses,” this person said.
— Barbara Starr and Tim Lister contributed reporting.