Russian President Vladimir Putin himself gives direct orders to generals, two sources familiar with U.S. and Western intelligence said, a highly unusual management tactic in a modern military that these sources say speaks to the dysfunctional command structure that has plagued Russia from the start of the war in Ukraine.
One of those sources told CNN that intelligence captured Russian officers arguing among themselves and complaining to friends and relatives back home about decision-making from Moscow.
Reuters/Scanpix photo/Russian soldiers in the Kherson region
There are also major disagreements over strategy, with military commanders struggling to agree on where to focus efforts to shore up defensive lines, several sources familiar with U.S. intelligence said.
Russia’s defense ministry said it was moving forces to Kharkiv in the northeast, where Ukraine has made its biggest gains, but US and Western sources say the bulk of Russian troops still remain in the south, where Ukraine has also mounted offensive operations around Kherson.
On Wednesday, Putin announced a partial mobilization in which up to 300,000 reservists are expected to be called up. He has resisted the move for months, and officials in US President Joe Biden’s administration said on Wednesday that his decision to do so now showed that Russia is undermanned and signaled growing desperation.
According to Russian military analysts, it is unclear whether the mobilization will have any operational significance on the battlefield or will merely prolong the war without changing its outcome.
“Scanpix”/AP photo/Advertising in Russia encouraging to join the army
The blame game
As Russia floundered on the battlefield, officials in Moscow were quick to take the blame for Russia’s sudden turn in fortunes, a senior NATO official said.
The commander, who oversaw most of the units around the Kharkiv area, had only been in the position for 15 days and has now been relieved of his duties, a NATO official said.
“Kremlin officials and state media are feverishly discussing the reasons for the failure in Kharkiv and, as usual, the Kremlin appears to be trying to shift the blame from Putin to the Russian military,” this person said.
According to the sources, there have already been reshuffles of the military command in response to the failures on the battlefield, which have made the Russian command structure even more chaotic than before. The commander, who oversaw most of the units around the Kharkiv area, had only been in the position for 15 days and has now been relieved of his duties, a NATO official said.
Russia has sent a “small number” of troops to eastern Ukraine, some of whom fled last week as Ukraine advanced on the battlefield, in an attempt to shore up weakened defense lines, according to two US defense officials.
But even if Russia succeeds in developing a plan, U.S. and Western officials believe Russia has limited ability to mount a strategically important response to Ukraine’s counteroffensive operations, which sources say have turned the tide in Kyiv’s favor in recent days. Even with the announcement of a partial mobilization, officials are skeptical of Russia’s ability to quickly deploy large numbers of troops to Ukraine, given persistent problems with supply lines, communications and morale.
U.S. and Western officials believe that Russia has limited ability to provide a strategically important response to Ukraine’s counteroffensive operations.
A senior defense official told CNN that the “small” scale of Russia’s redeployment shows its inability to mount serious operations.
So far, Russia has responded to Ukraine’s advances with attacks on critical infrastructure such as dams and power plants — attacks that the U.S. sees as mostly “revenge” attacks rather than operationally significant salvos, the person said.
Sources said Russia has few other options to punish or repel Ukrainian forces because it simply doesn’t have the capabilities to do so at this time. Putin is facing difficulties, National Security Council strategic communications coordinator John Kirby said on CNN on Wednesday. In the Russian army, there is “poor concentration of units, desertion from the ranks, soldiers do not want to fight,” said J. Kirby.
“Scanpix”/AP photo/Russian soldiers at the Mariupol Zoo
“They are dealing with terrible morale, the concentration of units on the battlefield, command and control is still not resolved. They have desertion problems and force the wounded back into the fight. So, obviously, manpower is a problem, Mr. Kirby said. “They feel they are at a disadvantage, especially in the northeastern territory of Donbass.” The Russian president’s mobilization order is significant because it is a direct admission that Moscow’s “special military operation” has not worked and needs to be adjusted, military analysts said.
However, there are still more questions than answers about its exact operational impact. This is the first such order issued in Russia since World War II, so military analysts have little modern data on which to base their predictions.
Even if Moscow succeeds in increasing troop numbers — by keeping current contract soldiers out of service and mobilizing reservists — it will struggle to train, equip and integrate those troops into existing units, said Michael Kofman, director of the Russian studies program at the Center for Naval Analyses. And even if it does solve some near-term manpower problems, it likely won’t be high-quality recruits, Kofman and others noted.
Even in the best case scenario, it will take some time for Moscow to deploy new troops.
“I think it’s fair to say that partial mobilization is unlikely to be reflected on the battlefield for several months at the earliest and may expand Russia’s ability to continue this war, but not change its outcome,” Kofman said.