WASHINGTON – As Russian forces withdraw from northern Ukraine and focus their operations on the east and south of the country, the Kremlin struggles to scrape together enough battle-ready reinforcements to wage a new phase of the war, according to US and US officials. other western military and intelligence officials.
Moscow initially sent 75 percent of its main ground forces to war in February, Pentagon officials said. But much of that army of more than 150,000 troops is now a depleted fighting force, following logistical difficulties, weak morale and devastating casualties from stronger-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, army and intelligence officials say.
There are relatively few fresh Russian troops to fill the gap. Russia has withdrawn the troops – as many as 40,000 soldiers – it had deployed around Kiev and Chernihiv, two cities in the north, to rearm and resupply in Russia and neighboring Belarus before most likely landing in eastern Ukraine in the coming weeks. were positioned, US officials say.
The Kremlin is also rushing east with a mix of Russian mercenaries, Syrian fighters, new conscripts and regular Russian army troops from Georgia and easternmost Russia.
Whether this weakened but still highly lethal Russian force can overcome the blunders of the first six weeks of the battle and achieve a more limited number of war targets in a smaller part of the country remains an open question, senior US officials and analysts said.
“Russia still has troops available to outpace Ukraine, and Russia is now concentrating its military power on fewer attack lines, but this does not mean Russia will succeed in the east,” said Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, on Monday. †
“The next phase of this conflict may very well be a long one,” Mr Sullivan said. He added that Russia would likely send “tens of thousands of soldiers to the frontline in eastern Ukraine” and continue to spew rockets, rockets and mortars on Kiev, Odessa, Kharkov, Lviv and other cities.
US officials have based their assessments on satellite imagery, electronic interceptions, Ukrainian battlefield reports and other information, and those intelligence estimates have been backed up by independent analysts who have examined commercially available information.
Earlier assessments by US intelligence agencies of the Russian government’s intention to attack Ukraine have proved correct, although some lawmakers said spy agencies overestimate the Russian military’s ability to advance quickly.
When the invasion faltered, US and European officials have highlighted the Russian military’s mistakes and logistical difficulties, though they have warned that Moscow’s ability to regroup should not be underestimated.
The Ukrainian army has managed to reclaim territory around Kiev and Chernihiv and attack the Russians as they retreat; thwarted a ground attack on Odessa to the south and held out in Mariupol, the battered and besieged city on the Black Sea. Ukraine is now receiving T-72 main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons – in addition to Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles – from the West.
Anticipating this next major phase of the war in the east, the Pentagon announced late Tuesday that it would send $100 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles — about hundreds of missiles from Pentagon stockpiles — to Ukraine, where the weapon has been highly effective. in destroying Russian tanks and other armored vehicles.
US and European officials believe the Russian military’s shift in focus is to correct some mistakes that have prevented it from defeating a Ukrainian army much stronger and smarter than Moscow initially estimated.
But the officials said it remains to be seen how effective Russia would be in building up its troops to renew its attack. And there are early signs that withdrawing Russian troops and mercenaries from Georgia, Syria and Libya could complicate the Kremlin’s priorities in those countries.
Some officials say Russia will try to invade with more heavy artillery. By concentrating its troops on a smaller geographic area and moving them closer to supply routes to Russia, Western intelligence officials said, Russia hopes to avoid the logistical difficulties its forces suffered in their failed attack on Kiev.
Other European intelligence officials predicted that it would take Russian forces one to two weeks to regroup and refocus before launching an attack in eastern Ukraine. Western officials said Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin was desperate for victory on May 9, when Russia traditionally celebrates the end of World War II with a huge Victory Day parade in Red Square.
“What we’re seeing now is the Kremlin on the ground trying to achieve some sort of success by pretending there’s a victory for its domestic public before May 9,” said Mikk Marran, the director-general of Estonia’s foreign intelligence service. . Shift.
Mr Putin wants to consolidate control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine and establish a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula in early May, a senior Western intelligence official said.
Russia has already moved air weapons east in preparation for its renewed attack on the heart of the Ukrainian military, and has stepped up aerial bombardment in the area in recent days, a European diplomat and other officials said.
“It’s a particularly dangerous scenario for Ukrainians right now, at least on paper,” said Alexander S. Vindman, an expert on Ukraine who became the key witness in President Donald J. Trump’s first impeachment trial. “In reality, the Russians have not done very well. Whether they can actually deploy their armour, their infantry, their artillery and air forces in a coordinated manner to destroy larger Ukrainian formations remains to be seen.”
Russian troops have fought in groups of a few hundred soldiers, rather than in the larger and more effective formations of thousands of soldiers used in the past.
“We haven’t seen any indication that they have the ability to adapt,” said Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official and retired CIA officer.
The number of Russian losses in the war so far remains unknown, although Western intelligence estimates that there were 7,000 to 10,000 dead and 20,000 to 30,000 wounded. Thousands more have been captured or are missing in action.
The Russian military, Western and European officials said, has learned at least one important lesson from its failures: the need to concentrate troops rather than spread them out.
But Moscow is trying to find additional troops, according to intelligence officials.
Russia’s best troops, the two airborne divisions and the tank army of the First Guard, have suffered significant losses and a dent in combat power, and the army has searched the army for reinforcements.
The British Ministry of Defense and the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank analyzing the war in Ukraine, both reported on Tuesday that Russian forces withdrawing from Kiev and Chernihiv would not be fit for redeployment anytime soon.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
“The Russians are unable to rebuild their destroyed vehicles and weapon systems because of foreign components, which they can no longer obtain,” said Major General Michael S. Repass, a former commander of US Special Operations forces in Europe. . involved in Ukrainian defense affairs since 2016.
Russian troops arriving from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two secessionist states that seceded from Georgia in the 1990s and then expanded in 2008, are carrying out peacekeeping duties and are not ready for combat, General Repass said.
Russia’s trouble finding additional troops is in large part why it has invited Syrian fighters, Chechens and Russian mercenaries to serve as reinforcements. But these extra troops run into the hundreds, not thousands, European intelligence officials said.
The Chechen force, one of the European intelligence officials said, is “clearly being used to instill fear”. The Chechen units are no better fighters and have suffered great losses. But they have been used in urban combat situations and for “the nastiest kind of work,” the official said.
Russian mercenaries with combat experience in Syria and Libya are gearing up to take an increasingly active role in a phase of the war that Moscow now says has the highest priority: fighting in the east of the country.
The number of mercenaries deployed to Ukraine by the Wagner Group, a private military force with ties to Mr Putin, is expected to more than triple to at least 1,000 from the invasion’s early days, a senior US official said.
Wagner will also move artillery, air defense and radar it had used in Libya to Ukraine, the official said.
Moving mercenaries “will backfire because these are units that cannot be incorporated into the regular military, and we know they are brutal human rights abusers who will only push Ukraine and world opinion further against Russia,” said Evelyn N. Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration.
Hundreds of Syrian fighters could also be headed for Ukraine, in what would essentially return a favor to Moscow for helping President Bashar al-Assad crush rebels in an 11-year civil war.
A contingent of at least 300 Syrian soldiers has already arrived in Russia for regular training, but it was unclear if and when they would be sent to Ukraine, officials said.
“They bring in fighters known for their brutality in hopes of breaking the Ukrainian will to fight,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. But, she added, any military gains for Russia will depend on the willingness of the foreign fighters to fight.
“One of the difficult things about assembling a coalition of diverse interests is that it can be difficult to turn it into an effective force,” she said.
Finally, Mr Putin recently signed a decree calling up 134,000 conscripts. It will take months to train the recruits, although Moscow could choose to rush them straight to the front lines with little or no instruction, officials said.
“Russia is short of troops and is looking for manpower where they can,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “They are not well placed for a prolonged war against Ukraine.”