Military, economic and diplomatic own goals marked the 12th week of Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Russia’s retreat from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, has now pushed Moscow’s forces back to their border 40km away and taken their artillery beyond the city’s range.
Russia seems to be contracting plans for a grand pincer movement around Ukrainian forces in the country’s east, partly because of a lack of manpower.
A particularly humiliating defeat occurred on May 11 when Ukrainian forces inflicted heavy losses on the Russian 74th Motorised Rifle Brigade as it attempted to cross the Siverskyi Donets river in an effort to encircle Ukrainian defenders in Rubizhne.
Satellite images show a destroyed pontoon bridge with clusters of destroyed Russian vehicles on both banks of the river, where Russian forces were caught in transit. Of the 550 Russian troops sent into action, 485 were reportedly wounded or killed, and 80 pieces of equipment were destroyed.
Russian forces also failed to branch out from a bridgehead in Izyum and perform an encirclement.
Ukraine says Russia has lost almost 28,000 troops – 20 percent of the force that launched Moscow’s so-called “special military operation” and as much as 60 percent of the equipment involved in the invasion.
The Ukrainian general staff say some Russian units in the Donbas are at 20 percent of their strength and are being forced to team up with private military companies.
The head of Ukraine’s main intelligence directorate, Kyrylo Budanov, says Russia has begun a covert mobilisation, which includes reservists. The Ukrainian general staff says 2,500 Russian reservists are training near the border between both countries.
After the twin failures at Izyum and Rubizhne, it is likely that Russian forces are abandoning a broader encirclement plan in order to focus on Luhansk oblast, says Serhiy Haidai, head of the Luhansk Oblast administration.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War agreed: “Russian forces may be abandoning efforts at a wide encirclement of Ukrainian troops along the Izyum-Slovyansk-Debaltseve line in favor of shallower encirclements of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk.”
“It is unclear if Russian forces can encircle, let alone capture, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk even if they focus their efforts on that much-reduced objective. Russian offensives have bogged down every time they hit a built-up area throughout this war,” the institute said.
Russia has also removed a number of top commanders from their posts for poor performance.
“Russia’s strategic defeat is already obvious to everyone in the world,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared.
“It’s just that Russia doesn’t have the courage to admit it yet … Therefore, our task is to fight until we achieve our goals in this war. Free our land, our people and establish our security,” he said.
There also seems to be a looming shortage of military hardware.
US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Congress that Russia is using chips from refrigerators and dishwashers in its tanks because of a shortage of semiconductors. That information came from Ukrainian sources.
Although the two sides are negotiating to exchange prisoners, there can be no substantive peace talks, says Thanos Veremis, professor emeritus of history at Athens University.
“There was a point when they might have come to an agreement, but now the Russians have committed so many atrocities it’s very difficult. This is when the real Ukraine is being born – it’s building its national narrative and hammering its identity,” he told Al Jazeera.
The gas war
Russia seems to be undermining its own revenues in tit-for-tat sanctions against Europe.
The trigger came on May 11, when Ukraine limited Russian gas transiting its territory to Europe for the first time.
Ukraine said it partly closed the pipeline entering its territory at Sokhranovka after Russian-backed separatists siphoned off gas. Gas volumes fell from 96 million cubic metres to 72mcm overnight. A second Russian pipeline crossing Ukraine was not impeded.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia is committed to honouring gas contracts to Europe, but the next day Russian gas monopoly Gazprom retaliated by forbidding European pipelines in which it is a shareholder to transport its gas.
“A ban on transactions and payments to entities under sanctions has been implemented,” Gazprom said in a statement.
The sanctioned entities lie in countries that have themselves initiated measures against Russia. Russia’s Interfax news agency said these comprised Polish pipeline owner EuRoPol Gaz, Gazprom Germania, and 29 Gazprom Germania subsidiaries across Europe.
With Russian gas deliveries expected to fall further, European gas prices jumped 22 percent.
Russia’s sanctions rest on a May 3 decree outlining “retaliatory special economic measures in connection with the unfriendly actions of some foreign states.”
Putin gave the government 10 days to draft the sanctions list, which was published on May 13.
The retaliatory sanctions are likely to undermine a major source of revenue for Russia, but could also damage Europe, still highly dependent on Russian gas.
The diplomatic war
NATO enlargement, a reason put forward by Putin for his war against Kyiv, has now advanced owing to his invasion of Ukraine.
On May 12, Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement that “Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay”.
Sweden followed Finland’s lead three days later.
“Sweden needs formal security guarantees that come with membership in NATO,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told legislators in the capital Stockholm.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lashed out at the United States, saying it was dragging Europe into an expensive confrontation with Russia.
“The ‘rules-based order’ envisions neither democracy, nor pluralism even within the ‘collective West’,” Lavrov said at the annual meeting of Moscow’s Council on Foreign and Defence Policy on May 13.
“The case in point is the revival of tough bloc discipline and an unconditional submission of the ‘allies’ to Washington’s diktat,” Lavrov said.
“The EU will finally lose all attributes of independence and obediently join the Anglo-Saxon plans to assert the unipolar world order … in order to please the United States,” he said.
Putin was forced into a diplomatic retreat on the issue of Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
“As to enlargement, Russia has no problem with these states – none,” he said on May 16.
“And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion [of NATO] to include these countries,” Putin told the leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a military alliance of former Soviet states.
“But the expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response,” he said.
Putin’s position marked a diplomatic retreat from that expressed by former Russian president and ally Dmitry Medvedev, who said in April that Russia would deploy nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, across the Baltic Sea from Finland and Sweden, should they consider membership in the military alliance.
“A threat has value while you don’t have to make good on it,” said Constantinos Filis, who directs the Institute of Global Affairs at the American College of Greece.
“Russia threatened Sweden and Finland with consequences if they entered NATO. Once they did so, it was humiliating to insist,” Filis said.
“Putin was forced to soften his stance, to say … they will suffer consequences if they turn against Russia. Of course, Putin knows that both countries have previously said they don’t want to host NATO bases, missile systems and so on,” Filis told Al Jazeera.