With Ukraine Retreats And Restless Russians, These Are Bad Days For Putin
They’re coming at Vladimir Putin from the left, what there is of it, anyway, and the right and above and below for that matter. Even before the huge losses Russia suffered over the weekend – experts now say Russia lost 3,400 square miles of Ukraine it had held since close to the beginning of the war – seven Russian lawmakers in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg demanded that Putin be charged with high treason in a letter they sent to the State Duma, the lower chamber in Russia’s government. The letter claimed that Putin’s war in Ukraine had compromised Russia’s security, caused NATO’s expansion into Finland and Sweden, damaged the country’s economy, and strengthened Ukraine by causing an infusion of military aid into the country from western nations.
The letter, sent to five political factions in the Duma and to the Russian Security Council, didn’t get very far. The seven lawmakers were quickly summoned to the St. Petersburg police station and charged with discrediting the Russian military, a law Putin passed in March after he ordered the invasion of Ukraine.
Sure, it’s not much, but it’s a chink in the heretofore impenetrable armor of the Russian President. Yesterday, Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov criticized the Russian military after Ukrainian forces swept the Russian army from a huge swath of territory in Ukraine’s northeast. "They have made mistakes and I think they will draw the necessary conclusions," Kadyrov said on his Telegram channel, the Russian equivalent of Twitter. "If today or tomorrow no changes in strategy are made, I will be forced to speak with the leadership of the Defense Ministry and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground to them," Kadyrov added. That’s about as close to real criticism as it gets in Russia, especially from a man described as a “key ally” of the Russian president.
Chechnya has a significant number of its citizens in the Russian military on the front lines of the war in Ukraine. Kadyrov was appointed as leader of Chechnya by Putin in 2007.
Putin is appearing increasingly tone-deaf to the combat losses being suffered by the Russian military and to the political consequences of the avalanche of body-bags that have been shipped back home. On Saturday, as Ukraine overran key military strongholds in the towns of Kupyansk and Izyum, Putin was in a park in central Moscow celebrating the opening of a gigantic new Ferris wheel which he trumpeted as being larger than the one in London.
Right-wing Russian social media exploded in fury at the contrast between Putin’s merry-making in Moscow and the savage battles being fought by his army in Ukraine. “You’re throwing a billion-ruble party,” one infuriated blogger posted on Saturday. “What is wrong with you? Not at the time of such a horrible failure.” The Washington Post went on to report that the blogger claimed the Russian Army was lacking such basic military equipment as first aid kits, flak jackets, night vision goggles, and drones. “The authorities in Moscow carried on with their festive weekend, with fireworks and state television showing hundreds lined up to ride the new, 460-foot-tall Ferris wheel,” the Post reported.
The Russian media, much of it state-owned, has continued to push the fiction that the Kremlin's “special military operation” in Ukraine is going swimmingly. But back at home, and sometimes from soldiers on the front lines themselves, on the social media platform Telegram, opposition to the cluelessness being shown in Moscow has been growing, the Post reports.
Russian bloggers on Telegram, some of whom are embedded with Russian units in Ukraine and appear to be largely pro-Russian military, have fed their readers a steady diet of news from the front that conflicts with the lies being pushed by the government back home. According to the Post, they have claimed that “the Russian Defense Ministry is…underestimating the enemy and withholding bad news from the public. One of the bloggers, Yuri Podolyaka, who is from Ukraine but moved to Сrimea following its annexation in 2014, told his 2.3 million Telegram followers on Friday that if the military continued to play down its battlefield setbacks, Russians would ‘cease to trust the Ministry of Defense and soon the government as a whole.’”
“It’s time to punish the commanders who allowed these kinds of things,” one pro-Russian blogger from eastern Ukraine said last week, as Ukrainian forces massed across northeastern Ukraine preparing for their offensive. He went on to claim in a video posted on Telegram that Russian forces did not even put up a defense as Ukrainian forces moved on Balakliya and other Ukrainian towns in that region.
That was last week. By Saturday Balakliya, Izyum, and other Russian-held towns had fallen.
This is not good for Putin. He can control Russian TV and print media, but he is showing signs of having completely lost control of the unregulated Telegram platform on which much of the negative news about the war is appearing. One Telegram poster on Saturday called Russia’s flight from the onslaught of the Ukrainian attack a “catastrophe,” the Post noted, pointing out that the retreat left Ukrainian citizens who had collaborated with the Russian military at the mercy of Ukraine’s army as it moved into captured towns.
Meanwhile, back in the west, experts and military officials in the U.S. and Europe were calling the Ukrainian offensive a turning point in the war. One U.S. military official told the Post, “The Russians are in trouble. The question will be how the Russians will react, but their weaknesses have been exposed and they don’t have great manpower reserves or equipment reserves.” He was echoing reports from the front lines in Ukraine that Russian forces had abandoned small arms, ammunition, artillery pieces, trucks and even tanks as they retreated in the face of the Ukrainian attack.
Military experts warn it’s too soon to say if Ukraine will be able to continue to exploit its gains, but the Ukrainian tactical victory over the weekend is the largest setback for Russia since they pulled out of areas around Kyiv in April and were forced to retreat back into Russia.
Russia still holds a large swath of Ukrainian territory in the east and across the south, connecting Russian territory to Crimea in a so-called land bridge. But Ukrainian forces were said to have made significant gains in areas around the port city of Kherson in the south, and by taking Izyum and the rail lines supplying Russian forces in the east and towards the south, Ukraine is making it more difficult for Russia to resupply its forces there.
Military experts have been lamenting the “static battlefront” across eastern Ukraine for months. But Ukraine’s army just gave Putin and those same western experts a lesson in military tactics they should have remembered, if they even knew it before. At West Point, they teach Plebes in first-year tactics classes that the army that moves first and most decisively and best concentrates its power according to its own strengths on the enemy’s weak points has the best chance of victory.
Ukraine proved that elemental tactical truth last weekend. Now we’ll see if they can turn a tactical victory into a strategic one and force Putin to recalculate what his chances are in Ukraine.
Not only the west, but Putin’s own people in Russia are watching what he does next, and a lot of them are showing that they are not happy with him at all right now.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
Reprinted with permission from Lucian Truscott Newsletter