In Other News – Ukraine’s Patience vs. Russia’s Bluster – 5-12-2023

May 12, 2023

As the war grinds on, Ukraine’s patience and preparation stands in stark contrast to the bluster of Russian leadership. In an interview with European broadcasters aired on Thursday, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy remarked that Ukraine’s highly anticipated counteroffensive won’t begin until his troops are properly equipped and prepared. A few hours later, the UK defense secretary announced that Britain is supplying Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Ukraine, a significant development given that no other Western country has supplied Ukraine with long-range missiles. Western countries have been hesitant to send weapons that could be perceived as crossing Putin’s red lines, but we shouldn’t be, because realistically Russia has limited options to escalate from its side.

We should also recognize that Putin could view the hesitation as a signal that the West is growing tired of supporting its Ukrainian ally and we need to dispel him of this view. Indeed, while an influx of Western weapons and training will be essential to Ukraine’s continued efforts to defend its territory, Kyiv’s allies should also be thinking about how to continue to support Ukraine beyond any one upcoming counteroffensive. Conflict between Ukraine and Russia has been going on for years on multiple levels, and it’s not going to be easily resolved by a single military counteroffensive. Ukraine’s allies should prepare for sustained battles- both physical and political, emulating the same patience that we’ve seen demonstrated by Zelenskyy and his troops.

Meanwhile, Russia’s growing overtly frustrated with its lack of progress on the battlefield and with internal dissenters. This week, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Russian-affiliated Wagner mercenary group, who has repeatedly expressed frustration with the Russian defense ministry, accused a Russian brigade of deserting its Bakhmut post. Prigozhin has been careful to never directly criticize Putin, but this is also the first time that he’s accused Russian troops of abandoning the battlefield. This early dissent among the military forces is a warning about Putin’s long-term durability and indicates that there’s likely internal conflict within the Russian hierarchy.

Prigozhin also falsely claimed that Ukraine had in fact launched its counteroffensive on Thursday, and that Zelenskyy was “being deceptive” in his statement regarding the delay. While the hard-fought battle for Bakhmut has been underway for months, controlling Bakhmut is usually seen as more symbolic than strategic. The battle is viewed as microcosmic of Russia’s efforts in Ukraine more broadly, and Putin likely wanted to claim Bakhmut before his Victory Day event on May 9 in part to motivate his troops and display strength. But Russia’s inability to claim Bakhmut doesn’t auger well for Putin’s image, and his impatience is influencing his actions on everything from deciding to prematurely replace army generals to arresting Russian artists.

While Putin is trying to maintain control over a disillusioned military and growing civil unrest within his own borders, global events could further increase his frustrations. This weekend, the Turkish people will hold elections, and Turkish President Erdogan’s main challenger, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is known for being friendlier to the West. Even if Kilicdaroglu fails to secure power, the seemingly close contest sends a signal to Putin and other global autocrats. Indeed, just as Erdogan and Putin have been growing impatient with the progress they’ve made on political and economic fronts, their citizenry has likewise been growing impatient with them.