Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Putin’s Lies About the War Hobble Russia’s Offensive

Pretending the invasion of Ukraine is a “special operation” has limited the Kremlin’s ability to win it.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the United Nations Security Council via teleconference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on Feb. 18. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military strategy in Ukraine is being increasingly boxed in by the Kremlin’s reluctance to formally declare war against Kyiv, U.S. officials believe, a move that would allow Russia to potentially surge thousands more troops onto the battlefield.

Nearly four months into the war, Putin is still conducting the fight in Ukraine—Russia’s largest conflict in more than a decade—as a self-styled “special military operation,” allowing the Kremlin to hide the true scale of the conflict from the Russian public. Western officials have assessed that at least 15,000 Russian troops have died in Ukraine, though Ukraine’s estimates are more than double that. 

And almost four months in, Russia is still waging war on the pretenses of protecting Russian speakers in the self-declared separatist provinces of Ukraine, even though the war has extended farther from the start.

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military strategy in Ukraine is being increasingly boxed in by the Kremlin’s reluctance to formally declare war against Kyiv, U.S. officials believe, a move that would allow Russia to potentially surge thousands more troops onto the battlefield.

Nearly four months into the war, Putin is still conducting the fight in Ukraine—Russia’s largest conflict in more than a decade—as a self-styled “special military operation,” allowing the Kremlin to hide the true scale of the conflict from the Russian public. Western officials have assessed that at least 15,000 Russian troops have died in Ukraine, though Ukraine’s estimates are more than double that. 

And almost four months in, Russia is still waging war on the pretenses of protecting Russian speakers in the self-declared separatist provinces of Ukraine, even though the war has extended farther from the start.

U.S. officials increasingly believe that Putin’s reluctance to bear the political cost of acknowledging a wider and bloodier war in Ukraine after expecting to seize Kyiv, the capital, with little Ukrainian opposition in a matter of days is limiting the Kremlin’s ability to call for a general mobilization of troops from the Russian population that could overwhelm beleaguered defenders in the Donbas region.

Russian troops have frequently outnumbered Ukrainian forces in the monthslong fight in the Donbas at ratios of more than three-to-one, where the Kremlin has seized much of the Luhansk area in a seeming momentum shift in the war. But reluctance to put more troops in the field, drawn from the general population, is mitigating Russian advantages, officials said.

“Right now, the Russian leadership is lying to its people about what’s going on,” a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity based on ground rules set by the U.S. Defense Department, told reporters on the way to Brussels, where U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is set to host a 50-nation meeting to source new military aid for Ukraine. “Russian leadership is constrained in its ability to sustain high levels of personnel [in Ukraine] because they don’t want the truth to come back to the Russian people about what’s going on, and Putin has avoided general mobilization of the population.”

Although the Kremlin appears unwilling to bear the political weight of wider mobilization, Russia has conducted recruitment drives to backfill the ranks of thousands of conscripts who have already been killed in the grinding war. A European security official recently told Foreign Policy that Russia had launched an unsuccessful recruitment campaign near Murmansk, Russia.

The Ukrainian military also believes that Russia is making continued efforts to replenish weapons and military equipment. Near Slovyansk, in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Russia has replaced more than 100 damaged armored vehicles in the past 24 hours, according to the Ukrainian general staff’s daily battlefield assessment, which was provided to Foreign Policy. Russia also moved more than 80 weapons, including heavy armored vehicles and artillery, into the occupied settlements of Kreminna and Starobilsk, Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said Ukraine is now losing between 100 to 200 troops per day, numbers that U.S. officials said are not out of line with expectations for a pitched artillery battle.

Despite recent Russian gains, which have seen Russian troops take over most of Sieverodonetsk, a key Donbas city, the Biden administration has sought to look beyond the day-to-day snapshot of the battlefield to focus on bringing Ukraine more NATO-standard weapons, the U.S. defense official said. 

“They’re using very flexible tactics. They’re slowly trading territory and exacting an enormous price on every city block,” a U.S. source briefed on battlefield intelligence said of Ukraine’s tactics. “I still think in the long term the Russians are fucked. If this is what the fighting is like for Sieverodonetsk, can you imagine what it would be like in Kyiv?”

And although Russia has limited the scope of the battlefield to the Donbas region—roughly double the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut—after the failure to seize Kyiv and several northern Ukrainian cities in a lightning offensive in the first days of the war, problems with military leadership, morale, and supply issues continue to persist, officials said.

U.S. officials have sought to downplay Russia’s gains in recent weeks. Speaking at a conference in Washington on Tuesday, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said Russia’s daily gains can be “measured in blocks” and are not “large, sweeping breakthroughs” of Ukrainian defenses. “The Ukrainians are taking casualties,” Kahl said. “The Russians are taking a lot of casualties, as well, and the front lines are not moving very much.”

The Kremlin’s strategy is also getting boxed in by Western sanctions in addition to politics, U.S. officials believe. Russia’s shift to an artillery war in the Donbas has been driven by the depletion of the Kremlin’s precision-strike weapons stockpile from a high burn rate and Western sanctions. “A lot of their high-end, most modern Russian equipment has been already destroyed,” the U.S. senior defense official said. “They are beginning to rely on older models, more limited capabilities. They simply cannot resupply themselves.” Ukraine also has supply chain advantages over Russia because of the continued influx of military equipment, the official added.

Austin, the Pentagon chief, has repeatedly stated that the U.S. goal in backing Ukraine, to the tune of $4.6 billion in American weapons since Russia’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, is to help Ukraine win the war and weaken Russia militarily in the future. But the switch to NATO-level equipment coming from the West, requiring far more training than Soviet-era equipment sent to Ukraine in the early days of the war, has led to increasing complaints about a lack of munitions as the war drags on.

“The Ukrainians against all of the odds are still hanging in there, but they’re taking a pounding,” said the U.S. source familiar with battlefield intelligence. “And it’s the precise kind of pounding that we knew they were going to be taking, and we’ve known for months, and just not having the will to do anything about it.”

The drumbeat has grown after Ukraine received just 48 rockets and four batteries for the U.S.-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket System—and none of the long-range missiles that can hit Russian forces nearly 200 miles away. The United States has hundreds of the system in its stockpiles.

“It’s pathetic,” the U.S. source said. “That will last like an hour—if that.” But Biden administration officials are still confident that Ukraine can hang tough. 

“I don’t think that they’re losing the war,” the senior U.S. defense official said. “Remember that the Russian objective was a rapid envelopment. They thought they were going to achieve it within weeks, and now they’ve switched to a grinding war.”

“It’s far from settled that the Russians will achieve the kind of dominance in eastern Ukraine that was the goal of this operation,” the U.S. defense official added.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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