Ukrainian-Russian War: What Does Moscow’s Losses Mean for Putin?
- Steve Rosenberg
- Editor-in-chief of BBC Russia, Moscow
Normally, one would expect the weekly headline news program from Russian state television to promote the Kremlin’s successes.
But Sunday’s edition opened to rare reception.
“At the forefront of special operations [en Ukraine]this week has been the hardest so far,” said presenter Dmitry Kiselev gloomily.
“It was especially difficult on the Kharkiv front, where, after an attack by enemy forces that outnumbered us, troops [russes] forced to leave the cities they previously liberated.”
For “liberated”, read “occupied”. Moscow had captured these areas several months ago, but after a lightning counteroffensive by the Ukrainian army, the Russian army lost a lot of territory in northeastern Ukraine.
But Russian state media is showing a brave front. Officially, what is happening in the Kharkiv region is not called “retreat” here.
“The Russian Ministry of Defense has dismissed rumors that Russian troops fled in disgrace from Balakliya, Kupiansk and Izyum,” wrote the latest edition of the state-run Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “They didn’t run away. It was a pre-planned meeting.”
In the Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid, a military analyst takes a different view: “It is clear that we have underestimated the enemy. [Les forces russes] it took too long to react and a collapse ensued… As a result, we suffered defeat and tried to minimize casualties by withdrawing our troops so they would not be surrounded.”
The “defeat” angered pro-Russian social media channels and “patriotic” Russian bloggers, who accused their military of wrongdoing.
Just like the strong leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
“If today or tomorrow no changes in strategy are carried out,” Mr. Kadyrov warned, “I will be forced to talk to the leaders of the Ministry of Defense and the heads of state to explain to them the real situation on the ground. . It’s a very interesting situation. Extraordinary.”
It’s been more than six months since Vladimir Putin ordered his massive invasion of Ukraine. In the following days, I remember Russian politicians, commentators and analysts predicting on television that the Kremlin’s so-called “special military operation” would be completed within days, that the Ukrainian people would welcome Russian troops as liberators and that the Ukrainian government would collapse. like a house of cards.
Instead, more than six months later, the Russian army was losing ground.
The key question is whether this will have political consequences for Vladimir Putin.
After all, for more than 20 years, Mr. Putin has enjoyed a reputation among the Russian elite as a victor, always managing to emerge from the most difficult situations, in a word, being invincible.
I often think of him as the Russian version of the famous escape artist Harry Houdini. Whatever knots or chains bind him, Mr. Putin always manages to free himself.
This changed after February 24th.
The past six months have shown that President Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was a huge miscalculation. Unable to secure a quick victory, Russia was caught up in a long and bloody offensive, and suffered a series of humiliating defeats.
When an authoritarian ruler’s invincible aura faded, it could spell trouble for them. Vladimir Putin knows Russian history. The former rulers of Russia who fought a war without winning it did not end well.
Russia’s defeat by Japan led to the First Russian Revolution in 1905. Military failures in World War I precipitated the 1917 Revolution and the end of Czarism.
But in public, President Putin has no intention of losing.
On Monday, his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters: “Special military operation [de la Russie] continues and will continue until all the tasks originally planned have been completed.”
Which brings us to another key question: what will Putin do next?
It will be difficult to find anyone here who knows what Vladimir Putin is thinking and planning. It all depended on the accuracy of the information he received from his military leaders and chief of intelligence.
But there are two things we do know: Russian presidents rarely admit mistakes. And he rarely looks back.
From what state media is saying, we are already seeing signs that the battlefield failures are being blamed on Western support for Ukraine.
“kyiv, backed by NATO, has launched a counterattack,” Russian state television said.
Another uncomfortable question has been raised for months: if he fails to achieve victory with conventional weapons, will President Putin resort to nuclear weapons?
A few days ago, Ukraine’s military chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi issued a warning: “There is an immediate threat of the use, under certain circumstances, of tactical nuclear weapons by the Russian armed forces.”
So far, there has been no sign of panic in the Kremlin. Russian state television seems more positive. He described the Russian missile strike on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure as a “turning point in special operations”.
As for the head of the Kremlin, last Saturday, when reports from Ukraine announced that Russia was losing territory, Vladimir Putin, visibly relaxed, inaugurated a new Ferris wheel in Moscow, the tallest in Europe.
The Russian president apparently still believes that, like Moscow’s new ferris wheel, his “special operations” will benefit him.