Putin’s Russia struggles to respond to Ukraine blitz


As Russian forces retreated into northeastern Ukraine amid a fierce counter-offensive against Kiev, the Muscovites celebrated the 875th anniversary of the city’s founding. The fireworks boomed and President Vladimir Putin opened a huge Ferris wheel, a new transport link and a sports arena.

The Russian capital’s festive holiday weekend contrasted sharply with the military debacle unfolding in Ukraine that seemed to surprise the Kremlin in the nearly 7-month-old war.

The rapid and reportedly chaotic withdrawal of troops in the Kharkov region, leaving some weapons and ammunition behind, was a huge blow to Russian prestige. It was the worst military defeat in Ukraine since Moscow withdrew its troops from areas near Kiev after failing to capture the capital early in the invasion.

While attending the holiday season, including the inauguration of the Ferris wheel – bigger than the iconic London Eye and now Europe’s largest such amusement ride – Putin said nothing about the key moment in Ukraine.

Indeed, the Ukrainian counter-offensive seems to have left the Kremlin struggling with an answer.

The Defense Ministry said the troop withdrawal was intended to bolster Russian forces in the Donbas, a somewhat weak excuse given that the Russian-occupied areas in the Kharkiv region provided an important vantage point for Moscow’s operations in the region. Donetsk in the south.

The ministry has not given any details about the withdrawal, but it released a map on Sunday showing Russian troops being driven back along a narrow swath of land on the border with Russia – a tacit acknowledgment of large Ukrainian gains.

Russian state television and other government-controlled media followed suit, avoiding direct mention of the retreat, praising the performance of Russian troops in separate battle episodes.

A Defense Ministry video showed a Russian attack helicopter attacking Ukrainian forces attempting to cross the Oskil River in a previously peaceful part of the Kharkiv region, in recognition of the wide scale of the ongoing Ukrainian attack.

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Many in Russia blamed Western weapons and combatants for the setbacks. “Not Ukraine, but all of NATO is fighting us,” wrote Alexander Kots, war correspondent for the pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

The new Ukrainian blitz, which boosted the country’s morale as the war ended for 200 days on Sunday, could pave the way for further gains in the east and elsewhere.

But it could also lead to an even more violent response from Moscow, leading to a new and dangerous escalation in hostilities. On Sunday evening, Russian missiles hit key Ukrainian infrastructure targets, cutting power in several regions.

“The Kremlin seems baffled and hasn’t come up with a plan to try to twist this, so the media is largely ignoring the bad news until they get a directive,” said Mark Galeotti, a professor at University College, London, who specializes in Russian security affairs. .

He described the situation as a “sign that the state’s control over the story is cracking”.

In a stark reflection of the internal tensions caused by Kiev’s successes, Kremlin-backed Chechnya regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov openly criticized the Russian Defense Ministry for “mistakes” that enabled Ukrainian gains.

The criticism of Kadyrov, who has sent Chechen units to fight in Ukraine and repeatedly urged tougher action in bellicose language, has exposed new rifts in the course of action in Ukraine.

On another flank, liberal politician Boris Nadezhdin warned on NTV that Russia will not be able to defeat Ukraine, and he called for negotiations.

Nadezhdin’s statement, made during a carefully orchestrated talk show, seemed to indicate growing doubts in some circles of the Russian government about the future of the operation in Ukraine and could be part of efforts to encourage potential policy shifts.

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The Ukrainian blitz and the Kremlin’s failure to react quickly has enraged Russian nationalist commentators and military bloggers, who rebuked the Defense Ministry army for failing to foresee and fend off the counter-offensive.

Igor Strelkov, a Russian officer who led Moscow-backed forces in the early months of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine after the 2014 eruption, labeled Russian military officials “idiots” for underestimating Kiev.

Strelkov pointed out that a significant Russian force is blunting Ukrainian attacks in the south of the country in late August and early September. But he said the number of troops in the Kharkov region was woefully insufficient to handle a counter-offensive.

“It turned out that the enemy is capable of simultaneously launching large-scale offensives on several fronts, including those where we had only a thin array of outposts in one echelon with even tactical reserves missing,” Strelkov said.

He warned that Ukraine could launch another offensive in the Donetsk region south of Mariupol. The city on the Sea of ​​Azov fell in May after nearly three months of fierce fighting, giving Russia a long-coveted land corridor from the border to the Crimean peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014.

“With the initiative, strong fighting spirit and powerful groups of attack forces, the enemy is unlikely to give our forces time to regroup,” Strelkov said, noting that Ukraine will try to take advantage of the few weeks of good weather remaining before the autumn rains are going to rain. make maneuvering more difficult.

Many military bloggers criticized the Kremlin for not acting more vigorously and stubbornly trying to win what Moscow calls a “special military operation” with a limited force smaller than Ukraine’s.

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Ukraine has carried out a broad mobilization with the aim of reaching an active army of 1 million fighters, but Russia has continued to rely on a limited contingent of volunteers, fearing that a mass mobilization could fuel widespread discontent and cause political instability.

Russia has not said how many of its troops are involved in the war, but Western estimates put the invading force at 200,000 in the beginning. Western observers said the recruitment of new volunteers and the use of private military contractors could not compensate for the heavy losses.

Although Moscow has reported no losses of its own since March, when it said 1,351 soldiers had been killed in the first month of the war, Western estimates put the toll at 25,000 dead, with the wounded, captured and deserters adding to the total Russian losses. than 80,000.

Many pro-Moscow military bloggers also wondered why Russia has failed to build Ukrainian power plants, communications facilities and bridges across the Dnieper River, which provide a passageway for Western weapons, fuel and other supplies to the front lines. destroy. They say Russian rocket attacks on railway facilities and power plants have been sporadic and insufficient to cause lasting damage.

Sunday night’s barrage of rockets on Ukrainian power plants seemed to answer those questions in a clear signal that Moscow could step up attacks on vital infrastructure. Ukrainian authorities said on Monday power was restored quickly in most areas.

Strelkov and other nationalist commentators are pushing for even stronger blows.

“It was necessary to attack the critical infrastructure of Ukraine from the first day of the operation,” Strelkov said on his messaging app channel. “Power plant strikes will be very helpful in winning the war.”


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