I’m skeptical they’ll have the manpower they need to make another run on the capital given that first one didn’t go so well when they were at full strength.
But the part about France and Germany wimping out and eventually pulling their support for Ukraine? It’s a mortal lock.
In fact, it’s already begun.
The Russian news site Meduza claims sources inside the Kremlin are feeling newly optimistic about the war given their recent success around Sievierodonetsk. Although that should be kept in perspective:
First off, the great breakthrough at Popasna has basically stalled (its now been 10 days since it was claimed). Russians have been unable to capitalize on the opening their artillery made, and are once again having trouble moving. One map. pic.twitter.com/uYp61TNbDm
— Phillips P. OBrien (@PhillipsPOBrien) May 29, 2022
If they can keep moving and eventually seal off the Donbas, western Europe will certainly begin to pressure Zelensky aggressively to concede the territory in the name of peace. Maybe Russia will throw in the towel at that point, unwilling to take massively higher losses in a longshot bid to overrun the entire country. Or maybe Russian hawks will remind Putin that “denazification” means “denazification” and therefore nothing short of widespread ethnic cleansing will do. If they do, they’re counting on Scholz and Macron to lose what little nerve they’ve already displayed:
The Kremlin’s maximum goal remains the seizure of Kyiv. Moscow’s initial assault on the Ukrainian capital collapsed back in March, after which Russian troops withdrew (leaving behind evidence of numerous and shocking war crimes). From the very start of the invasion, military experts assessed Russia’s attempt to capture the city as elusive, given the insufficient military force deployed against Kyiv.
“We’ll grind them [the Ukrainians] down in the end. The whole thing will probably be over by the fall,” one source told Meduza…
Additionally, Kremlin officials are skeptical that Western nations can sustain their massive financial and military support to Ukraine if the war drags on. “Sooner or later, Europe will tire of helping. This is both money and arms production that they need for themselves. Closer to the fall, they’ll have to negotiate [with Russia] on gas and oil, before the cold season arrives,” one source told Meduza.
Where would Russia get the troops needed for a new assault on Kiev? They could start sending in conscripts, but Putin pledged publicly at the start of the war not to do that. To do so now would be to admit that he’d underestimated Ukraine and that the regular Russian army wasn’t equal to the task. Conscripts would also be poorly trained and have no combat experience, true cannon fodder in the advance west. Casualties would soar, bringing with it unpredictable repercussions inside Russia.
That’s a long way of saying that even if the Kremlin got its wish and took Kiev, which is unlikely, I’d be curious to hear the argument for how it wouldn’t be a completely pyrrhic victory. Their army would be smashed, their economy isolated from the west, and their prize for pressing ahead in Ukraine a series of ruined cities. They’ve fought on to this point not because Ukraine is “worth it” in an objective sense but because the logic of the “sunk cost” fallacy has impelled them to do so. Putin has invested too much money, manpower, and propaganda into subjugating Ukraine to give up easily, even if the cost of the war now far exceeds its strategic benefits.
But it would be a sweet consolation prize for him to drag this thing out a bit longer and watch NATO powers fracture over whether to continue supporting Ukraine. Zelensky is understandably concerned about it.
There was palpable nervousness among the large Ukrainian delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos last week that western support may soften. The Ukrainians are alarmed by the slowness of weapons deliveries from the US and Germany, which is making it harder to push back the Russian advance. They worry that, by September, western countries will be focused more on their own economic problems than on the plight of Ukraine.
They fear that some countries — probably led by France or Germany — will grab on to illusory peace negotiations and drastically reduce support to Ukraine. These Ukrainian anxieties will have been raised by the recent phone call between Putin and Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron, the leaders of Germany and France…
If the west holds its nerve, keeps its promises and accelerates the delivery of weapons, then the pressure on the Ukrainians to make territorial or other concessions to Moscow will ease. With more heavy weaponry, the Ukrainians should be able to hold the Russians off and then force them back. Professor Lawrence Freedman points out that “Russia must now defend a long front and substantial occupied territory. Its forces are already stretched and Moscow is scrambling to find reserves.”
Not to make the bad news for them worse but the next aid package from the U.S. will assuredly draw more opposition in the Senate than the last one did. Presumably something will pass during the lame-duck session this fall, but Zelensky should worry that a Republican-controlled House in thrall to Trump and the loudest anti-anti-Russia populists in the base won’t put another aid bill on the floor next year. I’m sure Kevin McCarthy wants Ukraine to win but not so much that he’s willing to lose his Speakership over it.
Freedman is right about Russia having to defend a long front, though. It’s no coincidence that while the battle for Sievierodonetsk is raging in the far northeast, a new front is opening in the southwest:
Multiple reports now that the Ukrainians have started a new offensive towards Kherson, including a crossing of the Inhulets River near Bilohirka. h/t @Liveuamap for the base map pic.twitter.com/Kb1Tx9WpWw
— OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) May 28, 2022
 UPDATE – As a result of the recently launched #Ukrainian counteroffensive on the south, Russian troops retreated from Mykolayivka village in the northern #Kherson province. This retreat caused demoralization & panic in other Russian units, reports Ukraine's AF South Command.
— Viktor Kovalenko (@MrKovalenko) May 31, 2022
Kherson has been occupied by Russia from nearly day one of the war. They’ve scrambled to “Russify” the province as quickly as they can, introducing the ruble there, propping up a new pro-Russian puppet government, switching local communications over to a Russian-controlled system, and apparently getting ready for formal annexation by Moscow. That may explain the sudden Ukrainian offensive. Not only are Zelensky’s forces trying to draw Russian resources away from the northeast, they’re “staking a claim” to the land by actively contesting it before Russia holds some sort of sham referendum to acquire it. “With whatever hardware it has on hand, Ukraine seemed Sunday to be sending a message to Russia that it will not simply play defense in a battlefield of Russia’s choosing,” the Times reported. How is Russia going to launch a fall offensive on Kiev if Kherson is still being contested?