The “panic” part? Very cool for the Ukrainians. The loss of “command and control” over invading Russian troops? Er … not so much. The UK’s Ministry of Defence offered its daily analysis of the situation in Ukraine, and the collapse on the Kharkiv front looks nearly total. Troops have fled so quickly that they are leaving behind some of the most sophisticated arms Russia has, with no prospects for replacing either the materiel or the men:
(2/4) The way in which Russian forces have withdrawn in the last week has varied. Some units retreated in relatively good order and under control, while others fled in apparent panic.
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) September 15, 2022
(4/4) Such abandonment highlights the disorganised retreat of some Russian units and likely localised breakdowns in command and control.
— Ministry of Defence 🇬🇧 (@DefenceHQ) September 15, 2022
Needless to say, an army falling back in disarray is very much a mixed blessing to the defenders against an invasion. That kind of panic and disarray will make it nearly impossible for the Russian military to organize on a new front in the rear. It’s tough to organize anything while units disintegrate and run for the hills. For the Ukrainians in the areas that are still nominally occupied, however, that kind of loss of discipline will make this phase of the war its most dangerous. Command and control can at least provide some protection to civilians by keeping troops in decent order. Panicked troops cut off from their leadership after a catastrophic defeat will attempt to survive by any means possible, and that means they will victimize anyone they can to get back home.
And make no mistake — this defeat has been so catastrophic that even the Kremlin was forced to acknowledge it yesterday. Instead, they’re trying to shift blame away from Putin, and probably not doing that very successfully:
The Kremlin acknowledged its defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, the first time Moscow has openly recognized a defeat since the start of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Kremlin officials and state media propagandists are extensively discussing the reasons for the Russian defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, a marked change from their previous pattern of reporting on exaggerated or fabricated Russian successes with limited detail. The Kremlin never admitted that Russia was defeated around Kyiv or, later, at Snake Island, framing the retreat from Kyiv as a decision to prioritize the “liberation” of Donbas and the withdrawal from Snake Island as a “gesture of goodwill.” The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) originally offered a similar explanation for the Russian failure in Kharkiv, claiming that Russian forces were withdrawing troops from Kharkiv Oblast to regroup, but this false narrative faced quick and loud criticism online. The Kremlin’s acknowledgment of the defeat is part of an effort to mitigate and deflect criticism for such a devastating failure away from Russian President Vladimir Putin and onto the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the uniformed military command.
Kremlin sources are now working to clear Putin of any responsibility for the defeat, instead blaming the loss of almost all of occupied Kharkiv Oblast on underinformed military advisors within Putin’s circle. One member of the Kremlin’s Council for Interethnic Relations, Bogdan Bezpalko, even stated that military officials who had failed to see the concentration of Ukrainian troops and equipment and disregarded Telegram channels that warned of the imminent Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkiv Oblast should have their heads ”lying on Putin’s desk.”
Later, ISW revealed that Putin has opened the prisons to get more troops on the front lines. The idea is to avoid a general mobilization, but this is almost certainly a prelude to disaster for both Russia and Ukraine:
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin is being established as the face of the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine. Prigozhin gave a recruitment speech on September 14 announcing that Russian prisoners have been participating in the war since July 1 when they were instrumental in seizing the Vuhlehirska Thermal Power Plant. A Russian milblogger noted that Prigozhin is introducing a “Stalinist” method that allows the Kremlin to avoid ordering a general mobilization that could ignite social tensions in Russian society. Milbloggers have been consistently praising Prigozhin’s success in Ukraine and some even said that he should replace the Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, whom milbloggers and Kremlin pundits blame for the Russian defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. Russian military correspondent and milblogger Maksim Fomin (alias Vladlen Tatarsky) claimed to have spoken to Prigozhin about the situation on the Ukrainian-Russian border after the withdrawal of Russian forces in the area. The Prigozhin-Fomin meeting, if it occurred, could indicate that the Kremlin is attempting to address milbloggers’ months-long complaints that the Russian Defense Ministry did not hear their criticism highlighting the ineffectiveness of Russian higher command. Prigozhin is Putin’s close confidant, and his developing relationship with milbloggers may help retain milblogger support for the Kremlin’s war effort while scapegoating Shoigu and the Russian Defense Ministry for the defeat around Kharkiv Oblast. ISW previously assessed that the Kremlin has changed its information approach to address the demands of the Russian milbloggers and nationalists’, suggesting that Putin seeks to win back the critical milblogger community alienated by Russian failures.
If this is true, then we can expect even less discipline from retreating or running Russian troops in the wake of their catastrophic collapse. We can also expect more failures on Russian lines as they use undisciplined and untrained prisoners for infantry, and most likely cannon fodder. The use of prisoners as reserves strongly suggests that the Russian military has exhausted its capabilities, and does not have the political strength to rebuild for the kinds of operations needed to pacify even the Donbas, let alone the rest of Ukraine.
That was Putin’s fatal flaw in his war plans, writes Erin Snodgrass at 19FortyFive — or at least one of them:
The Russian military is clearly not doing well in Ukraine. A big part of the problem for Putin seems to be that he needs more trained and capable soldiers to press forward in an attempt to salvage something from his so-called ‘special military operation.’
Following a weekend of conclusive military defeats at the hands of Ukraine’s unexpectedly capable troops, Russia is being forced to confront its glaring manpower problem — and an obstinate president who refuses to offer reprieve. …
The humiliating losses are exemplary of Russia’s aversion thus far to mobilize troops in the nearly seven-month war, according to experts who said the issue is likely to persist and worsen as long as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to present a confident front, despite a dismal reality.
That flaw’s exposure comes at a particularly bad time, as Ishfan Tharoor points out at the Washington Post today. The Ukrainians may have started out as a defensive force, but they have rapidly improved over the last seven months. And now they have the initiative as well as superior morale, materiel, and tactics:
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.” …
“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.
The question now becomes whether Ukraine maintains the initiative and drives Russia off its attempted fortifications in its rear, or consolidates its gains. It might do both, choosing to consolidate the massive gains in Kharkiv Oblast for the moment while charging ahead in the southwest in Kherson. If they can cut off Crimea, the Ukrainians can turn that western flank and force the Russians to choose between salvaging what it has left of its personnel or watching them get reduced into several pockets and get annihilated. Without more men and better materiel and leadership, those appear to be the only two choices Putin has. The only two conventional choices, that is.