Vladimir Putin has ‘lost control of narrative’ in Ukraine information war, say Western officials

·5-min read
Vladimir Putin has ‘lost control of narrative’ in Ukraine information war, say Western officials

Vladimir Putin is no longer “projecting power” in the information war over Ukraine as the debate has swung to whether his generals are in control and the morale of his troops, Western officials said on Friday.

They stressed he had “lost control of the narrative” in the crucial information battle.

Ukrainian forces are now launching counter-attacks, with Russian troops being forced to withdraw from around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city in the east of the country.

Mr Putin’s army is also believed to have lost at least 15,000 troops, with three to four times as many thought to have been wounded or incapacitated.

This contrasts with the situation at the start of the invasion on February 24 when Russian armed forces were expected to seize Kyiv within days.

Western officials now expect the conflict to settle down into a “long attritional” war which could turn into a “stalemate” if neither side makes any decisive breakthrough during the summer months.

“The Russians appear to have lost control of the narrative,” said one official.

“Whereas usually, particularly with the May 9 victory parade, you would have expected (General) Gerasimov or the commanders and leadership to come out in a position of strength and projecting power, actually the debate is around whether they are in control and the morale of forces.

“So in terms of the information environment they appear to be losing that battle.”

May 9 is a key date in the Russian military calendar as it marks the Nazis’ surrender in the Second World War and an annual parade is held through Moscow’s Red Square.

Doubts remain over what has happened to General Valery Gerasimov, Mr Putin’s top military commander, amid reports that he has been suspended or wounded after coming forwards towards the conflict zone in Ukraine.

“Whether he is in post or not, we have not seen any significant change really in how the battle is taking place,” said the official.

“The Russians continue to make seemingly the same tactical errors in how they are approaching the fight.”

Mr Putin’s forces have captured the city of Kherson in the south but they are making slow progress in seeking to advance in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine after his troops were forced to retreat from near Kyiv and swathes of the north of the country.

“The Russians really have not made much in the way of tactical gains recently and the Ukrainians continue to launch counter-attacks, particularly around Kherson and Kharkiv,” said a western official.

“Really we expect this to settle into a long attritional battle.

“Ultimately, there is a river to the east of Kharkiv which we expect the Russians to consolidate around on the eastern bank and to set up a defensive line there which then protects their supply lines which go down towards Izyum.

“Really, this is a staged and gradual withdrawal from Kharkiv, while under attack, and with the Russians having to replenish and circulate their forces.”

Around the key town of Izyum, Ukrainians counter-attacks have so far been “limited” but may increase.

The significant number of Russian troops in this area may become more “vulnerable” to attacks from the west.

While Russian forces are still mounting attacks, they are not believed to be making significant progress.

“If it continues like this then we can see it ending up as a stalemate,” said the official.

“But I think things are still playing out over the summer months. If we are still in this position come September, then I think that (a stalemate) is a reasonable description.”

Stressing that battles ebb and flow, with losses on both sides, he added: “The question really is does it come to a tipping point.

“The rate of progress and gains for the Russians seems to have slowed, it’s certainly not what they would expect and overall the battle is finely balanced.”

While Mr Putin’s forces may have superior numbers and capabilities, the Ukrainians troops have higher morale as they fight to defend their country and are well dug in in many areas.

Russian generals, seemingly increasingly desperate for success given the political pressures from Moscow, are taking big risks with their military units as they seek to encircle Ukrainian fighters in the Donbas.

“You have seen from their attempt to cross the Donets River that they have certainly tried to take the fight to the Ukrainians,” said one Western official.

“They have conducted some very risky deployments, trying to do river crossings in the middle of the day is some might say reckless.”

Russian military doctrine would suggest Mr Putin’s forces would be seeking to advance at around 40 kilometres (25 miles) a day but were only making ground at one or two kilometres at a time, according to the Western officials, and were then being hit with counter-attacks “almost immediately”.

So the frontline has been “oscillating”, with small gains of villages and towns for Russian troops who are expected to face far tougher battles to seize bigger towns and cities.

Russian forces are also “desperate” to fully take the besieged city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian fighters are still holding out in the sprawling Azovstal steel plant, partly as it has become a “symbol” of the war.

However, Mr Putin’s generals have redeployed some units away from the largely destroyed port city on the Azov Sea.

Ukrainians forces have limited” ability to manoeuvre in the Donbas, given that they are so dug in in well-fortified defences built up since the conflict started in 2014 in this region where there are the Donetsk and Luhansk areas held by Moscow-backed separatists.

However, they are operating in “smaller units to great effect”, including around Kharkiv and Kherson, and being “agile” and carefully selecting targets.

If they engaged in large scale attacks, they would be left exposed as Russian forces have been, and so have limited ability to push Russian troops out of entire regions.