by Ishaan Tharoor

September 15, 2022

The Washington Post

The war in Ukraine may be entering a decisive new phase. The past week saw the stunning success of Ukrainian counteroffensive into the environs of the northeast city of Kharkiv, routing Russian forces across a vast stretch of territory extending as far as the Russian border. In addition to considerable casualties, Russian troops lost significant amounts of materiel, including dozens of tanks and armored vehicles. A resident of one liberated town described the Russian retreat to my colleagues as so hasty that “their pants were flying off.”

Not since the initial stages of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor — when dogged Ukrainian defenders repulsed Russian columns moving on the capital Kyiv — has there been this level of optimism surrounding Ukraine’s capacity for victory. On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky went to the retaken city of Izyum and hailed his compatriots on the front lines. “The heroes are here,” Zelensky said at a flag-raising ceremony. “It means that the enemy is gone, ran away.”

Russia has cast its losses as part of a strategic “regroup.” But it’s clear to analysts that the latest Ukrainian offensive has exposed some of the mounting problems within the Russian war effort, hampered by organizational frailties not anticipated by many Western military experts before the Russian invasion began. “A lot of the key elements of a strong defense are the capabilities of your soldiers, the capabilities of logistics, and command, and we’ve seen fractures in all of those elements, and they played out in many places over time in the east,” a senior U.S. defense official told my colleagues.

The recent successes have also offered another demonstration of Ukrainian prowess and daring. “It’s too early to say whether this is a turning point in the war,” a Western official told Britain’s Economist, “but it’s a moment which has power in terms of both operations, logistics and psychology. … Ukraine has demonstrated impressive operational art.”

Many of Ukraine’s supporters hope Kyiv can press its advantage. Even as Ukrainian forces consolidate their gains in the northeast, they are hoping to take further ground in the southern Kherson region. Experts believe Russia is on the back foot, reeling from recent setbacks, facing exhaustion, slumping morale and the steady deterioration of its combat effectiveness. “What we are seeing around Kharkiv is the psychological breaking point of certain Russian forces,” said Gen. H.R. McMaster, former White House national security adviser in the Trump administration. McMaster was speaking at a Monday roundtable at Stanford University hosted by the Hoover Institution, a right-leaning think tank, where Today’s WorldView was present.

McMaster called for increase in arms and military equipment deliveries to Ukraine, including heavy armor and tanks demanded by Kyiv, to “maintain momentum and initiative.” He also suggested that Ukraine’s allies help the country “project power in greater depth across the Black Sea,” forcing the Russian fleet away from Ukraine’s coast and making Russian bases in annexed Crimea “untenable” with the threat of missile strikes.

Russia was so vulnerable, McMaster quipped, that “I think the Lithuanian army could march on St. Petersburg right now.”

That’s not happening, of course. President Biden cautioned this week that talk of victory was premature and that the war was “going to be a long haul.” Zelensky acknowledged how “extremely difficult” the fighting around Kharkiv had been for his nation’s troops and urged the soldiers he addressed Wednesday to take care of themselves as they ready for new battles to come.

Russian President Vladimir Putin now faces a narrower, more stark set of options in litigating the war of his choosing. For months, Putin has clung to fictions of inevitable triumph over Ukraine’s “artificial” state and peddled contradictory storylines to his countrymen — that the war they are waging is an existential battle for Russia’s future and yet also a mere “special operation” that the Kremlin has well at hand. The edifice of Putin’s propaganda has started to crumble, and he finds himself in a scenario where he cannot countenance defeat nor pursue a decisive victory.

Ultranationalist radicals close to the Kremlin are grousing over the defeats in Kharkiv and calling for drastic measures, including even a general mobilization of the Russian public. “In a sign of the pressure on Putin from pro-war hard-liners for tougher action, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a longtime Putin ally, on Wednesday called for martial law and mandatory military mobilization, moves so far ruled out by the Kremlin,” noted my colleague Robyn Dixon.  “Putin certainly has the will to continue this war, but he has been largely operating under the illusion that the Russian military was winning and would eventually win,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at Arlington-based Center for Naval Analyses, to my colleagues. Once that illusion is dispelled, the political costs may rise for the entrenched autocrat.  “Many Russians have been fairly lukewarm in terms of either supporting or not caring about this war, seeing their lives as largely unaffected because they believe that their kids will not be sent to fight,” Kofman said. “People’s attitudes really change if they think their kids will be sent to fight.”

Meanwhile, Putin himself seems mired in strategic confusion and increasingly isolated. “Putin is completely unclear about where we are going, what our goals are and how we’re going to win,” political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya told Robyn. “He has detached himself from the elites. And following Putin, without knowing where we are going, can’t last forever.”

One perennially looming question is whether Putin would resort to unthinkable measures, choosing to deploy a nuclear weapon as his ability to defeat Ukraine diminishes. Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, argued at the same Hoover roundtable that Putin isn’t “that crazy.” A nuclear attack would make him a “global pariah” and likely collapse relations with countries that have remained relatively cordial with Moscow, like China and India.

In invading Ukraine, McFaul sees Putin repeating the ill-fated maneuver of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who sought to conquer Afghanistan in 1980, only to end up mired in a long war that prefigured the U.S.S.R.’s dissolution. “This is the end of Putinism,” McFaul said, though he cautioned it’s unclear when Putin will actually fall. McMaster, meanwhile, argued that no Western government should look to compel the warring parties to a compromise that could allow Putin to save face. “For Putin, any off-ramp is to look for the next on-ramp,” he said. “A new reality has been created: The Ukrainians could win this war,” wrote the Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum. She added: “We must expect that a Ukrainian victory, and certainly a victory in Ukraine’s understanding of the term, also brings about the end of Putin’s regime.”

Ishaan Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he authors the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.