Russia has failed in Ukraine’s north, and this does not bode well for the future of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and other members of the ruling elite.

One month from now, on May 9, the annual Victory Day Parade commemorating the surrender of Nazi Germany, will take place in Moscow’s Red Square, showcasing Russia’s formidable arsenal in a Soviet-fashion spectacle. Under usual circumstances, one would expect to see yet another highly ceremonial march promoting Russia’s grim might.

Each Victory Day Parade starts with the Russian defence minister inspecting the parading units, then saluting the commander-in-chief, the president of the Russian Federation. Last year, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attended in his well-decorated uniform, enjoying a successful record all the way from Crimea to Syria. What is more, only two months after the 2021 Victory Day march, President Vladimir Putin published his infamous article, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” manifesting his rule’s irredentist stance vis-a-vis the post-Soviet space.

This year, however, the Victory Day Parade will likely take place under different conditions. Having failed to fight its way into the Ukrainian capital Kiev in the northern sector of the conflict, the Russian military has recently placed all its bets in a face-saving achievement in the separatist east and partially-controlled south of the country. 

However, the Kremlin cannot take the eastern and southern fronts for granted, given their material losses and the cumulatively worsening morale of the combat formations. The 2022 Victory Parade, therefore, may mark the last Red Square march for Shoigu, even if he manages to attend this year’s in a glamorous outfit.

Battle in the northern sector

Although Putin’s war-machine has tried for more than a month, it has fallen short of encircling Kiev. The failure at the gates of the Ukrainian heartland has hindered the utmost political goal of the campaign to ‘correct’ the Ukrainian people’s geopolitical orientation towards the West and impose a pro-Russian government. Most notably, before the early rounds of the talks in Belarus, Putin even called on the Ukrainian military to overthrow President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Heavy material and personnel losses in the deadlock also added fuel to the fire among Russian ranks. To give an idea of the scale of losses, open source intelligence suggests that the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation has lost more main battle tanks – 450 platforms in total at the time of writing, including destroyed, damaged and captured ones – than a mid-size European nation’s entire arsenal. The same can be extended to other weaponry, including artillery and multiple-launch rocket pieces, helicopters, and infantry fighting vehicles. The Kremlin has now also admitted to ‘significant’ losses in terms of human casualties.

The Russian failure in the north emanated from a set of interrelated military factors. The Ukrainian units’ anti-tank guided missiles have proven to be effective against the Russian armour. Apart from the famed Javelin and NLAW, Ukraine’s own Stugna-P, a five kilometre-range anti-tank missile system, has displayed an interestingly effective kill record. More importantly, Stugna’s laptop-like remote control setting enables video uploads, aiding in the information warfare aspect of the conflict. This is also the case with drone strike footage.

Likewise, Ukrainian artillery has done a good job through a composition of drones in spotting roles, counter-battery radars, and laser-guided munitions

Kiev’s force-generation patterns also deserve special credit. The Zelenskyy administration’s Military Security Strategy- 2021 document and legal framework to organise a large citizen-mobilisation deterrent, known as the Territorial Defence Forces of Ukraine, has played a critical role in augmenting the Ukrainian combat formations when and where necessary. 

Furthermore, the Russian military still hasn’t been able to ensure rear-area security. The most sensational incident in this respect was the two Ukrainian Mi-24 gunships flying into the Russian principle and striking fuel storages in Belgorod, a critical assembly area and forward supply point.

Overall, Russia has failed badly in the north. Most probably, the Zelenskyy government will weather the storm, and Ukraine’s pro-Western geopolitical orientation will remain in place for years to come. But the conflict is far from over. A new battle for the east and a reloaded one for the south, will likely bring storm clouds over Ukraine soon. 

New flashpoints to watch

Putin and his Siloviki clan have to offer something to Russian citizens at home, and all the better they do so before the Victory Day Parade.  The coming days, therefore, will likely witness greater Russian aggression.

From a military standpoint, a frontal assault on the Ukrainian formations in the east would create little, if any, progress. This is why the Russian combat formations are trying to re-group in the east and capture the Izyum-Sloviansk axis to outflank the Ukrainian defensive in the hot zone. 

Should the Russian offensive achieve this objective, then the encircled Ukrainian lines in the east, deprived of reinforcements and supplies in a multi-front bonanza, may break. It would also be a way out for Russian generals, which could protect them from Putin’s outrage.

However, re-allocating the northern sector units into the Izyum-Sloviansk frontier would not work miracles, as these units have suffered from significant material and morale loss. This is why the Russian General Staff has been sending reinforcements from the Eastern Military District. Yet, the Eastern Military District units’ combat-readiness and warfighting capabilities are nowhere near the already in-fight Western Military District and Southern Military District heavyweights, such as the 1st Guards Tank Army and the 58th Combined Arms Army, to name a few.

Thus, Putin should not expect a miraculous comeback from his forces, especially considering that the Russian Aero-Space Forces lost their first Su-35 high-end, super-manoeuvrable fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian air defences in Izyum.

In the meantime, Russia’s intensive pounding of Mariupol in the southern sector continues. Russian ground troops, including the Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s militia, are operating in the urban terrain. Although it is still a mystery how the Ukrainian defence has kept the city so far, Mariupol may fall soon. If that happens, Russia will have cut Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov, and more importantly, will have an opportunity to link the geography from the Crimean Peninsula, annexed in 2014, to the separatist east.  

What Ukraine needs 

The conflict has now taken a dangerous turn to an all-front incursion into southern and eastern battles to safeguard Siloviki rule in Moscow. Ukraine can suffer more and still lose substantial territory. To prevent a worst-case scenario, the Ukrainian military needs three things, to use Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s rhetoric: weapons, weapons and weapons. 

The Pentagon has started transferring Switchblade loitering munitions to Ukraine. The Switchblade-600 variant in particular can be very effective against Russian armour in asymmetric and urban / suburban settings. The uninterrupted flow of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and anti-tank weaponry is equally critical.

On the other side, the Ukrainian military is still waiting for Soviet-era weaponry in eastern flank NATO nations’ arsenals, especially the S-300 strategic SAM systems and the Mig-29 fighter aircraft. At the time of writing, Slovakia is set to transfer its S-300s to Ukraine, which, if realised, is good news for the Ukrainian military. More importantly, the Slovakian supplies can set an example for the rest of NATO’s eastern flank nations to follow suit.

The battle for greater Donbass and the southern sector will heat up soon. Should the Russian war-machine fail to deliver what the Kremlin asks as an acceptable minimum, this bitter failure may seal the fate of Defence Minister Shoigu. 

More importantly, the punishment may not be limited to him. Many among the Russian elite might be enjoying their last time under the spotlight during the Victory Parade in May. The 2023 parade may witness a drastically different ruling clan.

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Source: TRT World