Institute for the Study of War: Top Russian commanders under heavy criticism for loss of Liman to Ukraine forces

October 1, 2022

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Ukrainian forces inflicted another significant operational defeat on Russia and liberated Lyman, Donetsk Oblast, on October 1. The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced the withdrawal of Russian troops from Lyman to “more advantageous positions” to avoid the “threat of encirclement” in the settlement.[1] Social media footage and Ukrainian military officials confirmed that Ukrainian forces have entered Lyman and are likely clearing the settlement as of October 1.

The Russian information space – composed of Kremlin propagandists, pundits, and milbloggers – registered the defeat as the result of the Russian military command’s failure to send reinforcements in a timely manner, while openly criticizing repeated bureaucratic failures during the mobilization.[2] Russian commentators overwhelmingly expressed their hopes that partial mobilization would generate enough force to resume offensive operations and regain the initiative. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, apparently devastated by the defeat in Lyman, called on Russia to continue to fight to ”liberate” the four annexed territories with all available means including low-yield nuclear weapons.[3]

Kadyrov’s rant is similar to the disorganized and often hyperbolic milblogger rants that call for the Kremlin to continue the war in Ukraine, and his call for the use of nuclear weapons was not representative of the discourse within the Russian information space. Russian federal TV channels and ultra-hawkish milbloggers have often discussed Russian nuclear capabilities as part of their efforts to stoke patriotic sentiments among Russian domestic audiences, and Kadyrov’s statement was not especially noteworthy in this context.

Kadyrov’s call for using tactical nuclear weapons is likely inconsistent with his demands to continue the “special military operation” to bring more Ukrainian territory under Russian control. The Russian military in its current state is almost certainly unable to operate on a nuclear battlefield even though it has the necessary equipment and has historically trained its units to do so. The chaotic agglomeration of exhausted contract soldiers, hastily mobilized reservists, conscripts, and mercenaries that currently comprise the Russian ground forces could not function in a nuclear environment.  Any areas affected by Russian tactical nuclear weapons would thus be impassable for the Russians, likely precluding Russian advances. This consideration is another factor that reduces the likelihood of Russian tactical nuclear weapons use.

Kadyrov blamed the commander of the Central Military District (CMD), Colonel General Alexander Lapin, for failures around Lyman. Kadyrov’s attacks gained significant traction within the Russian information space and indicate that the rift between Russian traditional and non-traditional forces is likely growing. Kadyrov stated that Lapin, responsible for the ”central” group of forces in Ukraine, failed to properly equip units operating in the Lyman area and moved his headquarters far from the frontlines. Kadyrov also accused the Russian General Staff and specifically Chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, of covering up Lapin’s failures. Wagner Group financier Evgeniy Prigozhin publicly agreed with Kadyrov’s criticism of Lapin, saying that the higher military command should fight “barefoot with machine guns on the frontlines.”[4] Milbloggers and state television hosts praised Kadyrov‘s and Prigozhin’s critiques of the Russian military command, adding that the command is corrupt and disinterested in Russian strategic goals.[5] Kadyrov, Lapin, and Prigozhin are all operating in the Donbas sector, and such comments indicate the strains within the Russian forces operating in Ukraine and their leadership. The Kremlin may be amplifying such criticism to set informational conditions for personnel changes within the higher military command in weeks to come.

The defeat around Lyman also indicates that Russian President Vladimir Putin – who has reportedly been micromanaging Russian commanders on the ground – is deprioritizing defending Luhansk Oblast in favor of holding occupied territories in southern Ukraine. Ukrainian and Russian sources consistently indicate that Russian forces continued to reinforce Russian positions in Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts, despite the recent collapse of the Kharkiv-Izyum front and even as the Russian positions around Lyman collapsed.[6] The decision not to reinforce vulnerable Kupyansk or Lyman front lines was almost certainly Putin’s, not that of the military command, and suggests that Putin cares far more about holding the strategic terrain of Kherson and Zaporizhia oblasts than he does about Luhansk Oblast.

Russia is likely setting conditions to assume legal responsibility for the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP). Russian authorities detained the general director of the ZNPP, Ihor Murashov, on September 30.[7] A Russian miblogger claimed that Murashov’s detention will have no tangible impact on the operation of the plant since the power units are already shut down and stated that authorities are currently undertaking ”routine“ legal work to transfer control of the plant to Russian state nuclear energy corporation Rosatom and create a new legal entity for the ZNPP.[8] Murashov’s detention and the ”legal” process of transferring control of the ZNPP to Rosatom are noteworthy indications that Russian authorities will likely seek to exploit their control of the ZNPP to pressure the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to legitimize the illegal Russian annexations of occupied Ukrainian territory by coercing it to acknowledge Russia‘s legal control over the ZNPP.

Russian forces conducted a failed ground attack on Kozacha Lopan in northern Kharkiv Oblast on October 1. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces repelled a Russian ground attack on Kozacha Lopan, 5km from the Kharkiv Oblast-Russia border.[9] Such attacks indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin likely retains the aim of regaining control of territory beyond the oblasts he has illegally annexed and is willing to allocate Russian military assets to such offensive actions rather than dedicating them to defending against the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Donbas.

Key Takeaways

 

  • Ukrainian forces liberated Lyman and are likely clearing the settlement as of October 1.

  • Russia is likely setting conditions to assume legal responsibility for the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).

  • Ukrainian troops are continuing to conduct counteroffensive operations in Kherson Oblast and setting conditions for future advances.

  • Russian forces conducted ground attacks in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka areas of Donetsk Oblast.

  • Russian forces continued routine strikes against Ukrainian rear areas in the south.

  • Russian military leadership is continuing to compromise the future reconstitution of the force by prioritizing the immediate mobilization of as many bodies as possible for ongoing fighting in Ukraine.

  • Russian mobilization authorities continue to carry out discriminatory mobilization practices.