By Leonid Bershidsky / Bloomberg Opinion
Previous Russian military action in Ukraine highlighted the contributions of various irregular and semiregular forces, such as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenaries, the Chechen units that are formally part of the Russian national guard but de facto commanded by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, various volunteer units backed by regions, nationalist groups or corporations such as Gazprom. Now that the Ukrainian military has begun its long-awaited counteroffensive, the focus is squarely on regular Russian units.
The gradual launch of the counteroffensive has coincided with a peak of infighting among the most notorious of the Russian not-quite-regulars; and a nadir of their military strength. It is up to common soldiers, the surviving professionals and the recent civilians mobilized last fall, to hold off an onslaught co-planned by NATO strategists and backed up with billions of dollars in Western-made weaponry and training. The Russian military, still second in the world according to the 2023 Global Firepower ranking, is not the underdog in this battle against Ukraine, ranked 15th, but even the first skirmishes show it will be severely taxed. At the same time, controlling the semi-regulars and using them effectively will be harder than ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
The Ukrainian military has been keeping its plans quiet. It has even put out a video of soldiers holding a finger to their lips, and when the Russian Defense Ministry announced that its troops were already trying to beat back the counteroffensive, the Ukrainian command issued a statement accusing the Russians of conducting psychological operations “even if no counterattack is taking place.” What we know about the counteroffensive, then, comes from various Russian Telegram channels, none of them truly independent from the defense ministry or the various private and volunteer units involved in the invasion. Yet the basic set of facts they agree on points to Ukraine’s increasingly active use of its strategic initiative.
The counteroffensive appears to have begun about a week ago, as Ukrainians stepped up the shelling of Russia’s borderlands, especially the Belgorod region, and sent small groups of fighters to try to seize villages across the internationally recognized border. This has resulted in civilian deaths in the low double digits as well as the capture of some Russian soldiers. The action, which has caught the Kremlin and the regional authorities woefully unprepared, is meant to force Russia to pull back reserves otherwise meant to man defense lines in captured Ukrainian territory, to secure the established border.
Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, who literally has to put out fires in his region with little, if any, help from Moscow, has opined that Belgorod can only be safe if Russia captures Kharkiv and the surrounding region, the Ukrainian land directly across the border. But Russia, which held a swathe of the Kharkiv region last year, lost it to a lightning Ukrainian counterattack and has since been unable to push Ukrainian units away from the border. Now that Russian settlements are under fire, the military has embarked on a new, limited push against Volchansk in the Kharkiv region, one of the towns it conquered and then lost in 2022. Though some Telegram channels report progress, the push has been too feeble to deter Ukrainians from further harrying raids and shelling; and it shows that Ukraine has managed to divert some Russian forces from the defensive lines in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine.
There, Ukrainians struck in several directions on Sunday with relatively small groups of tanks, armored vehicles and infantry, probing for weaknesses in the defenses Russia constructed over the winter and spring. One potentially weak spot opened near the tip of a Russian salient opposite Vremivka in Ukraine’s southeast. Another emerged relatively close by, near Vuhledar. At both points, the Ukrainian troops have managed to advance even without involving major reserves. Now, Ukrainian pressure is increasing, not just at the tension points but along the entire 600-mile front line.
The Wagner mercenary troops, the “heroes” of both of Russia’s small victories of the winter and spring — the capture of the towns of Soledar and Bakhmut — aren’t involved in trying to hold back the Ukrainian offense, however. Depleted by their head-on attacks on Ukrainian fortifications, they are pulling back from Bakhmut, an action apparently not welcomed by the regular military. Most recently, Wagner’s Prigozhin has accused regular troops of mining their pullback route and of firing at Wagner soldiers as they tried to defuse the mines. Wagner mercenaries have captured a Russian army lieutenant colonel and paraded him before the cameras as he confessed to shooting at them “out of malice.”
Nor do the Chechen fighters, whose fervor was often on display during the initial months of the invasion, appear to be holding the line in the trenches with the regular troops. Kadyrov — like Prigozhin before him — has publicly bid for a role in defending the Belgorod region. It should be clear to both warlords, however, that the capture of Russian territory is not a priority for Ukrainians, who are fighting to take back their own. In Belgorod, both Prigozhin and Kadyrov can build up their image as Russia’s valiant defenders without facing the main force of the Ukrainian onslaught.
Some senior figures in Kadyrov’s entourage recently have lashed out at Prigozhin on Telegram, calling on him to stop his attacks on the military command and what they called his panic-mongering. Prigozhin and his henchmen have replied with customary rudeness; open threats were hurled by both sides. The truth is that the military commanders, led by Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, cannot count on the irregulars and semi-regulars, who have shown them nothing but contempt. While Kadyrov’s 70,000-strong force (according to his own count) is on offer to guard the Belgorod border, the Chechen leader hasn’t pledged it for any defensive action near Vuhledar.
The Kremlin was happy to accept the “patriotic” assistance of various warlords, mercenaries and volunteers as they took the pressure off the demoralized and damaged regular army as it worked, often chaotically, to restaff and fortify defensive lines. Now that help is no longer proffered as the warlords focus on their own reputations and, if need be, their own versions of the stab-in-the-back myth. This is the moment of truth for Gerasimov as a military strategist and commander; the defense ministry reported that he was close to the front line as the Ukrainian assault began.
Russia still hasn’t parted with the illusion that it can win this war without a full mobilization backed by a grimly determined population. Vladimir Putin’s political leadership has not worked hard enough to obtain that critical resource, so generals cannot expect to save last year’s ill-starred invasion with the kind of mass heroism that sustained the Soviet Union throughout World War II. The best they can do is hang on by their teeth; and that may turn out to be insufficient for Russia to keep all of the land it has grabbed in Ukraine.
Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”