Humiliated by lightning Ukrainian gains on the battlefield, Russian President Vladimir Putin faces narrowing options as he seeks to turn the tide in his struggling nearly seven-month-old invasion.
Criticism in Russia of the sudden retreat in the northeast Kharkiv region over the last week has spread from nationalist bloggers to mainstream political figures. But its forces are still holding key positions in Ukraine’s Donbas region and putting up a fierce fight against its troops near Kherson in the south. There are signs the Kremlin may also be redeploying forces to protect Crimea, which Russia annexed as the main prize of its 2014 campaign, in the event Ukraine is able to break through its lines.
In the Kremlin, the shock at the sudden and striking battlefield reversals is increasingly giving way to a grim resignation and a determination to continue escalating the fight, stepping up strikes on Ukraine’s infrastructure deep behind the lines, according to people familiar with the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential matters.
Publicly, Russia denies aiming at civilian targets, which would be a violation of international law.
But after strikes on power plants plunged large areas of Ukraine into darkness Sunday, Russia stepped up the number of ships and submarines in the Black Sea carrying its Kalibr cruise missiles, Kyiv said Wednesday, reporting yet more attacks.
Still, even with its more numerous weapons, Russia is still plagued by a shortage of troops and low morale and is unlikely to be able to reverse what the United States calls a “shift in momentum” toward Kyiv with its steadily increasing supplies of arms from Washington and European allies. The Kremlin’s attempts to use disruptions of energy supplies to pressure Europe so far haven’t eroded support for Ukraine while Moscow’s vague hints at possible nuclear escalation ring hollow.
“We are moving in only one direction – forward and toward victory,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Wednesday during a surprise visit to the strategic city of Izyum, one of dozens of towns and villages that his forces recaptured last week.
Putin still doesn’t see the invasion as a “mistake,” according to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who spoke by phone with the Russian president Tuesday.
In Russia, public calls are growing for a more aggressive stance.
“There is a war going on, and we have no right to lose it,” Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said Tuesday. “We need a complete mobilization of the country.”
The Kremlin is continuing to rule out mass conscription, a move which risks triggering unrest, despite the Ukrainian counteroffensive’s success in recapturing more than 2,300 square miles of territory so far this month, dealing a decisive blow to the Russian bid to seize control of the east.
“The major problem for us right now is lack of manpower,” said Sergei Markov, a political consultant to the Kremlin. “The Russian army fighting in Ukraine is half the size of our Ukrainian opponents.”
But general mobilization likely wouldn’t solve the immediate problem because it would take months to train the new conscripts. And dropping the rhetorical pretext that the war is a “special military operation” would force ordinary Russians, many of whom have been largely isolated from it, to confront the true scale of the conflict.
Instead, Putin and his commanders are more likely to opt for a “crypto-mobilization,” including through a bill that would legalize making conscription demands by mail, rather than in person, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank that follows the war in daily reports. The goal would be to “promote recruitment into contract service via deception, coercion, or promised financial rewards,” the ISW said in its Tuesday report.
Pro-Kremlin pundits on state TV have admitted serious reversals after the Defense Ministry presented the hasty withdrawal of troops in the face of superior advancing Ukrainian forces as a redeployment. More than 20,000 residents in liberated areas in the Kharkiv region fled to Russia fearing reprisals by Ukrainian authorities, the Tass news service reported. Kyiv has said it will prosecute citizens who collaborated with occupation forces.
The loyalist Just Russia party Wednesday called for a closed session of parliament this week to hear a report on the battlefield situation from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Tass reported.
Some erstwhile critics have come around to back the Kremlin’s line again. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, a staunch Putin loyalist who over the weekend decried “mistakes” by the military in the operation, had nothing but praise. “Our generals, who’ve graduated from military academies, know well the subtleties of the way of war,” he wrote in Telegram.
“But if it were up to me, I would announce martial law in the whole country and use any weapon we have because today we’re fighting with the entire NATO bloc,” he said. The alliance isn’t conducting combat operations in Ukraine.
Dmitry Medvedev, a former president and now a senior Kremlin official known for his hot-tempered public statements, warned Tuesday that “the military campaign will move to another level.”
“Western countries will no longer be able to stay in their clean houses and apartments laughing at how masterfully they’re weakening Russia by proxy,” he wrote in Telegram. “Everything around them will be on fire. The earth will burn and concrete will melt.”