October 4, 2022

Institute for the Study of War: Ukraine forces continue to make significant gains in Kherson, Kharkiv and Luhansk regions

Institute for the Study of War

Ukrainian forces continued to make significant gains in Kherson Oblast while simultaneously continuing advances in Kharkiv and Luhansk oblasts on October 4. Ukrainian forces liberated several settlements on the eastern bank of the Inhulets River along the T2207 highway, forcing Russian forces to retreat to the south toward Kherson City. Ukrainian forces also continued to push south along the Dnipro River and the T0403 highway, severing two Russian ground lines of communication (GLOCs) in northern Kherson Oblast and forcing Russians south of the Kherson-Dnipropetrovsk Oblast border toward the Beryslav area. Ukrainian military officials noted that the Ukrainian interdiction campaign is crippling Russian attempts to transfer additional ammunition, reserves, mobilized men, and means of defense to frontline positions.[1] Ukrainian forces also continued to advance east of the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast, and Russian sources claimed that battles are ongoing near the R66 Svatove-Kreminna highway.[2]

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of partial mobilization is having more significant short-term impacts on the Russian domestic context than on the war in Ukraine, interacting with Russian battlefield failures to exacerbate fractures in the information space that confuse and undermine Putin’s narratives. Ukrainian sources have rightly observed that the partial mobilization is not a major threat in the short term because the Ukrainian counteroffensive is moving faster than the mobilization can generate effects.[3] Ukrainian Intelligence Chief Kyrylo Budanov even stated that mobilization in Russia is a “gift” to Ukraine because the Kremlin is finding itself in a “dead end,” caught between its failures and its determination to hold what it has seized.[4] The controversies surrounding the poorly executed partial mobilization, coupled with significant Russian defeats in Kharkiv Oblast and around Lyman, have intensified infighting between pro-Putin Russian nationalist factions and are creating new fractures among voices who speak to Putin’s core constituencies.[5]

Putin is visibly failing at balancing the competing demands of the Russian nationalists who have become increasingly combative since mobilization began despite sharing Putin’s general war aims and goals in Ukraine. ISW has identified three main factions in the current Russian nationalist information space: Russian milbloggers and war correspondents, former Russian or proxy officers and veterans, and some of the Russian siloviki—people with meaningful power bases and forces of their own. Putin needs to retain the support of all three of these factions. Milbloggers present Putin’s vision to a pro-war audience in both Russia and the proxy republics. The veteran community is helping organize and support force generation campaigns.[6] The siloviki are providing combat power on the battlefield. Putin needs all three factions to sustain his war effort, but the failures in Ukraine combined with the chaotic partial mobilization are seemingly disrupting the radical nationalist community in Russia. Putin is currently trying to appease this community by featuring some milbloggers on state-owned television, allowing siloviki to generate their own forces and continue offensive operations around Bakhmut and Donetsk City, and placating veterans by ordering mobilization and engaging the general public in the war effort as they have long demanded.

Russian failures around Lyman galvanized strong and direct criticism of the commander of the Central Military District (CMD), Alexander Lapin, who supposedly commanded the Lyman grouping, as ISW has previously reported.[7] This criticism originated from the siloviki group, spearheaded by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin. Kadyrov and Prigozhin represent an emerging voice within the regime’s fighting forces that is attacking the more traditional and conventional approach to the war pursued by Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu and the uniformed military command. The chaotic execution of Putin’s mobilization order followed by the collapse of the Lyman pocket ignited tensions between the more vocal and radical Kadyrov-Prigozhin camp, who attacked the MoD and the uniformed military for their poor handling of the war.[8] Putin now finds himself in a dilemma. He cannot risk alienating the Kadyrov-Prigozhin camp, as he desperately needs Kadyrov’s Chechen forces and Prigozhin’s Wagner Group mercenaries to fight in Ukraine.[9] Nor can he disenfranchise the MoD establishment, which provides the overwhelming majority of Russian military power in Ukraine and the institutional underpinnings needed to carry out the mobilization order and continue the war.

The Kadyrov-Prigozhin incident sparked a rift between the siloviki and the milbloggers, with the milbloggers defending Lapin. Milbloggers are criticizing Kadyrov’s attack on Lapin, claiming that it stems from competition between Lapin and Kadyrov-Prigozhin.[10] The Kremlin did not punish Kadyrov or Prigozhin for their direct attacks on Lapin and the Defense Ministry but has instead deflected blame for the Russian defeat in Kharkiv Oblast onto the Western Military District (WMD). Kremlin-affiliated outlets have even interviewed milbloggers who have painted Lapin as a hero for saving the stranded WMD units in Lyman, likely in an effort to divert responsibility for the Russian defeat there onto recently fired WMD Commander Colonel-General Alexander Zhuravlev.[11] Milbloggers, who had frequently complimented Kadyrov or Prigozhin before this incident, are now more skeptical of the siloviki community, attacking it for being too self-interested.

Fractures are emerging within the Russian milblogger community itself, moreover. Milbloggers have begun increasingly questioning each other’s military credentials and rights to offer recommendations for the Russian Armed Forces.[12] One milblogger complained that commentators without appropriate military experience have been improperly criticizing current military commanders and should be focusing on simply portraying the situation on the frontlines without editorializing.[13] These critiques have been largely aimed at the milblogger discourse following the Russian defeat in Lyman and the Kadyrov-Prigozhin incident.[14] These attacks on some milbloggers’ credentials have drawn responses from milbloggers who have met with Putin himself and are being featured on Kremlin-controlled television channels, who now declare that they are the ones who have shown the true shortcomings of the Russian forces to Putin so that he can address them.[15]

The veterans’ community is dissatisfied with the execution of Putin’s mobilization. ISW reported in May that an independent Russian veterans’ organization, the All-Russian Officers Assembly, published an open letter calling on Putin to declare war on Ukraine, announce partial mobilization, and form new war-time administrations to execute the mobilization order.[16] Those new administrations would likely have improved or supplanted the military commissariats that have been mishandling the current partial mobilization. The Assembly also encouraged Putin to recognize that Russia is fighting NATO in Ukraine, not Ukrainians, long before this narrative gained prominence in the Kremlin’s justifications for its defeat in Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman. This elder nationalist military community has long been warning Putin of the limitations of his forces, problems in the Russian military-industrial complex, and the failings of the Russian mobilization system. Putin has refused to order general mobilization or declare war against Ukraine, and the partial mobilization has likely been executed as poorly as those who had recommended fixing the mobilization system had feared. Former Deputy Commander of the Russian Southern Military District Andrey Gurulev stated that the Russian military command must disclose its inability to mobilize 300,000 combat-ready reservists and broaden the mobilization criteria if Russia is to have any hope of regaining the initiative in this war.[17] Gurulev even expressed his support for Kadyrov’s and Prigozhin’s attack on Lapin, highlighting the growing fractiousness of the nationalist information space.

The fragmentation of the Russian nationalist information space could have significant domestic impacts and could even affect the stability of Putin’s regime. Putin will be unable to meet the mutually exclusive demands of various groups. Kadyrov and Prigozhin are pushing for a change in the way Russia fights the war to one more suited to their unconventional modes of mobilizing personnel and fighting.  The veterans have been pushing for a more traditional overhaul of the Russian higher military command and MoD and for putting Russia on a conventional war footing and the Russian MoD. Russian milbloggers are currently defending the Kremlin’s selection of uniformed commanders while continuing to attack the MoD and making a variety of extreme demands and recommendations of their own—all the while reporting on Russia’s frontline failings in detail even as the MoD tries to silence them. Putin cannot afford to lose the support of any of these groups, nor can satisfy them all as the war wears on and Russian troops continue to sustain losses. The shocks of the Kharkiv and Lyman defeats, energized by the partial mobilization and its poor management, have exposed these deepening fissures within Putin’s core constituencies to the view of all Russians. They could even begin to seed the notion that Putin is not fully in control of his own base. The ramifications of such a development for his regime are hard to predict.

Key Takeaways

  • Ukrainian forces continued to make significant gains in Kherson Oblast while simultaneously continuing advances in Kharkiv and Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of partial mobilization is having more significant short-term impacts on the Russian domestic context than on the war in Ukraine, catalyzing fractures in the information space that confuse and undermine Putin’s narratives.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to make substantial gains in northern Kherson Oblast on October 4, beginning to collapse the sparsely-manned Russian lines in that area.
  • Ukrainian forces continued to make gains in eastern Kharkiv Oblast west of Svatove on October 4, pushing past the Oskil River and increasingly threatening Russian positions in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued to conduct artillery, air, and missile strikes west of Hulyiapole and in Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolaiv Oblasts on October 4.
  • Russian forces continued ground attacks in Donetsk Oblast on October 4.
  • The Kremlin effectively ordered local Russian administrations and non-Ministry of Defense institutions to fund a significant part of the mobilization effort from local budgets.
  • Russian security officials are attempting to maintain their domestic security apparatus as Putin’s partial mobilization drains the Russian security sector to generate additional forces to fight in Ukraine.
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