Russia’s Breaking Point in Ukraine May Be Closer Than We Think

Neil Hauer

Image courtesy of Nikolay Doychinov / AFP

Kyiv, Ukraine – To say that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not gone according to plan is hardly a novelty at this point.

Two and a half months after Russian forces launched a full-scale assault on their southwestern neighbor, they have little to show for it. A six-week campaign to capture the capital Kyiv was abandoned in early April, with heavy losses in both blood and treasure. A refocused effort on eastern Ukraine has brought few gains at a high cost, as well as stunning reverses like the sinking of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship. Even those at the upper echelons have begun to openly recognize serious difficulties: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a staunch Putin ally, admitted on May 5 that the offensive was “not going” as expected.

There are plenty of reasons to believe the situation will soon become much worse for Russia. Over the next few weeks, it’s very plausible the momentum could, amazingly, shift towards the Ukrainian side, enabling the start of territorial reconquest that could see battered Russian units pushed to their breaking point and even collapse.

Russian forces are nearly three weeks into their Donbas offensive. Heralded as Moscow’s crowning effort of the war, the operation was intended to smash Ukrainian forces in the east of the country, enveloping and destroying a large portion of Kyiv’s army and opening the door to further Russian conquests in Ukraine’s heartland. Russian forces massed around the north and south of Ukrainian positions in Donbas, reinforced with both fresh units as well as reconstituted ones withdrawn from northern Ukraine, and attempted to punch through Ukrainian defenses in a series of mass assaults.

Yet the offensive itself has looked anything but decisive. Russian units have moved forth ponderously. While armored formations have been properly supported by infantry in many cases, unlike in the war’s early weeks, this has translated into little success on the ground. Even in the Izyum area, the railway town where Russia concentrated 22 of its 168 total battalion tactical groups (the main Russian combat formation), progress has been limited to perhaps 30 kilometers of open farmland to the south. Over more than two weeks, the entirety of Russia’s advance has seized just a handful of strategically insignificant villages, while incurring massive casualties at the hands of Ukrainian heavy weaponry.

And while Moscow might prefer to shift the battlefield entirely to Donbas, Ukraine gets a say as well. Over the past week, Ukrainian forces have made significant gains on the outskirts of Kharkiv, the major northeastern city where Russian troops had dug into defensive positions. Stripped of part of their strength to bolster the Donbas campaign, the remaining Russian units proved inadequate to hold ground, and by May 2 were pushed out of the village of Stariy Saltiv, 40 kilometers east of Kharkiv city and astride the Seversky Donets river. Ukrainian reinforcements from Kyiv and elsewhere have turned what began as an operation to relieve pressure on the city into a campaign that now threatens the flank and supply lines of Russia’s operations at Izyum.

The overstretch of Russian forces hinted at by the Kharkiv campaign is only more dire when the situation is taken as a whole. Russia committed three-quarters of its entire standing ground forces to the initial invasion of Ukraine on February 24, engaging all of these units in the country within two weeks. Once progress stunted, Moscow then began to scrape together what more it could from its other units, drawing forces from as far away as bases in Tajikistan, South Ossetia and the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad. There are simply no more professional troops to draw upon while maintaining any semblance of force along Russia’s vast borders.

All the while, Ukraine is experiencing the opposite. Transfers of heavy and advanced military equipment to Ukraine are continuing at a rapid pace, enhancing the lethality and scope of Kyiv’s capabilities almost daily. The US has delivered nearly 90 state-of-the-art M777 howitzers to Ukraine in the past three weeks, as well as training Ukrainian crews to use them. Drones like the Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost, capable of striking Russian crews at 20 kilometers distance or more, have also been delivered in their hundreds. Just last week, Poland transferred 230 of its communist-era T-72 tanks to Ukraine. Analysts say Kyiv now has more tanks on Ukrainian soil than Moscow does. Many thousands of foreign volunteers, mostly experienced military personnel, have also arrived to fight alongside Ukrainian forces. It is a near-certainty that the Ukrainian military is better-armed and more capable now than it was on the day of Russia’s invasion – a remarkable fact after 70 days of full-scale warfare.

Ukraine is getting stronger, while Russia’s position only becomes weaker. There is no quick or effective method for Moscow to reverse this. While some speculate that May 9, when Russia celebrates its World War II victory over Nazi Germany, will be used to declare war on Ukraine and full mobilization, such a process would take months to generate manpower of dubious quality, to say nothing of the political risks.

The Russian armed forces are being ground to dust before the world’s eyes in eastern Ukraine, and there is little that could conceivably alter this course, let alone provide Moscow with some sort of further advance or victory. And with Moscow’s army suffering catastrophic losses every week, a breaking point for Russian formations – followed by rout and collapse – could be closer than we think.

Neil Hauer is a security analyst currently in Kyiv, Ukraine. Usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, his work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.