Ukraine prepares for Putin’s next unexpected move

Russian President Vladimir Putin is scrambling to respond to Ukraine’s stunning military success in recent days, but the Kremlin’s next steps are difficult to predict, strategists told AFP.

After reclaiming thousands of square kilometers of territory and many towns controlled by Russia, Kyiv appeared in the driver’s seat on the battlefield, where some Ukrainian officials had already spoken of a possible victory for President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Western-backed army.

“This will be like a snowball that is constantly rolling and rolling,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said triumphantly in the French daily Le Monde. “We will see the withdrawal of the second most powerful army in the world.”

But experts warn that such predictions may be premature.

On Monday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said that his country’s forces were bombing the lost territories in eastern Ukraine, and promised that Moscow would continue fighting “until its goals are achieved.”

Russia said on Tuesday it was carrying out “intense” strikes on Ukraine’s front lines.

– Tactical only –

It is already possible that major Russian troop movements after the setback, as Alexander Greenberg at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security predicted, describing recent Ukrainian successes as “amazing, but only tactical.”

Ivan Kliches, of Estonia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute, warned that Ukrainian forces would not be able to continue their offensive indefinitely.

“Ukrainian forces will have to fortify themselves, especially along the border with Russia,” he told AFP.

Read also: With major pipeline shutdown, Putin denies arming energy

Meanwhile, the Russian president faces “limited” options, Kliches said, while public opinion at home watches.

Putin has so far chosen not to mobilize Russian recruits. Doing so would lead to further instability as the demand for the population would increase exponentially.

“The option of withdrawing all Russian forces is also fraught with danger, as the armed forces and the population expect some kind of victory.”

In the meantime, Putin may simply be waiting for the onset of winter, which will exacerbate “the social and economic problems in Kyiv,” said Alexander Karamshikhin, an independent Russian military expert.

To this end, Moscow could continue to target Ukrainian infrastructure, creating “enormous problems” for Kiev, he said.

Few expected Ukraine’s détente despite Kyiv’s promises of a counterattack to retake Kherson, one of the first cities to fall after the Russian offensive in February.

One of the key developments was the scale of the Russian withdrawal in northern Ukraine, where Moscow moved its forces with the goal of defending the south, leaving supply lines vulnerable.

“The attack on Kherson was not just a diversion, but it played that role,” Greenberg told AFP.

Ben Hodges, the former commander of NATO forces in Europe, noted that Russian logistical support operations remained a primary target of the Ukrainian strikes.

He said in a tweet over the weekend that Russian forces “rely heavily on rail transport for artillery ammunition and heavy equipment.”

– ‘Unable to control’ –

“The capture of Kobyansk would mean a major disruption in the logistical support of Russian forces on the front lines in this region,” Hodges added.

Kreenberg noted that countless rivers traverse the region, saying, “It is enough to destroy bridges to cut supply chains.”

Russia’s biggest problem may be the lack of military manpower, combined with its tradition of top-down hierarchy seen as out of touch with reality on the battlefield.

Experts said that this allowed Kiev to shine with its unique combination of mobility, small independent units and national unity.

Russia is “unable to control vast areas and a long front line,” Khramshikhin said, adding that intelligence provided by the United States would help Kyiv more than weapons delivery.

As a result, Ukraine was able to expel the Russians in open combat “for the first time since the start of the war,” noted Michel Goya, a former colonel in the French army.

He said its ability to organize two separate offensives involving 20,000 troops could indicate a “reversal of capability curves” between Ukraine and Russia.

US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, on Monday praised Ukraine’s “significant progress”, but also cautioned that “it is too early to say exactly where this is heading.”

Khramshikhin warned that it would already be unwise to rule out the return of the war pendulum in favor of Moscow again.

The Russian expert predicted that regardless of the next stage of the war, the conflict is likely to continue for a long time.

“Maybe 20 years,” he told AFP.

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