Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. He covered the conflict in Donbas in 2014 and 2015 and reported from Ukraine this winter.
Not since former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s soldiers fled Kuwait in 1990 has the world seen a supposedly powerful army turn tail in the grip of such panic, abandoning weapons and armored vehicles, and throwing away equipment, as happened during last week’s stunning turn of military events in northeast Kharkiv.
And if Ukrainians are to remain on the front-foot and continue to hold their initiative, how the West responds to this turn is crucial.
The victory is well-timed for Kyiv. Hairline cracks in the resolve and unity of Western European leaders were already appearing before the counteroffensive, faced as they were with a war-related energy squeeze and soaring inflation, as well as anxious voters beginning to question why they should pay for a faraway war.
However, the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, which saw territory held by Russia for months given up in a handful of hours, took the breath away of even the most grizzled Western generals.
Former British army chief Richard Dannatt said: “We are witnessing some incredible scenes,” and that Russian troops have “pretty much turned and fled,” as he dubbed the Ukrainian maneuver a “significant reverse” for Russia and a “great success.”
Kremlin propagandists, meanwhile, put the best spin they could on the humiliation, labeling it a planned “regrouping” — an odd word to describe a rout and the loss of control of militarily important towns.
To put the onus of this victory — the most surprising one since Russian forces gave up on their siege of Kyiv earlier this year — on the hapless performance of Russia’s army isn’t to detract from Ukraine’s bold military tactical achievement. Ukraine’s commanders tricked Russia — and the Western media — into thinking the bigger push would come in the south with a full-throttle assault on Kherson. Instead, they managed to seize back 3,100 square miles, once again stripping away the aura of invincibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to present.
Morale and better Western-supplied equipment were other factors in the defeat, which has enraged hardline Russian nationalists like Igor Girkin, the former Federal Security Service military intelligence officer who commanded pro-Russian agitators in Donbas in 2014 and 2015. Bewailing how Ukraine won the “battle for the initiative,” Girkin labeled it “a major defeat.” “Now, in fact, our side can only talk about how to stop its further deepening and prevent the escalation of an operational defeat into a strategic one,” he wrote in a Telegram post.
Girkin might be premature in questioning whether the game is over. Wars ebb and flow, predictions are risky, and the Russian military shouldn’t be underestimated — as Nazi Germany did when they invaded in June 1941. But from the get-go, those doing all the underestimating in this unprovoked war have been Putin, the Kremlin and Russia’s generals.
Indeed, the question now is whether, and how, Ukraine can translate its big tactical win into a strategic reversal for Russia — one that will fulfill Ukrainian and Western hopes that this counteroffensive truly marks a turning point in the war.
For one, European leaders can now point to the Kharkiv counteroffensive and say the price Europeans have been paying is already paying off — stay the course.
Much will also depend on not only maintaining Western arms supplies to Ukraine, but also giving much more of what they need, including Western-made battle tanks and infantry vehicles — which Germany, among others, has been reluctant to deliver — anti-aircraft batteries, and more High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, which have been highly effective in targeting Russian logistics and supply hubs.
Kyiv also wants longer-range missiles, known as Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMs), which have a range of up to 300 kilometers. However, U.S. President Joe Biden has already publicly rejected that request, fearful Ukraine might use them to strike targets inside Russian territory, risking a bigger confrontation between the West and Russia.
And Moscow is determined to keep Washington afraid of that risk. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova warned the U.S. against providing ATACMs to Ukraine, calling it a “red line.”
But ATACMs aside, the rest of Ukraine’s ask-list should be delivered. As Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has argued, there’s no rational argument not to — that is, if its Western allies really want the country to advance and consolidate its remarkable counteroffensive.
Perhaps the tardiness and reluctance on the part of some Western allies rests with their hopes that this war can still be ended quickly through negotiations — that’s certainly Ukraine’s suspicion. But Kyiv is even less likely to agree to talks now with their tail up. Ukrainians were in no mood to compromise in the winter — they’re even less inclined to do so now.
Another key factor that will determine whether the Kharkiv counteroffensive marks a true turning point is how Putin will respond to the humiliating reversal.
He told India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday that he “will do everything to stop” the war “as soon as possible.” But that isn’t in Putin’s gift, unless he’s ready to withdraw and admit defeat — and there’s nothing in his personal history to suggest he would. Could he even politically survive the humiliation of quitting? Surely, his destiny is now tied to the destiny of this war.
And when faced with danger or reversals, Putin’s generally known to double down. Believing his will to be stronger and that he can browbeat his opponents into submission, he waits them out and strikes with even greater ferocity, employing the same savage battlefield tactics he used in Syria or Chechnya, when his army targeted residential areas with missile strikes and bombardments — exactly as they’ve been doing in Ukraine.
And neither Putin nor the Russian army have changed since Chechnya.
“The Russian military were incapable of waging a sophisticated counter-insurgency campaign. They only understand violence. But they were the only army Putin had,” observes Philip Short in his new biography of the Russian leader. On the flipside, one could also add that the Russian army only has Putin — at least for now — and the bigger question is what he’ll do with an army that’s been shown to be sclerotic, led by generals who are being outthought and outmatched.
Here, Putin’s story about cornering a rat when he was a kid in what was then Leningrad may prove instructive.
“There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word ‘cornered,’” he explained. “There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks. Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me,” he said. “ Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door on its nose.”
Tuesday, Putin was scheduled to deliver a rare televised address to Russians — the last time he did so was in February to announce his so-called “special military operation.” But at the time of writing, he still had not appeared before the cameras. Some Russian sources say when he does, possibly later in the week, he’s likely to refrain from declaring a full military mobilization, although with rushed new legislation increasing penalties for desertion or failure to obey military orders, he’s clearly ready to ramp up. Russia analyst Tatiana Stanovaya says Putin is gearing up for all-out war — unless Ukraine backs off and the West backs down.
Ukraine and the West must now be ready for Putin to “lash around.” And in response, they must be quick to slam the door on his nose.