Military analysts have already called the president’s decree unrealistic, especially given Russia’s deteriorating demographics. The latest conscript call up, for the first time in several years, fell short of its goals by a third, and a possible increase in the length of conscription service will only strengthen the trend of young men seeking to avoid army service, according to Pavel Luzin, an expert on international relations and security. Putin may decide to transfer part of the paramilitary Russian Guard (Rosgvardiya) to the armed forces, but that would reduce his resources for fighting protesters inside the country.
As for the possibility of sending more conscripts to the war with Ukraine, that is opposed even by military experts loyal to the Kremlin. So too is the suggestion of a general mobilization. The authors of the Military Review website, which is close to the Russian Ministry of Defense, warned that the effect of such a decision would have consequences similar to those faced by the US during the Vietnam War. It was the conscripts returning from the front who often became the most ardent anti-war activists, they wrote, and protests against the war almost led to a social explosion in American society (though the authors could have found a more recent example closer to home — Russia’s disastrous experience during its war in Afghanistan from 1979-89.)
If conscripts are mobilized and sent to the front, anti-war sentiment will begin to grow, “fanned” by committees of soldiers’ mothers (as during the Afghan and Chechen wars) and other similar organizations, they warn. Oddly, the authors of the article claim it’s the US that will stoke such sentiments in Russia, as if Russian mothers are incapable of experiencing grief at the loss of their sons without outside instigation.
Sociologists loyal to the Kremlin share the doubts of military experts. “The loyalist and middle-class segments of society, which make up the absolute majority of Russian citizens,” may have supported the so-called “special operation” (the all-out invasion of February 24) in the beginning, but as the hostilities drag on with no end in sight, they are becoming fatigued. Ordinary people increasingly just want to “hide their heads in the sand” and take care of their own “pockets and well-being,” Yaroslav Ignatovsky, head of the Politgen analytical center, wrote on Telegram. According to a sociological survey published in August, despite formal support for the war, 62% of men are not ready to take part in it.
The regime faces further problems with indiscipline in the conscript ranks. In July, it was reported that about 20 Russian soldiers who refused to fight in Ukraine were imprisoned in the Luhansk region for several weeks under the guard of fighters from the notorious Wagner mercenary company. According to the “refuseniks”, some of them were kept in the basement while being threatened with pre-trial detention and court. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military said on September 5 that a regiment of forcibly conscripted Russian troops from Donetsk and Luhansk had also mutinied over a range of issues including a lack of water. An affiliated unit was said to have surrendered early in the southern offensive, which began on August 29.
Even contract servicemen are less than eager to fight. For example, in August, it emerged that a group of such troops — regarded as better motivated due to better pay — from Dagestan who refused to participate in hostilities in Ukraine were being put under unlawful pressure. They are placed in guardhouses, their military documents stamped with “inclined to treachery,” they are deprived of lump sum payments and threatened with a tribunal.
Yet things will have to get worse before there is a broader uprising by soldiers’ mothers and wives. Many are frightened by the prospect of criminal cases for the slightest criticism of the war, some agree to remain silent in exchange for monetary compensation for their dead sons, and others still sincerely believe in state propaganda about the conflict. Propagandists, in turn, actively promote stories in which the mothers of dead servicemen (now numbering at least 25,000 according to the UK defense secretary) talk of their deep respect for Vladimir Putin, of their support for the war, and how proud they are of their children who “fought against fascism.”
Nevertheless, there are periodic expressions of dissatisfaction. At the end of June, the wives of Buryat military personnel recorded a video message in which they asked the head of the republic, Alexei Tsydenov, to return their husbands from the so-called special operation. A month later, more than 100 families of Russian servicemen openly demanded that Putin find their sons, husbands, and brothers who were in the combat zone in Ukraine.
Of course, appeals are not protests. Their authors neither openly oppose the war nor accuse Putin of unleashing it, but, on the contrary, they view him as the only source of help and protection. However, as the ongoing war starts affecting every family, it will begin to disrupt what the Russians value the most in the world — a normal and peaceful life.
As for resources for the war, even experts loyal to the Kremlin have repeatedly noted that they are inadequate. However, Russian forces should not be underestimated. According to the military, the country still has superiority in manpower, as well as attack aircraft, armored vehicles, and its ability to strike at the Ukrainian rear.
Russia’s best hope? That a freezing winter, combined with a shortage (or complete shutdown) of Russian gas, will force the European allies to compromise. Preparations by the European Union for lower supplies and further pledges of military and financial assistance for Ukraine suggest that — thus far at least — that hope will be disappointed.
Kseniya Kirillova is an analyst focused on Russian society, mentality, propaganda, and foreign policy. The author of numerous articles for the Jamestown Foundation, she has also written for the Atlantic Council, Stratfor, and others.
Ukrainian intelligence has been confident Belarusian troops are unlikely to join Russia’s war of aggression and for good reason: Although Russia has forces in Belarus, and has used it as a launching pad since February, the combined Russian-Belarussian force there would not be enough to make any strategically meaningful gains.
Monitoring group Belaruski Hayun’s hasn’t reported any significant Russian-Belarusian troop buildup near the border, and a growing number of Kyiv’s residents are returning to their homes after fleeing in February, clearly seeing little likelihood of another northern attack.
Yet if Russia were to remove its Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who for years has been juggling the West and Russia with a strong inclination toward the latter, it would have full control over Ukraine’s northern border and direct access to Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.
It might look like a quick gain for an imperialistic president who has so far embarrassingly failed in Ukraine, who could once again portray himself as a master strategist, now with direct access to the key Suwalki corridor, a think neck of NATO territory separating Kaliningrad from Belarus. Of course, such an act would carry grave risks — it’s unlikely Belarusians would accept such a move and Putin might simply open another disastrous front. But the all-out invasion of Ukraine was also a seemingly insane risk, and that didn’t deter the Russian leader.
Belarus represents a great prize for Putin’s geopolitical ambitions and Russians, the majority of whom support his criminal crusade according to official polls, would be presented with a new addition to Russkiy Mir, or Russian World.
Though Lukashenka now appears largely a puppet of the Russian president, it is only recently that Belarus has come so dangerously close to full Kremlin submission. The shift happened after the dictator’s theft of power from his democratic rival Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya during the 2020 Belarusian presidential election. Faced with mass protests and at risk of losing power, he asked Putin for “security” assistance to suppress the largest rallies in post-perestroika Belarus. In return, Russia was allowed to station troops and other military assets in Belarus, including nuclear warheads.
Before then, Lukashenka occasionally enjoyed publicly rejecting and even criticizing Putin — a demonstration of his independence and ability to negotiate as a middleman. But now Belarus is more vulnerable than ever to a Kremlin takeover, with Lukashenka deeply reliant on the Kremlin for everything from gas to cash.
Lukashenka’s options are grim as he treads a tightrope.
At home, he faces the risk of Belarusians taking to the streets to finally oust him. Tsikhanouskaya, now in exile, has been campaigning in the West to seize on Lukashenka’s vulnerability. The fearful former farm manager has now introduced the death penalty for “terrorism,” a charge faced about:blank both by people opposed to the war in Ukraine and to his authoritarian regime. His military reforms meanwhile seem designed to shore up his dictatorship rather than ready his army for use in peer combat.
While the Belarusian army is around 45,000 strong, Lukashenka cannot count on its unswerving loyalty. Nearly 90% of Belarusians are opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a poll by Chatham House in March suggested only 3% supported their troops being involved. Just 16% backed Belarus territory being used for the invasion and Russian false flag operations designed to win support for the war have so far failed to change minds.
Even if a third of the Belarusian army are Lukashenka loyalists, they would likely be deployed first against the Ukrainians and the inevitable casualties would leave Lukashenka with an increasingly disloyal force, and even more vulnerable to Russia. Some Belarusian troops might even switch sides and join the ranks of Ukrainians, as a number of their compatriots already have.
Internationally, Lukashenka has been shunned and mocked for his authoritarian regime after he detained a dissident journalist from an international flight, instigated a migrant crisis, and allowed Russia to invade Ukraine from Belarusian territory. As a result, he has triggered sanctions against Belarus and provoked deep hatred from his southern neighbor.
In the face of high risk to his life and status, if he steps out of line, Lukashenka has been giving much of what he’s asked to his Russian counterpart. Without Belarus, Russia would have no strategic northern access point into Ukraine, which has given it marshaling areas, missile launch sites, and military airfields for its campaign.
Lukashenka’s options in negotiating with the West are also constrained. The US and United Nations reportedly offered to lift potash fertilizer sanctions if Belarus opened up the transit of Ukrainian grain by railway to Lithuania, but that would put him into direct conflict with Putin. Additionally, more than 90% of China-Europe rail freight goes through Belarus, giving leverage over the European Union, but at the same time, any threat to the corridor risks irritating China.
At least publicly, Lukashenka has said Putin will win his war against Ukraine, no matter how much military support Kyiv receives from the West. He may just be paying lip service to Putin, but so far his actions suggest he’s still siding with the Russian despot.
The West should offer Lukashenka a deal – either cooperate with the West, and benefit from a progressive lifting of sanctions, or continue down the current path and risk everything.
Cutting off Russia’s access to Ukraine via Belarus might well help to end Putin’s war. If Russia’s only committed Eastern European ally decided to withhold cooperation, it would demonstrate Putin’s weakness. That’s if he doesn’t act first.
Ilya Timtchenko is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, a Belfer Young Leader Student Fellow at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center as well as a Research Assistant for the Belfer Center’s Intelligence Project and The Future of Diplomacy Project. Ilya was the business editor at Kyiv Post from 2017-2019 working with the newspaper’s newsroom team which transferred to The Kyiv Independent.
The bursts of fire were more likely trigger-happy Russian troops than advancing elements of the Ukraine Armed Forces (UAF), revealing a key detail of the military operation now underway —unlike Russia’s tactics of victory through destruction, Ukraine wants to take the city without leveling it.
“We want to avoid street warfare, because we don’t want to destroy the city,” UAF Major Roman Kovalyov, based north-east of Kherson province, told the Economist.
Kherson and its remaining citizens are luckier than most cities affected by Russia’s war, cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv, which have been the targets of months of indiscriminate shelling. The former city, now captured, was estimated to have suffered more than 20,000 dead.
It is hard to know exactly what is happening inside Kherson at the moment, other than the occasional video. There were more than 280,000 inhabitants before Russia’s all-out invasion, but that number is now much lower and its composition has changed — Russia has given empty and stolen apartments to loyalists and is banning the Ukrainian currency and use of the language in schools.
Over the past few weeks, Ukrainian forces have been slowly preparing for a counteroffensive so that they can eventually push the Russians entirely out of the country. That process begins to the north of Kherson, which is now probably the most important contested territory in Ukraine. The offensive began on August 29, and according to some (optimistic) assessments by the Ukrainian military, their forces can reclaim Kherson by September.
That would have a significant impact on the war. Current trends favor Ukraine. Over the past six months, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense estimates that nearly 50,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, and billions of dollars of Russian military hardware have been destroyed (Western estimates put Russian dead at 20,000-plus.)
Russian morale is low, as an extraordinary August 31 story illustrated. At least three Russians died after drunken soldiers engaged in a close quarters gunfight with FSB troops. The surviving mutineer is being prosecuted for murder. Reports say ragtag battalions of mostly older men along with convicted criminals and some willing foreigners are being sent to the front, some with barely any training. While the backbone of the Russian regular army remains, albeit badly bloodied, this is a battle they cannot afford to lose.
Kherson is one of the few major metropolitan centers Russia has captured since the start of the war; its loss would bode very badly for Russian forces. It might also lead to political backlash back home, where the population is told that the operation is going to plan.
There is another motivator for the Ukrainians. Numerous reports have suggested the Russians aim to hold an illegal referendum in Kherson in September. During the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian Federation also held a rigged referendum. The falsified results claimed that the residents of the Crimean peninsula voted to reunify with Russia. Likewise, in February 2022, Russia announced that it had incorporated the Russian-occupied territories of Donbas. The Ukrainian military response is therefore a key element of its existential fight.
Yet this will be a deadly and costly process. Over the past few weeks, Ukrainian forces have been attacking four bridges near the city of Kherson in an attempt to restrict Russian movements in and out of the city (these attacks are now almost nightly and have made the infrastructure unusable for resupply convoys). As the Ukrainians continue to destroy other forms of infrastructure to the north of the River Dnipro and to the west of the River Inhulets, to trap the Russian troops, the aim is to separate these Russian forces from the rest of the Russian-occupied portions of Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces are also slowly encroaching on Kherson, thus making a southern siege more likely. To date, the Ukrainians have destroyed ammunition depots, command posts, and Russian strongholds in the south. While reinforcements have been observed, the quality of the new troops is unclear. By strategically weakening Russian positions, the Ukrainians are hopeful that this will “degrade Russian forces to such a degree that an attack can succeed.” This strategy would also limit the number of Ukrainian casualties. Thus, the ongoing advance on Kherson requires patience and precision.
Russia is certainly vulnerable. Earlier this month, a series of surprise attacks were launched on occupied Crimea, attacks which have been attributed in foreign reporting to partisan or special forces commandos working far behind the lines. Russian airfields and ammunition depots were destroyed (along with a significant number of navy combat aircraft), badly damaging its military capacity in the south. Despite its lack of a navy, Ukrainian forces have sunk several Russian naval vessels and its Black Sea flagship.
The recapture of Kherson would give the Ukrainians a strategic advantage on the Black Sea and in southern Ukraine. It would allow them to fortify positions near the critical port city of Odesa, and would put them within striking distance of Crimea. Should events unfold in Ukraine’s favor, it would then allow the Ukrainians to shift their focus to the eastern theater in the Donbas.
But first, they must take the city and its hinterland. That requires a continuing stream of weaponry, which in turn requires continuing support from the West. Unfortunately, military aid alone is not enough; the world should continue to provide financial, humanitarian, medical, and defense aid to Ukraine.
Ukraine has demonstrated that it is committed to winning this war, and will do whatever it takes to achieve this outcome. The democratic world has the power to help the Ukrainians win this war, to force the Russians out of their country, and to demonstrate that the West remains clear about its values and determined to uphold the rules-based order.
Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He can be found on Twitter @MTemnycky
The Ukrainians are keeping a tight lid on information: Officials have been asked to keep a “regime of silence” for operational purposes – a sure sign that this is indeed a major operation. This may be a major turning point, six months after the beginning of the war.
For the past two months, on the ground at least, the conflict has turned into a stalemate. This is exactly what Ukraine has sought to avoid: A frozen conflict that would slowly be forgotten, just as it had been since Russia’s first invasion in 2014. The Kherson offensive is, in that sense, an opportunity to break that stalemate, and show that time is not on Russia’s side and that Ukraine can, in fact, win.
Yet opportunities tend to come with significant risks and the Kherson offensive is no exception. Ukraine has successfully halted Russian advances in Donbas in the East, and the pace of Russian breakthroughs have decreased significantly. But liberating new territories from Russia is a different endeavor. There needs to be a realization that the idea that an offensive starts with a bang, followed by swift Blitzkrieg-like advances are just that — an idea. The first weeks of the Russian offensive was a perfect example of how misguided grandiose military plans often end as debacles.
Slow and steady is the word. The Ukrainians have been carefully planning their move. In effect, the offensive started weeks ago with a series of precision strikes against Russian weapons depots, and airfields that have since become a near-daily occurrence. Ukraine has been probing Russian air defenses in Crimea, possibly to pave the way for additional attacks, and to force Russia to move some of its systems out of Kherson and into the occupied peninsula. Recent indications that Russia removed an S-300 battery from Syria and transferred it back to a port near Crimea may be a sign that its air defenses are being spread thin. So are the claims by Ukrainian authorities that they were able to carry out a series of airstrikes against Russian positions in the Kherson Region.
These strikes give us an insight into the possible Ukrainian strategy. Though Russia has been able to pile up reinforcements in the south, the Kremlin is also increasingly relying on poorly trained troops with low morale, be it “volunteers” out for a buck, or residents of the so-called “separatist republics” in the Donbas, snatched out of the street and sent as Russian cannon-fodder.
The first days of the offensive will test the cohesion and morale of Russian forces. Ukrainian strikes have effectively isolated Russian units situated on the northwestern bank of the Dnieper: Knowing you may not be able to run once the offensive really starts is a good incentive to do so now, while you still can.
The first week(s) of the offensive will also test Russian logistics and the extent of the damage caused by broadening Ukrainian precision strikes using Western-supplied weapons. When supply lines crumble, defensive lines tend to follow. Those two main factors, morale, and logistics, are the two invisible key elements that may turn the Kherson offensive into a success or a defeat, and allow Ukraine to seize the initiative.
Michael Horowitz is a geopolitical and conflict analyst, as well as the head of the analyst team at Le Beck International. As such he and his team advise multiple companies and NGOs operating in Ukraine following Russia’s invasions. Michael’s commentary and analysis can also be found in multiple international and regional outlets, including major publications like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, NBC, AP, and elsewhere.