Russian annexation cannot conceal the chasm between what Putin wants and what his forces can control

Kramatorsk, Ukraine

It was a moment of two diametrically opposed events. One was staged in Moscow, pen on paper, theater and imperial expansion. The other is the slow and systematic advance of Ukrainian forces through poorly supplied and controlled Russian positions.

Friday exposed the stark chasm between Russia’s ambitions and its reality. While Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted a splendid fake celebration—in the grandeur of St. George’s Hall in the Kremlin and with crowds of organized support at a rally outside—his forces were losing in a strategic town in the same area he claims to annex. .

On Thursday night, the signing of two decrees on the annexation of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions began as a farce of Potemkin. Part of Zaporizhzhia is still in Ukrainian hands, and parts of Kherson are slowly being appreciated. However, Moscow claimed that the moment the decree was published on the Internet, these occupied territories suddenly became Russia. Indeed, Ukrainian officials say 23 civilians were killed when an apparent missile strike hit a convoy of cars outside the city of Zaporizhzhya that was planning to drive into occupied territory to deliver aid and evacuate those allowed to leave. An atrocity that began the region’s first day under what Russia considers its protective umbrella.

Progress in Ukraine is progressing at an accelerated pace. Their focus is on the railway hub of Lyman, which gained great importance due to Russia’s intransigent defense and the strategic role it might play in their control of the entire Luhansk region. Putin signed papers on Friday falsely claiming that this region is now Russia and will do so on the back of very bad news.

A Ukrainian soldier posted a video on Friday in front of the administration building of Yampel, a small settlement east of Lyman, from which he apparently retreated, indicating that Lyman is mostly isolated from the rest of the Russian army. Regular Russian army forces, the National Guard and some volunteer units are said to have remained in the city in large numbers. Absolutely, their decision to fight or surrender makes little difference to Ukraine’s continued progress.

Ukraine’s moves may once again highlight one strategic flaw in Russia’s position – it appears to be fighting hard for one position in the belief that its defense will hold, then struggling to regroup when the “impossible” happens. The Ukrainian encirclement of the Izyum supply hub was central to the recent defeat of Russian forces throughout the Kharkiv region. The coming days will tell whether the fate of Lyman is a similar key to the Luhansk region.

Indeed, the central policy epitome of Putin’s rants against the West – the direct call for a ceasefire and a return to the negotiating table – reflected how the annexation ceremonies were taking place against the backdrop of very bad news militarily. Not that calls for talks are likely to be heeded: Ukraine and its Western allies have rejected Russian calls for diplomacy, citing Moscow’s history of exploiting the negotiation opportunity to regroup on the battlefield.

Down to earth, Ukraine’s systematic and deliberate progress is a cold dose of reality for the Kremlin that still seems to believe it can create reality by the power of its will. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that the non-Russian-controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk should be “liberated” – a statement completely unaware that the trend of battlefield travel is going in the opposite direction.

Then what to do? Moscow appears to be still bent on the idea that a “partial mobilization” will eventually improve their fortunes. However, it seems to once again reveal the gap between fact and fiction – between modern warfare and their belief in scale and perseverance. Russia continues to attack targets directly, as forcefully as possible, and may hope that tens of thousands of conscripts, poorly equipped and trained, will be able to conquer the positions it has so far struggled to fill. But they are facing a modern Ukrainian army, with accurate Western weapons and useful tactical advice, simply outgunned. Why attack the town of Ras, when you can go around the back of it and cut it down?

Cracks in the world of Potemkin Putin began to shed light. His public appearances blaming his responsibility for the horrific implementation of partial mobilization is rare: this was a publicly announced policy, and so families whose parents and husbands were scattered into war will want to see things reverse quickly, before the body bags begin to return home. They are unlikely to be appeased by the acceptance of “Caesar benevolent” that things should have been handled better. Some 200,000 Russians have fled the country since the mobilization was announced, likely far more than they have since been forced to wear army uniforms.

In his Friday speech, Putin spoke of using “all” means at his disposal to defend these newly annexed parts of Ukraine, but did not specifically threaten to use nuclear force. But he said the United States’ use of such weapons against Japan created a precedent. It’s threatening, but veiled rather than direct, and each of these words and situations are carefully chosen.

We have again come to a point where we have to ask, what does a nuclear power do when it appears that its conventional forces are unable to achieve its military objectives? It is important to remember that nuclear power naturally becomes like this because it has a strong conventional basis for its forces.

With the exception of Pakistan and North Korea, most nuclear powers would likely be able to achieve their military objectives without resorting to the bomb. But Russia is adamantly demonstrating that its actual army falls short of the tasks it set. And this failure is likely to be reflected in the readiness of its nuclear forces: How do you make sure in the Kremlin that your nuclear arsenal is ready to be scratched if your tanks can’t get their hands on diesel 40 miles from your border?

The days ahead will be so feverish that this is a question no one should seek to answer. But we are slowly seeing the gap between what Russia wants, what it can do and what is actually happening – a gap full of fear and menacing rhetoric – being exposed on the world stage. How Moscow reacts will determine the world we live in in the coming decades.

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