May 9th, the day that marks the anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, which Russia usually celebrates with large military parades and a speech by President Vladimir Putin, is still the date Moscow is expected to announce major progress in its war on Ukraine.
However, this May 9th, which is drawing closer, has still not produced significant military changes in the Donbas –whose “liberation” is Russia’s stated goal for this war. A number of observers have tried to explain Russia’s slow pace in preparing for this third phase of their campaign, attributing it to great difficulties faced by Russian military leadership and their failure to make use of the faults that appeared during the battles near Kyiv and in the Ukrainian northeast.
On April 17, in its daily assessment of ongoing military developments, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) stated that Russian forces had practically occupied the port of Mariupol and reached the port of the city despite Kyiv authorities’ denials. Only a small group of Ukrainian soldiers remains deployed in some neighborhoods of Mariupol, in addition to a few hundred, mostly from the Azov Battalion, trapped in the Azovstal iron and steelworks factory.
The assessment adds that Russian units that participated in the Kyiv offensive seem to have begun redeploying in eastern Ukraine without being reorganized or remobilizing their ranks (today filled with inexperienced soldiers) and without addressing the shortages in manpower and equipment. Meanwhile, the forces of the Donetsk and Luhansk “Republics” are being pushed towards the front lines.
In its analysis, the ISW rules out that the aforementioned military and paramilitary units will be able to carry out a large-scale military operation beyond the tactical assaults currently being launched along the Izyum-Rubizhne axis. In light of an urgent need to compensate for human losses, the assessment points to images that appeared on Russian social media sites depicting the financier of mercenary recruitment company Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in eastern Ukraine, in what appears to be an effort by the Kremlin to boost the recruitment of paid Wagner mercenaries.
The failure of the Russian army to launch its long-awaited offensive on the parts of the Donbas that Ukrainian forces control indicates that Moscow is looking for ways to ensure it eliminates the threat of a new defeat, even if that means a longer war that misses the Victory Day deadline of the ninth of May.
Indeed, the final analysis of many Western military observers pits the difficulties that Ukraine will face in preventing a Russian occupation of their territory against what they call the “chronic diseases” afflicting the Russian army, the most serious symptoms of which were assumed to have been treated by the modernization process overseen by Putin in recent years.
According to them, the extreme centralization of decision-making within the Russian chain of command is a major problem that has deprived officers in the middle and lower ranks of the freedom to take the initiative or make field decisions independently.
Moreover, the difficulty of changing battle plans and the lack of flexibility are due to a host of unresolved issues both in terms of the doctrine that Russian officers receive, which places them in isolation from the footsoldiers, or the mistakes and errors made on the field of battle. Inertia and excessive centralization are largely to blame for the breakdown of the chain of command and control, the repercussions of which were also on display in the unhinged actions of Russian soldiers, who launched a wave of killings and thefts, as many observers have noted.
In light of the regime in Moscow, the extent to which military modernization has managed to achieve the leadership’s political aims is another question that has been extensively debated. This question rose to the fore as the diminished willingness of Russian soldiers to fight and their low morale became evident as they abandoned their vehicles and tanks as soon they ran out of fuel and in the poor quality of food given to these forces, as well as a host of supply-line and logistical problems more generally.
According to experts, modern armies are a reflection of their societies, and it is difficult to build a fighting force capable of attaining significant victories if the soldiers don’t believe in their country’s political, ideological, or moral superiority. Added to this are problems associated with Russian technology, which has been shown to be less advanced than that of the West on the battlefield. Indeed, it has even become evident that the weapons that Russia had bet on to gain the upper hand in Ukraine were poorly supplied, stored, and maintained, as they had lost much of their operational effectiveness before ever arriving on the battlefield.
It seems that the Russian military will miss the landmark date of May 9th due to the multitude of structural problems already revealed by the first round of war against Ukraine. However, there is no reason to believe that Moscow will abandon this war as the strategic option in dealing with the Ukrainian issue, nor are there signs of Russia abandoning its dependence on quantity over quality in military affairs, even if such dependence costs it colossal human and material losses.