The divisions over Kherson are just the latest disagreements between Mr Putin and his top commanders. Senior Russian officers have repeatedly questioned early plans for the war, US officials said, particularly a first stage that called for a quick strike on Ukraine’s capital Kyiv. Russian officers believed Mr Putin was going to war with insufficient troops and weapons, US officials said.
Russian officers’ worries proved well-founded, and after the defeat of the Russian military outside Kyiv, Mr Putin eased his control over military planning. It allowed senior generals to create a new strategy focused on massive artillery barrages, US officials said. The new strategy was in fact a bitter war of attrition which benefited the strength of the Russian army and succeeded in pushing the army forward into eastern Ukraine.
Ever since Mr Putin ordered his commanders to keep fighting in Kherson, the Russian military has tried to halt the Ukrainian advance there. Last week the Russians blew up a dam on the Inhulets River to make the current counter-offensive more difficult.
But Ukrainian strikes blew up crossing points on the Dnipro River, largely cutting off Russian troops from their supply lines on the other side. The Russians had to use pontoon bridges to cross the river, only to see them hit by Ukrainian fire, Ukrainian officials said. “They have units there that, if the Ukrainians cross the lines, will be isolated and surrounded,” said Seth G. Jones, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I can’t overstate how risky the situation is for them.”
Retreating beyond the Dnipro River would likely allow Russian commanders to hold the line in the south with fewer troops. This would give them more leeway to redeploy forces from Kherson to other areas, either by repelling Kharkiv’s counter-offensive in the northeast, solidifying defensive lines in the eastern Donbass region, or opening a new front to the south.
But Mr. Putin told the commanders that he would set the strategy.
“In this war, there has been a constant mismatch between Putin’s political goals and the military means to achieve them,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense research institute in Arlington. , Virginia. procrastinating, refusing to acknowledge reality, until the options turned from bad to worse.