(CNN) — Suddenly, the tsar seems to have been left naked. It has been an amazing week on both sides of the Ukraine-Russia border.
What remains of the curtain that protects the dignity of Russia’s military has fallen, and it is definitely not the second most powerful in the world.
Russia’s withdrawal from the outskirts of Kharkiv, a planned “regroupment” that some state media did not even dare to mention, is possibly more significant than its earlier collapse of positions around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. These units had been entrenched for months, effectively defending their positions, as CNN learned during the weeks they spent along the arterial roads north of Kharkiv, and at times were literally minutes’ drive from the Russian border.
That Moscow could not keep a force so painfully close to its own territory speaks volumes about the real state of its military and supply chain. It is almost as if these retreating units are returning to the void, not to the nuclear power that in February expected to completely overrun its neighbor within 72 hours.
Second, the Russian units do not appear to have made a careful and cautious withdrawal. They ran and left behind valuable weaponry and remaining supplies of ammunition. The open-source intelligence website Oryx estimated that from Wednesday to Sunday, at least 338 fighter jets, tanks or trucks were left behind.
Pockets of Russian troops may remain to harass Ukrainian forces for weeks to come, but the nature of the front line has changed irrevocably, as has its size. Suddenly Kyiv is fighting a much smaller war now, along a much reduced front line, against an enemy that also seems much smaller.
Indeed, Russia’s military now relies on forced mobilization and prisoners for its depleted ranks. Ukraine has been quite surgical, hitting supply routes to cut off already exhausted units, detecting which were the least prepared and manned. It has been amazingly effective and fast.
Whether Ukraine’s counteroffensive turns decisive depends on how far its forces can now push: Would it risk stretching too far to go for even more territory? Or is Ukraine facing an enemy that simply has no more fight left? No matter how overrated Russia’s forces have become during the chaotic decades of America’s war on terror, an army in need of shells from North Korea and convicts from St. Petersburg has, at best, the strength minimum necessary to protect Russia itself.
So what’s next? Unless we see a noticeable change, Russia’s attempt to take all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions is over. Kherson remains the focus of sustained pressure from Ukraine. And suddenly, a return to the borders that Russia stole in 2014 doesn’t seem far-fetched.
For months, the consensus was that Russia “would never let that happen.” But now Crimea seems strangely vulnerable, connected to Russia by the land corridor that runs through the Sea of Azov through the Mariupol coast and an exposed bridge across the Kerch Strait. What remains of Moscow’s overstretched, depleted, under-supplied and equipped forces deep in the Ukraine could face the same lethal encirclement as its supply chain around Kharkiv.
However far Kyiv may go now, we have had a sea change in the dynamics of European security. Russia is no longer a NATO peer.
Last week, Russia was not even up to par with its NATO-armed neighbor, a power primarily in agriculture and IT in December, which it has been slowly tormenting for eight years. The UK Defense Ministry said on Monday that elements of Russia’s First Guards Tank Army, an elite unit meant to defend Moscow from any NATO attack, had been part of the chaotic retreat from Kharkiv. They ran away.
Defense budgets of NATO member states have been creeping closer to the suggested 2% for years. But will those billions really be needed to take on an army that needed shells from Pyongyang after just six months in Ukraine?
It would also be a mistake to misread the silence within Russia (some critical analysts, politicians and talk shows aside) as a sign of a disturbing residual force about to be unleashed. This is not a system capable of looking in the mirror. The Kremlin remains silent on these issues because it cannot face the chasm between its ambitions and rhetoric, and the hungry and ragged mercenaries it seems to have left stranded around Kharkiv.
The fact that they don’t talk about their mistakes amplifies them. The Ferris wheel that President Vladimir Putin inaugurated in Moscow over the weekend does not become invisible when it breaks down and cannot turn. The same can be said of the monolithic and uncompromising force that Putin tries to project: when he collapses, it is not in private.
The most blatant foreign policy mistakes of the last few centuries have been born of arrogance, but Europe now faces a series of difficult decisions. Keep pushing until Russia asks for a peace that leaves its neighbors safe and the energy pipelines open again? Or retain the old flawed logic that a wounded and humiliated bear is even more dangerous? Would a potential successor to Putin — not that we know of any — seek detente with Europe and prioritize the Russian economy, or prove himself worthy in yet another reckless, hard-line act of brutal militarism?
This is also a key moment for nonproliferation and nuclear power in the post-Cold War era. What does a nuclear power do when it is vulnerable and lacks convincing conventional power? Russia faces no existential threat now: its borders are intact and its military is only hampered by a savage misadventure of choice. But it appears to be near the limits of its conventional capabilities.
It would be a resounding confirmation of the theory of mutually assured destruction that has always governed the era of nuclear weapons, if the weapons that could end the world as we know it remain off the table. It would also add to the possibility, raised again by the West’s outright support for Ukraine, that the horrors in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine have not irreparably damaged the West’s moral and strategic compass, and that it is not yet naive to expect to see those values in action.