Putin's “tepid” campaign in Ukraine: hesitation or ineptitude?

Russia war against ukraine razed cities, killed tens of thousands and forced millions more from their homes. But quietly, some militar...


Russia war against ukraine razed cities, killed tens of thousands and forced millions more from their homes.

But quietly, some military analysts and Western officials wonder why the assault was not even worse.

Russia could more aggressively attack Ukrainian railways, roads and bridges in an attempt to stem the flow of Western weapons to the front line. He could have bombed more infrastructure around the capital, kyiv, to prevent Western leaders from visiting President Volodymyr Zelensky as a sign of unity and determination. And he could do a lot more to inflict pain in the westEither by cyber attacksabotage or more power export cuts in Europe.

Part of the reason seems to be sheer incompetence: the first weeks of the war clearly demonstrated that the Russian army was much less capable than you think before the invasion. But US and European officials also say President Vladimir V. Putin’s tactics in recent weeks have proven remarkably cautious, marked by a slow offensive in eastern Ukraine, a restrained approach to suppressing Ukrainian infrastructure and an avoidance of actions that could escalate the conflict with NATO.

The apparent restraint on the pitch contrasts with the brilliance of Russian state television, where Moscow is depicted as locked in an existential struggle against the West and where the use of nuclear weapons is openly discussed. The question is whether, as the war continues, Mr. Putin will change tactics and escalate the war.

It’s a particularly pressing issue ahead of Russia’s Victory Day holiday next Monday, when Mr Putin traditionally presides over a grand parade marking the Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany and delivers a militaristic speech. Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense secretary, predicted last week that Mr Putin would use the speech for a formal declaration of war and a massive mobilization of the Russian people.

US and European officials say they have seen no movement on the ground that would show a much larger push with additional troops from May 9 or soon after. These officials now expect a slower and overwhelming campaign inside Ukraine. But they do not dispute that Mr Putin could use the speech to declare a broader war and a deeper national effort to fight it.

For the moment, Mr. Putin seems to be in a military waiting pattern, which allows Ukraine to regroup and obtain supplies of Western weapons. On Monday, a senior Pentagon official called The latest Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine “very careful, very lukewarm.” In Russia, there are complaints that the army is fighting with one hand tied behind its back, with a strategy and objectives not understood by the public.

“It’s a strange and special kind of warfare,” Dmitry Trenin, until recently director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, said in a phone interview from outside Moscow. “Russia has set itself quite strict limits, and this is in no way explained – which raises a lot of questions, first of all, among Russian citizens.”

Mr. Trenin is one of the few analysts in his think tank, closed last month by the Russian government, who chose to stay in Russia after the war began. He said he struggled to explain why the Kremlin was fighting at “less than half strength”.

Why isn’t Russia bombing more bridges and railroads, he asked, as it allows the Ukrainian military to receive more and more deadly weapon deliveries every day? from the West? Why Western leaders — as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday — still able to visit kyiv safely?

“I find it strange and I can’t explain it,” Mr Trenin said.

True, Russian missile strikes have targeted infrastructure throughout Ukraine, including a important bridge in the southwest of the country on Monday and Odessa airport runway the Saturday. But across the Atlantic, officials and analysts are asking questions similar to those of Mr. Trenin.

For weeks, officials in Washington have discussed why the Russian military has not been more aggressive in trying to destroy supply lines that send Western arms shipments to Ukraine. Part of the answer, officials say, is that Ukrainian air defenses continue to threaten Russian planes, and the deeper Russian planes penetrate Ukraine, the more likely they are to be shot down.

Russia has also struggled with its precision munitions – missiles or rockets with guidance systems. Many of these weapons did not function properly, and Russian weapon supplies are limited. Strikes on railway tracks or moving convoys must be very precise to be effective.

Other officials have argued that Moscow is keen to avoid destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure too severely, perhaps in the mistaken hope that it can still take control of the country. Russia would be in the throes of an enormous reconstruction task if it took back cities devastated by its own bombardments.

A senior US defense official said Mr Putin may have avoided destroying Ukraine’s rail network because he did not want to harm his own ability to move equipment and troops across the country. The Russians focused more on destroying weapons storage areas than on the rail network.

U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private military and intelligence assessments.

Then there’s the question of why Russia hasn’t hit back harder at the West. The Kremlin’s narrative is of an existential war with NATO fought on Ukrainian soil, but it is Russia that suffers military casualties while the West keeps a safe distance and supplies weapons that kill soldiers Russians.

“A lot of people in this town are asking why they haven’t fought back yet,” said Samuel Charap, a former US State Department official in Washington and Russia analyst at the RAND Corporation. “It seems unlikely that the United States and its allies will face no backlash after putting so many Russian soldiers in their graves.”

Russia has the tools to cause massive damage to the West. Gas shortages caused by cyberattack on colonial pipeline last year showed the disruption that Russian hacking can inflict on American infrastructure. Berlin has warned that a Russian gas cut could plunge the German economy into a recession.

And then there is Moscow’s first nuclear arsenal, with a valued 5,977 warheads: Their catastrophic capacity is publicized in ever more acute terms in the Russian media.

“You thought you could destroy us with other people’s hands and watch from the sidelines from a safe distance?” Sergei Mironov, an outspoken hawk in Russia’s parliament, said on Saturday, arguing that the new intercontinental ballistic missile could destroy Britain with a single strike. “It won’t work, gentlemen, you’ll have to pay everything in full!” he added.

Mr Putin has also warned against retaliation, but he also appreciates the ambiguity. Last year, he said those who crossed a “red line” would face an “asymmetrical, quick and harsh” response – an indication that the response would come when and where Moscow chose.

“No one really knows where the red line is,” said Mr. Charap, the analyst. “I don’t even think the Russians know because we are in such uncharted waters.”

US and allied officials have debated why Mr Putin has not attempted widespread or more damaging cyberattacks. Some say Mr. Putin was effectively deterred. The Russian military, which is struggling to make gains in Ukraine, cannot handle a larger war with NATO and does not want to give the alliance any excuse to enter the war more directly.

Others argue that a cyber attack on a NATO country is one of the few cards Mr Putin can play and that he may be waiting for a later stage in his campaign to do so.

While Mr Putin has not been afraid to escalate the rhetoric, his actions have suggested he does not want to do anything that could spark a wider war.

“The general feeling is that he wants to wring some sort of victory out of his debacle,” the US defense official said, suggesting that Mr Putin was not interested in “creating more trouble for himself”.

Prior to the Feb. 24 invasion, Mr. Trenin of the Carnegie Center predicted that the Ukrainian military would put up fierce resistance and that Mr. Putin would discover a lack of political support for Russia in Ukraine. On this, Mr. Trenin turned out to be right.

What he was wrong, Mr. Trenin said, was the information aides and commanders would provide to Mr. Putin about Russia’s capabilities, which turned out to be wrong.

Mr Trenin says he still sees Mr Putin as fundamentally rational, rather than someone willing to engage in nuclear war, with a “maniacal determination to destroy humanity”.

“It wouldn’t be a mistake – it would be a total break with rationality,” Mr Trenin said. “I hope now I’m not mistaken.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Putin's “tepid” campaign in Ukraine: hesitation or ineptitude?
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