The Russian president, along with his military chief General Valery Gerasimov, is getting involved in the kind of low-level manouevres that would typically be decided by an officer managing a battalion of as few as 700 Russian troops, according to two UK media reports.
Mr Putin is said to be personally dictating the movement of forces in the Donbas, a region where Russia has suffered a number of recent military setbacks including the effective loss of an entire battalion that was caught in Ukrainian artillery fire while crossing a river in the east of the country.
“We think Putin and Gerasimov are involved in tactical decision making at a level we would normally expect to be taken by a colonel or a brigadier,” the military source was quoted as saying by The Times.
The military sources were also quoted as saying that Gerasimov, Mr Putin’s chief of the general staff, is still “up and running” — denying claims made by Ukraine last week that the military chief had been suspended after failures in the war.
In the Russian army, a colonel or brigadier would generally command two battalion tactical groups (BTGs), comprising about 900 troops.
However, a second military source was quoted as saying that Russia’s BTGs have suffered significant losses during the war and are “battered”, adding that “if Putin is doing the job of a brigade commander… he could be delving into a force that could be as small as 700 to 1,000 soldiers”.
The Russian president, who is a former officer of the KGB, the main security agency for the Soviet Union, revealed three years ago that he oversaw an artillery battalion during the Soviet era.
“I received the rank of lieutenant as an artilleryman, as the commander of a howitzer artillery battalion … 122mm [calibre],” Mr Putin said on a visit to St Petersburg in 2019, where he led a Christmas cannon salute.
On Monday, the head of Britain’s armed forces Admiral Sir Tony Radakin said in parliament that Ukraine is on track to win the war against Russia, attributing its success to the fact that it is engaged in an “existential fight”.
“It’s clear Ukraine is winning and Putin is losing,” he said. “Ukraine is winning because Ukraine is in an existential fight for the survival… and it is going to survive.”
According to an estimate by Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), Mr Putin’s army has lost about a third of the ground combat force it dispatched to Ukraine since the invasion began on 24 February.
Nato’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg told a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Berlin on Sunday that Russia’s hopes of winning the war are not going to plan, and its advance in the eastern Donbas region has “stalled”.
“They failed to take Kyiv, they are pulling back from around Kharkiv, their major offensive in Donbas has stalled. Russia is not achieving its strategic objectives,” he said.
In a high-profile incident last week, the Russian army lost up to 50 vehicles — at least one batallion’s worth of equipment — after potentially thousands of troops came under fire from Ukrainian artillery, as the Ukrainian army blew up a pontoon bridge over the Siverskyi Donets river. The estimates of losses are based on Ukrainian officials’ statements and satellite and drone imagery.
Serhii Haidai, head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration, said the Russian army created a bridge to transfer military gear and personnel but all pontoons were destroyed along with equipment and troops.
On Monday, he said the Ukrainian forces had repelled as many as 17 attacks in the 24 hours prior, and destroyed 11 Russian armoured vehicles. And he accused Russia of targetting a hospital in Severodonetsk over the weekend, killing two and wounding nine.
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