- Steve Rosenberg
- BBC editor in Russia
Russia’s main weekly state TV news program is normally expected to trumpet the government’s greatest successes.
However, the most recent Sunday edition of the television show opened with a rare admission.
“On the front lines of special operation [na Ucrânia]this has been the most difficult week so far,” said grim-looking anchor Dmitry Kiselev.
“It was particularly difficult on the Kharkiv front where, after an attack by enemy forces that outnumbered ours, the troops [russas] were forced to leave the cities they had previously liberated.”
Where it says “released”, read “taken”. The Moscow government occupied these areas months ago — but after a lightning counteroffensive by the Ukrainian army, the Russian military lost considerable territory in the north-east of the country.
Still, Russian state media are putting a brave face on the facts. Officially, what happened in the Kharkiv region is not being portrayed here as a “withdrawal”.
“The Ministry of Defense has dismissed the rumors that Russian troops fled in disgrace from Balakliya, Kupiansk and Izyum,” said the latest edition of the government newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “They didn’t run away. This was a pre-planned regrouping.”
In the tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, a military analyst presents a different view: “It is already clear that we underestimate the enemy. [As forças russas] they took a long time to react and collapse came… As a result, we suffered a defeat and tried to minimize losses by withdrawing our troops so that they would not be surrounded.”
This “defeat” sparked anger on pro-Russian social media channels and among “patriotic” Russian bloggers, who accused the military of making mistakes.
A similar speech was adopted by the powerful leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
“If today or tomorrow no change in strategy is made,” Kadyrov warned, “I will be forced to speak with the leadership of the Ministry of Defense and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground to them.”
It has been more than six months since Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the days that followed, Russian politicians, commentators and analysts on local TV predicted that the “special military operation” would end in a few days, that the Ukrainian people would hail Russian troops as liberators, and that Ukraine’s government would collapse as a house of cards.
But none of these predictions actually happened.
Instead, more than six months later, the Russian army has been losing ground.
Hence a key question: will all this have any political consequences for Vladimir Putin?
Putin has, for more than 20 years within the Russian elite, enjoyed a reputation as a winner for always managing to extricate himself from the most difficult situations — almost as if he were invincible.
He often resembles the famous illusionist Harry Houdini. Whatever knots or chains have tied him up, Putin seems able to escape each time.
But that changed after February 24th of this year.
The past six months suggest that President Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was a major miscalculation. Unable to secure a quick victory, Russia was mired in a long and bloody offensive and suffered a series of embarrassing defeats.
When an authoritarian leader’s aura of invincibility wears off, it can get him into trouble. Vladimir Putin knows Russian history — and it doesn’t usually end well for past leaders who fought wars and didn’t win them.
Defeat by Japan led to the first Russian Revolution of 1905. Military failures in World War I led to the Revolution of 1917 and the end of Tsarism.
Publicly, however, President Putin has no intention of ending up a loser.
On Monday (9/12), his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “The special military operation [da Rússia] continues and will continue until all initially set tasks are accomplished.”
And that brings us to the other key question: what will Putin do next?
It would be difficult to find anyone who knows what Vladimir Putin is thinking and planning. Much of that may depend on how accurate the information he is getting from military and intelligence chiefs.
But here are two things we do know: The Russian president rarely admits to making mistakes. And he doesn’t usually promote twists.
From what state media says, we are already seeing signs that the failures on the battlefield are being blamed on other countries’ support for Ukraine.
“Ukraine, backed by NATO, has launched a counter-offensive,” Russian state TV said.
There’s one more uncomfortable question that’s been in the background for months: If Putin doesn’t achieve victory through conventional weapons, will he turn to Russia’s nuclear arsenal?
Just a few days ago, Ukraine’s military chief, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, warned: “There is a direct threat from the use, under certain circumstances, of tactical nuclear weapons by the Russian armed forces.”
For now, there are no public signs of panic in the Russian government. State TV is sounding more positive and has described Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure as “a turning point in the special operation”.
In Moscow last Saturday — as reports surfaced that Russia was losing territory in Ukraine — a relaxed-looking Vladimir Putin inaugurated a new Ferris wheel — the tallest in Europe.
Russia’s president seems to believe that, like Moscow’s new attraction, “special operation” will still work in his favor.
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