Russia's elite troops unable to hold Ukraine positions
Ukrainian forces continued to make substantial gains around Lyman and in Kherson Oblast in the last 48 hours. Ukrainian and Russian sources reported that Ukrainian troops made significant breakthroughs in northern Kherson Oblast between October 2 and 3. Geolocated footage corroborates Russian claims that Ukrainian troops are continuing to push east of Lyman and may have broken through the Luhansk Oblast border in the direction of Kreminna. As ISW has previously reported, the Russian groupings in northern Kherson Oblast and on the Lyman front were largely comprised of units that had been regarded as among Russia’s premier conventional fighting forces before the war. Elements of the 144th Motorized Rifle Division of the 20th Combined Arms Army reportedly withdrew from Lyman to rear positions near Kreminna before October 2. Russian sources previously reported that elements of the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV), especially the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, are active in Kherson Oblast. Both the 144th Motorized Rifle Division and the 76th Guards Air Assault Division were previously lauded as some of Russia’s most elite forces, and their apparent failures to hold territory against major Ukrainian counter-offensive actions is consistent with ISW’s previous assessment that even the most elite Russian military forces are becoming increasingly degraded as the war continues. This phenomenon was also visible in the collapse of the 4th Tank Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army earlier in the Kharkiv counter-offensive.
Russian President Vladimir Putin may be continuing efforts to redirect blame for recent Russian military failures in Kharkiv Oblast. Russian outlet РБК (RBK), citing sources within the Russian regime, reported on October 3 that Lieutenant-General Roman Berdnikov has replaced Colonel-General Alexander Zhuravlev as commander of the Western Military District (WMD). As ISW previously assessed, WMD units have been largely operating in northeastern Kharkiv Oblast over the last few months but without a clear commander. Zhuravlev has not been seen for some time, and Putin cycled through two commanders of the “western grouping of forces" in two weeks. Putin may be attempting to redirect the growing anger for Russian losses in Kharkiv Oblast and Lyman by assigning a new face prominently to the WMD. This announcement may also be an effort to shield Colonel General Alexander Lapin, commander of the Central Military District (CMD), from widespread criticism for recent Russian failures around Lyman. Putin may seek to shift the blame for future Russian losses in Kharkiv and possibly Luhansk Oblasts to Berdnikov. Criticism of Lapin in recent days has served as a catalyst for wider breakdown within the Russian nationalist information space, and Berdnikov’s appointment may be intended to distract and redirect that growing dissatisfaction.
The Russian troops appear to be worn down and Putin is responding to their lackluster performance by changing commanders. While the Russian military may have been vastly overrated before the war, the war has exposed the weakness of its forces under Putin's regime. Putin has a military with questionable leadership and training that has been given mediocre equipment to fight with on a conventional basis. Some of the problem could be the lack of motivation to even be fighting in Ukraine.