Putin races against clock as fast military advance in Ukraine 'frustrated'

A fragment of a destroyed Russian tank in Ukraine's second-largest city of Kharkiv on Feb 26, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) - Russia's plans for Ukraine face rapidly rising costs due to delays caused by tougher-than-expected resistance from forces on the ground, even as its military retains overwhelming advantages.

A person familiar with Russian planning said the military would have hoped for faster progress. The Kremlin has declined to comment on details of the military operation, and its Defence Ministry says the campaign has been successful.

A senior US defence official said the United States had indications that in the last 24 hours Moscow had become frustrated by slow progress, caused by an unexpectedly strong Ukrainian defence and failure to achieve complete air dominance.

Still, with Russian forces closing on the capital Kyiv amid fierce street battles on Saturday (Feb 26), the official added Russia so far had committed only about 50 per cent of its available firepower to the war.

Pushing back against a narrative that the invasion has stumbled and is targeting population centres, a Russian official also familiar with the campaign's planning said it was on track and designed specifically to avoid urban warfare in cities.

The time frame for the operation's military goals was between one and two weeks, rather than a few days, after which Ukraine's military should be crushed and its government replaced with one friendly to Moscow, said the official, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters. The official added that capturing cities, with the heavy loss of civilian life that would likely entail, was not on the agenda.

That account of Russian goals largely fits with the analysis of military specialists in the West and President Vladimir Putin's stated aim of "demilitarising" rather than occupying Ukraine, although it does not appear to match everything that has happened on the ground.

"Russia still has the initiative, but it is not really achieving the goals it wanted at this point because the Ukrainians are resisting," said Dr Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, a US think tank, adding that Moscow's leaders may have been misled by their own belief in the strength of pro-Russia sentiment in Ukraine.

Ukraine's morale

A rapid assault of this kind has to follow up quickly on the initial shock of invasion to make clear that resistance is futile, Dr Felgenhauer said. With every day that Ukraine's organised defence continues, morale will rise and with it the number of people who take up arms as reserves.

That has implications for Russia's ability to impose control without having to eliminate resistance by force, especially in urban centres, according to Dr Felgenhauer, failing the military coup Putin appeared to call for in remarks at a security council meeting in Moscow.

"The next week will be decisive," Dr Felgenhauer said, adding that while a Ukrainian military collapse or putsch remains possible at any moment, cities may just have to be taken, an inevitably bloody task and a threat to Moscow's political goals once the government was replaced. "The Russian plan has a lot of holes."

A longer campaign will also provide more time for Ukraine's Western allies to funnel new weaponry, such as anti-tank and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, to strengthen its defences.

Since the conflict began on Feb 24, the US approved an extra US$350 million (S$474 million) for expedited weapons supplies to Kyiv, Estonia said it will send more Javelin anti-tank missiles and the Netherlands agreed to supply 200 Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Germany made an historic about-face on postwar weapons policy and is now also sending arms.

"Weapons and equipment from our partners are on the way to Ukraine. The anti-war coalition is working!" Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a Twitter post on Saturday.

By Sunday morning, it was clear too that Russia will face more aggressive economic penalties than expected, putting pressure on its finances. The US and European Union agreed to sanction Russia's central bank and to shut some commercial banks out of the international SWIFT payments system.

So far, Mr Putin faces very little opposition to his campaign at home and the Kremlin's tight control of politics and protests limits any threat to his rule. But if new western sanctions cause deeper economic upheaval, discontent could add to pressure on the Russian president.

Failed assaults

According to a Saturday military assessment by the Institute for the Study of War, a US non-profit, Russian forces attempted to take Ukraine's second largest city Kharkiv, as well as Chernihiv close to the border with Belarus, but abandoned that effort and are now heading toward Kyiv.

In the south, units that poured out of occupied Crimea have abandoned an eastward drive toward Odesa, heading instead toward the eastern city of Mariupol to trap Ukrainian forces dug into the long front lines of the separatist Donbas territories.

Overnight, Russian air attacks hit critical infrastructure including an oil depot and gas pipeline.

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Ukraine's general staff on Saturday said it had shot down a Russian transport aircraft capable of carrying airborne assault troops or equipment, as well as fighter jets and helicopters, claims that could not be independently verified. It also said Russian many Russian vehicles had stalled for lack of fuel.

Images of a high rise building in Kyiv's suburbs hit by an apparent missile strike have fuelled allegations that Russian forces are targeting civilians, which Moscow denies.

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The account of progress laid out by the Russian official was more upbeat. The official said the main battle formations of the Ukrainian army in the south and east are being encircled and the country's air defences are mostly wiped out, assessments that do not line up with what some military analysts and officials in the US are saying. The US estimates Russia has fired 250 cruise and ballistic missiles at airfields, air defence installations and other targets.

What remains consists of Soviet-era equipment that is a threat only to slow moving transport aircraft and helicopters, the Russian official said. In Kyiv, the goal is not to capture the whole city but to put enough pressure on Mr Zelensky that he either flees or surrenders, the official said. Much larger Russian units are forcing their way toward Kyiv and on Saturday there were reports of a firefight close to the central Independence Square.

A carved-up Ukraine

After that a Russian-backed government-in-waiting would take control and eventually hold elections, the official said.

Ukraine would be carved into three parts: The eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk that Putin recently recognised as independent states; a rump Ukraine under de facto Russian control that would pay for its own reconstruction; and the western regions of Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv, which are strongholds of pro-European sentiment and would be left alone.

The new, shrunken version of Ukraine would have no armed forces of its own. Its air space would, however, become part of the Russian air defence system and there might be a permanent Russian military presence, the official said.

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