WASHINGTON — Seven weeks after sending a new commander to Ukraine to oversee a refocused invasion, Russia is facing a truth that former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has defined as the need to go to war with the army you have, not the one you might wish you had.
The Russian army, dejected and demoralized after three months of war, is making the same mistakes in its campaign to seize a part of eastern Ukraine that forced it to abandon its attempt to take all country, according to senior US officials.
As Russian troops capture territory, a Pentagon official said their “laborious and incremental” pace is wearing them down and the army’s overall combat strength has been reduced by about 20%. And since the war began, Russia has lost 1,000 tanks, a senior Pentagon official said last week.
General Aleksandr V. Dvornikov, the commander, was appointed in April in what was widely seen as an acknowledgment by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin that his original war plan was failing.
Shortly after his appointment, General Dvornikov tried to get separate air and ground units to coordinate their attacks, US officials said. But he has not been seen for the past two weeks, leading some officials to speculate he remains in charge of the war effort.
Russian pilots also continue to exhibit the same risk-averse behavior they had in the early weeks of the war: crossing the border to launch strikes, then quickly returning to Russian territory, instead of staying in the Ukrainian airspace to deny access to their enemies. . The result is that Russia still hasn’t established air superiority, officials said.
The Russian army has made some progress in the east, where concentrated firepower and shortened supply lines have helped its forces fight intense battles in recent days. After three bloody months, Russia finally took Mariupol in mid-May, potentially creating a land bridge between the Russian-held Crimean peninsula and the south.
While Russia struggles to move forward, Ukraine has also suffered setbacks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently said that up to 100 Ukrainian servicemen could die in the fighting every day. And on Tuesday, Russian troops advanced towards the center of Sievierodonetsk, a town that has become a focus for the military since it shifted its focus east.
But some of the areas Russian forces managed to seize were quickly re-contested, and sometimes recaptured, by Ukrainian troops.
Consider Kharkiv. Russia spent six weeks shelling the eastern city, once home to 1.5 million people, as troops surrounded it.
But on May 13, control of the city had shifted again. “The Russians took Kharkiv for a short time; the Ukrainians counterattacked and recaptured Kharkiv,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said at a Pentagon press conference last week. “We really saw them advancing at a very slow pace and without success on the battlefield.”
Ukraine is now pushing Russian troops north and east from Kharkiv, “in some cases into Russia”, said retired General Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe. “So now the Ukrainians are threatening to cut Russian supply lines and push their forces back.”
Cutting Russian supply lines east of Kharkiv would put Russian troops in the same situation they were in after their advance on Ukraine’s capital Kyiv at the start of the war, officials said. Ukrainian units carrying shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missiles shot down Russian soldiers as mile-long Russian convoys near Kyiv stopped advancing. The invasion stopped and thousands of Russian soldiers were killed or injured. Russia then refocused its mission on the East.
During the first weeks of the war, Russia conducted its military campaign from Moscow, with no central war commander on the ground to make the decisions, US and Western officials said. In early April, after Russia’s logistical and morale problems became clear, Mr Putin put General Dvornikov in charge of a streamlined war effort.
General Dvornikov arrived with a discouraging resume. He began his career as a platoon commander in 1982 and later fought in the brutal Second Russian War in Chechnya. Moscow also sent him to Syria, where forces under his command have been accused of targeting civilians.
In Ukraine, it established a more streamlined process. Russian pilots began to coordinate with ground troops towards a similar objective in the eastern Donbass region, and Russian units talked to each other about common goals.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main Developments
Russian oil embargo. European Union members finally reached an agreement on a Russian oil embargo and new sanctions against Russia. The long-delayed deal effectively exempts Hungary, which had opposed the embargo, from the costly step the rest of the bloc is taking to punish Russia.
But the invasion doesn’t “turn out particularly differently in the east than in the west because they haven’t been able to change the character of the Russian army,” said Frederick W. Kagan, principal investigator and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Institute of Enterprise. “There are deep flaws in the Russian military that they couldn’t have fixed over the past few weeks, even if they had tried. The flaws are deep and fundamental.
At the top of that list is the Russian military’s lack of a noncommissioned officer corps empowered to think for itself, Pentagon officials said. US troops have sergeants, platoon leaders, and corporals who are given tasks and direction and are left to perform those tasks as they see fit.
But the Russian military follows a Soviet-style doctrinal method in which troops below are not empowered to point out flaws in strategy that should be obvious or to make adjustments.
The Ukrainians, after seven years of training alongside troops from the United States and other NATO countries, are following the most western method and have proven themselves particularly agile in adapting to circumstances, officials said American military.
A two-week combat pause after the Russian military gave up the fight for Kyiv was not long enough to turn the tide even with a more limited focus, Gen Breedlove said. “General Dvornikov’s new tactic, resetting command and control so there was a concentrated decision maker – whatever was right or proper,” he said.
But, General Breedlove added, “Even our army would struggle to refit, renovate and reorganize in two weeks after receiving such a boost.” When General Dvornikov took control, “the force was pushed back too quickly in the battle. This decision had to come from Moscow.
After renewing its assault on the Donbass, Russia pounded towns and villages with an artillery barrage. But the troops have not followed this with any sort of sustained armored invasion, which is necessary if they are holding the territory they are flattening, military officials say. This means that Russia could find it difficult to maintain its gains, as it did in Kharkiv.
Evelyn Farkas, a former top Pentagon official for Ukraine and Russia in the Obama administration, said Mr Putin was still too involved in the fight.
“We keep hearing stories of Putin getting more involved,” said Farkas, who is now executive director of the McCain Institute. “We know that if you have presidents meddling in targeting and operational military decisions, that’s a recipe for disaster.”