Vladimir Putin has become so personally involved in the Ukraine war that he is making operational and tactical decisions “at the level of a colonel or brigadier”, according to western military sources.
The Russian president is helping determine the movement of forces in the Donbas, they added, where last week the invaders suffered a bloody defeat as they tried on multiple occasions to cross a strategic river in the east of Ukraine.
The sources added that Putin is still working closely with Gen Valery Gerasimov, the commander of the Russian armed forces, in contrast to claims made by Ukraine last week that the military chief had been sidelined.
“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 said, referring to the ongoing battle in the east of Ukraine.
Moscow’s armies have so far failed to achieve a breakthrough in the Donbas, where they have been mounting an offensive for a month that has failed several times to encircle the smaller Ukrainian forces.
No further detail to back up the statement was provided, although it was implied the assessment about Putin’s close personal involvement was based on intelligence that had been received.
Colonels in the US army and brigadiers in the British army typically command a brigade, units made up of a handful of battalions – the latter of which is equivalent to the smallest operating unit in the Russian army.
Russia’s military operates in a more top down fashion compared to western counterparts, with instructions typically sent to generals in the field. But Moscow’s faltering invasion has meant that it has been forced to send generals closer to the frontline, where up to 12 have been killed, according to the Ukrainian armed forces.
Ben Barry, a former brigadier in the British army, and a land warfare expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said: “A head of government should have better things to do than make military decisions. They should be setting the political strategy rather than getting bogged down in day to day activity”.
Last week’s failed attempt to cross the Siverskyi Donets river at Bilohorivka led to the destruction of more than 70 Russian vehicles, and the loss of at least one batallion’s worth of equipment, according to estimates based on aerial photography of the battle site.
The defeat was so serious it led some Russian military bloggers to comment “on the incompetence of the Russian military to their hundreds of thousands of followers”, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a rare sign of internal dissent.
In the past 24 hours, Russian forces shelled frontline positions in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas area as fighting becomes increasingly focused on Severodonetsk, the easternmost city still held by Ukrainian forces after more than 11 weeks of war.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Luhansk region, said on Monday that Russian strikes had hit a hospital in the city over the weekend, killing two and injuring nine, including a child – and several other locations had been targeted. Ukrainian forces repelled 17 attacks on Sunday, he added, and destroyed 11 Russian armoured vehicles.
The Russians are gradually mounting an assault on Severodonetsk, an industrial city that had a population of 100,000 before the war, as the effort to complete a wider encirclement of Ukraine’s defending forces in the Donbas appears to have failed.
Ukrainian forces also continued to push Russian forces back from Kharkiv, the country’s second biggest city, with Volodomyr Zelenskiy congratulating soldiers who erected a new border post on Russia’s border north of the city.
“I’m very grateful to you, on behalf of all Ukrainians, on my behalf and on behalf of my family,” he said in a video message. “I’m very grateful to all the fighters like you.”
Russia’s withdrawal is a fighting retreat, however, with the outlying northern villages around Kharkiv being peppered with shelling on Monday, with one person confirmed killed in Tsyrkuny, 17 miles from the city centre and four injured in the districts of Shevchenkivskyi and Saltivka.
Ukrainian officials said that Russian forces were concentrating on “maintaining positions and preventing the advance of our troops toward the border”.
Britain’s chief of defence staff, Adm Sir Tony Radakin, said he believed that Ukraine was now winning the war because Putin had wanted to “subjugate the whole of Ukraine” and “impose his own rule on that country” and had failed.
Giving a speech in to a parliamentary audience in Westminster, the head of the UK armed forces said Ukraine was winning because it had fought off “an existential threat” and that “its nation is going to survive,” he added.
The Institute for the Study of War said it believed “Russian forces have likely abandoned the objective of completing a large-scale encirclement of Ukrainian units from Donetsk City to Izium” in favour of capturing the remainder of the Luhansk region, of which Severodonetsk is part.
A second smaller-scale encirclement of Severodonetsk also failed last week after Russian forces were defeated with heavy losses in a series of unsuccessful attempts to cross the Siverskyi Donets River at Bilohorivka.
The river is increasingly becoming a dividing line between the two sides in the Donbas – the name given collectively to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – and around Kharkiv to the north.
Haidai said battles were taking place on Sunday to the north and south of Severodonetsk, which is one of the few locations held by Ukraine on the east side of the river. Analysts believe there may be a long struggle for the city.
Konrad Muzyka, the founder of Rochan Consulting, which specialises in open source intelligence, said he believed the capture of Severodonetsk was weeks away. “Moscow … does not have the appropriate manpower and equipment levels to take the city swiftly,” he said in a weekly review of the fighting.