Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to respond to Ukraine’s impressive military success in recent days, but it is difficult to predict the Kremlin’s next steps, strategy experts told AFP.

Having recaptured thousands of square kilometers of territory and several cities controlled by Russia, Kyiv is in the driver’s seat on the battlefield, and some Ukrainian officials are already talking about a possible victory for President Uladzimir Zelenskyi’s Western-backed army.

“It will be like a snowball that keeps rolling and rolling,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov triumphantly declared in the French daily Le Monde on Monday. “We will see the retreat of the second most powerful army in the world.”

But experts warn that such forecasts may be premature.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Kanashenkov said on Monday that his country’s troops were bombing the lost territories in eastern Ukraine, and promised that Moscow would continue fighting “until it achieves its goals.”

On Tuesday, Russia announced that it was carrying out “massive” strikes on the front line of Ukraine.

– “Tactical only” –

Large movements of Russian troops are indeed likely after the failure, predicted Alexander Grinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, calling Ukraine’s recent successes “impressive, but only tactical.”

Ivan Klysh from the Institute of Foreign Policy Studies in Estonia warned that Ukrainian troops will not be able to continue the offensive indefinitely.

“Ukrainian forces will have to strengthen, especially along the border with Russia,” he told AFP.

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Meanwhile, the Russian leader faces “limited” options, Klish said, as he monitors public opinion at home.

“Putin is still against the mobilization of Russian conscripts. This would lead to the risk of creating further instability, as the demands on the population would increase significantly,” he said.

“The option of withdrawing all Russian troops is also risky, because the armed forces and the population are waiting for some kind of victory.”

Meanwhile, perhaps Putin is simply waiting for the onset of winter, which will worsen “Kiev’s socio-economic problems”, according to independent Russian military expert Alexander Khramchikhin.

To that end, Moscow can continue to target Ukrainian infrastructure, creating “huge problems” for Kyiv, he said.

Few expected a Ukrainian breakthrough, despite Kiev’s promises of a counteroffensive to retake Kherson, one of the first cities to fall after a Russian attack in February.

One of the key developments was the extent of Russia’s retreat in northern Ukraine, from where Moscow moved troops to protect the south, leaving supply lines vulnerable.

“The attack on Kherson was not just sabotage, but it played that role,” Grinberg told AFP.

Russia’s logistics operations continue to be a prime target for Ukrainian strikes, noted Ben Hodges, former commander of NATO forces in Europe.

Russian forces are “heavily dependent on rail transport for artillery ammunition and heavy equipment,” he tweeted over the weekend.

– “Unable to control” –

“The capture of Kupyansk will mean a serious disruption of the logistical support of front-line Russian troops in the area,” Hodges added.

Countless rivers cross the region, Greenberg noted, saying “it’s enough to destroy bridges to disrupt supply chains.”

Russia’s biggest problem may be its lack of military strength, combined with its tradition of top-down hierarchy, which is seen as out of touch with battlefield realities.

This allowed Kyiv to shine with a unique combination of mobility, small autonomous units and patriotic unity, experts note.

Russia is “incapable of controlling large territories and a long front line,” Khramchykhin said, adding that US intelligence would help Kiev even more than arms supplies.

As a result, Ukraine managed to dislodge the Russians in open combat “for the first time since the beginning of the war,” noted Michel Goya, a former colonel of the French army.

Its ability to mount two separate attacks involving 20,000 troops could indicate a “turning of the curve” between Ukraine and Russia, he said.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken welcomed Ukraine’s “significant progress” on Monday, but also warned that “it’s too early to say exactly where it’s going.”

Indeed, it would be unwise to rule out that the pendulum of war is once again swinging in favor of Moscow, Khromchikhin warned.

No matter how the next stage of the war unfolds, the conflict is likely to drag on for a long time, the Russian expert predicted.

“Maybe 20 years,” he told AFP.

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