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As his troops retreat, Russian defense chief comes under fire at home

Oct. 6, 2022 Updated Thu., Oct. 6, 2022 at 9:15 p.m.

A Ukrainian serviceman sits atop a BMP infantry fighting vehicle in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, on Sunday amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  (Juan Barreto/AFP)
A Ukrainian serviceman sits atop a BMP infantry fighting vehicle in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, on Sunday amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Juan Barreto/AFP)
By Robyn Dixon Washington Post

RIGA, Latvia – Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu faced intensifying political pressure Thursday over a series of disorderly military retreats, as Russian state television anchors openly attacked the military command for Ukraine’s success in regaining territory in areas President Vladimir Putin claims to have annexed.

In Ukraine, the Russian military launched multiple rocket attacks on the city of Zaporizhzhia, the capital of one of four regions now illegally claimed by Russia. The rockets struck residential apartment blocks, city authorities said.

The city is not occupied by Russia, and the Kremlin has vowed to conquer parts of the allegedly annexed regions that it does not control. But in the days since Putin declared the seizure of the Ukrainian territories, in flagrant violation of international law, Russian troops have been retreating on two fronts – in Donetsk and Luhansk to the east, and in Mykolaiv and Kherson to the south.

The growing, strident criticism of the Russian military command is driven by Russian hard-line nationalists, some of whom have long borne a grudge against Shoigu, including Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group, and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, each of whom have their own loyal military forces fighting on the ground in Ukraine.

The calls for Shoigu’s dismissal telegraph his increasing vulnerability after a series of humiliating military failures in recent weeks, including Russia’s loss over the weekend of Lyman, a strategic transit hub in Donetsk, and its surrender last month of nearly all the territory in the northeast Kharkiv region that Russian forces had occupied for many months.

The criticism also signals the mounting domestic political problem the military setbacks, and a botched plan to mobilize thousands of new troops, now pose for Putin. Shoigu, 67, has served as defense minister for nearly a decade, but has been part of Putin’s leadership team since Putin was elevated to the presidency on Dec. 31, 1999. Until the war, Shoigu was often tipped as a potential Putin successor.

The rowdy public attacks have shattered the prohibition on criticizing the Russian military leadership seen earlier in the war, and underscore the rivalry and poor coordination between Russia’s disparate forces on the battlefield, where the operations of Prigozhin’s mercenary force have at times appeared to be at odds with the strategy and objectives of the traditional Russian military, according to analysts.

A series of videos circulating on pro-Kremlin telegram channels Thursday showed a group of several hundred Russian soldiers whose leaders complained that after being mobilized recently, they were kept in “cattle conditions,” forced to buy their own food and issued weapons that were decades old.

One soldier in the group had posted a video saying that his unit was told they would soon be sent to fight in Ukraine without training. Another waved a thermometer at the camera, shouting that many of the recruits were sick with fevers.

Russian state media outlet RIA Novosti reported Thursday that the unit of 299 soldiers would be sent for training in Mulino, Russia, quoting an official in the Western Military District, comments that appeared to confirm that the men in the videos were indeed mobilized soldiers. But other reports suggested that the videos could be a staged effort by Shoigu’s rivals to discredit the defense minister.

The video spread widely on social media after it was posted by a pro-Kremlin military blogger, Rybar, who has more than 900,000 subscribers.

Hard-line nationalist state television anchor Vladimir Solovyov launched a new attack on the military Thursday morning, without naming Shoigu. Solovyov said the reports of conditions for the mobilized soldiers shown in the videos “make one’s hair stand on end.”

“Lies, at all levels, should be punished. Now it’s time to tell the truth,” he declared Thursday on his YouTube channel, adding to the growing allegations on state television that the Russian military has misled the public about its failures in the Ukraine war while exaggerating its achievements.

“And finally, take action. Act!” Solovyov said, demanding that Russia take the enemy down. “Destroy, with firepower! Or it turns out that it doesn’t exist, like uniforms for mobilized soldiers.”

“What is the genius idea of the General Staff?” he continued, adding that time was against Russia in the war. “And what have you been doing in this time?”

One hard-line military blogger, former FSB officer Igor Girkin, who runs a Telegram channel that has repeatedly called for harsher military action against Ukraine, criticized the chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, and predicted that Shoigu would be dismissed.

The open attacks on the military in state media mean that the Ministry of Defense leadership “will finally answer for much of what it did (or rather did not do) before and during the war,” Girkin said.

“And that means someone will be demolished. And someone big,” Girkin added, referring directly to Shoigu. He used the insulting nickname “Plywood,” suggesting the Defense Minister’s weakness.

“Most likely, the main culprit of our brilliant regroupings will finally be recognized as Plywood,” he said. “There is no other way I can explain this sudden epiphany of the patented liars on TV.”

As Russia loses ground in its supposedly annexed territories, the Kremlin is trying to cement its political hold by forging ahead with administrative measures to absorb the regions.

Andrei Turchak, head of Putin’s United Russia party, announced Thursday that the party had opened branches in the illegally annexed regions, as authorities pressed ahead with other absorption measures, including issuing car registration plate codes for the four regions.

Those steps were taken despite new economic sanctions agreed upon by the European Union on Wednesday to punish Russia over the illegal territorial seizures.

The sanctions include bans on imports of Russian steel, precious metals and precious stones, further bans on exports of tech products to Russia, including products used in aviation, and an oil price cap for Russian seaborne crude deliveries to third countries. The sanctions also targeted individuals in the Russian Ministry of Defense and those who took part in organizing the illegal annexations.

Putin, speaking at the start of a meeting of senior Russian government officials on economic issues, acknowledged Thursday that some sectors of the Russian economy, particularly those reliant on exports in Europe, were under severe pressure because of sanctions.

“In turn, our exporters switch to other markets,” he said. “But this process, of course, is not fast. It takes time to build new cooperative and logistics chains.” Putin said that European countries that shunned Russian goods were forced to pay higher prices elsewhere as a result.

Putin claimed that Russian industrial production was “gradually recovering” in some of the industries hardest hit by sanctions, such as automobile production. But data show consumer demand was low and September retail sales were weak.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that Moscow would reroute oil exports “to countries that are ready for normal cooperation with us.”

The pressure on Shoigu comes after a series of Russian military commanders have been quietly dismissed from their posts, including Dmitry Bulgakov, a deputy defense minister, who was replaced last week by Mikhail Mizintsev, who led Russia’s brutal assault on Mariupol.

Additionally, the commander of the troubled Western Military Command, Alexander Zhuravlev, was last week replaced by Roman Berdnikov. Rumors about Zhuravlev’s dismissal had been circulating since June.

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