Bad news from the Donbas, the region that covers most of eastern Ukraine, continues to make its way back to Russia. Even a pro-Kremlin Telegram channel recently posted news about the renewed Ukrainian attack on the Russian-occupied city of Lyman.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine is ubiquitous in the Russian mainstream media.
“Desperate fighting continues at the front of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine,” prominent Russian newscaster Dmitri Kiselev began his weekly news show on Sunday. “Last week was probably one of the worst yet.”
At the same time, the Russian Defense Ministry has announced that thousands of Ukrainian fighters have been wounded and killed. He called the large-scale withdrawal of Russia around Kharkov a successful regrouping operation.
But pundits on some of the country’s biggest political talk shows — broadcast in prime time and watched by millions across Russia — don’t believe in this version of events.
Surprising criticism of live TV
Karen Shakhnasarov, the director general of Russia’s largest film studio, Mosfilm, said: “We have to admit that we suffered a defeat in the Kharkov area. We have to admit it! Because defeat is meaningful if you admit it and conclude pulls out of it.”
A video circulated on Twitter by NTV, a state television channel, in which a former politician declared that the war could not be won.
“We are now at the point where we have to understand that it is absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine with the means and colonial war methods with which Russia is trying to fight,” said Boris Nadezhdin, a former Russian parliamentarian.
“The Russian army is fighting a strong army that is fully supported in an economic and technological sense by the most powerful countries.”
Sparking new discussions
The call for a massive mobilization of the Russian population to join the army is getting louder. On Tuesday, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov spoke to the Russian House of Commons and said the special military operation had escalated into a full-scale war.
“War and special operations are radically different,” he said. “A special military operation can be terminated just like that. But you can’t just stop a war, even if you wanted to. You have to go all out for it.’
“War has only two outcomes: victory or defeat.”
The Kremlin quickly rejected all demands for a full mobilization, with President Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying this is not currently on the agenda.
Mobilization probably very unpopular
Russia expert Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at Britain’s UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, said even partial mobilization is a “big deal.”
“First of all, it would mean that the war is not going according to plan.”
“And secondly, it will alarm many people for whom the war is still a long way off,” he added. Until now, the war has been waged by professional soldiers, who are largely ethnically non-Russian. A mass mobilization would attract many more ordinary Russian families.
“If you go to a mobilization, you get the Russians dragged into the big cities, and you get a lot of wives, daughters, mothers and girlfriends who are very concerned about what’s going to happen.”
The Russian government wants to project an image of normality in everyday life despite the war in Ukraine
But the Russian military is still desperately short of personnel. This prevents soldiers from being rotated from the front lines to rest.
At the same time, professional soldiers refuse to renew whose contracts are expiring. To solve such manpower problems, right-wing propagandists have been calling for a mobilization for months.
Until now, their calls in the Kremlin have fallen on deaf ears.
Winter mobilization unlikely
Galeotti believes a mobilization is possible, but currently unlikely.
“It takes about three months from the time you announce the mobilization to the point where you have troops, maybe more than 100,000, that are actually available,” he says.
In three months, it would be the middle of winter when offensive operations are most difficult, Galeotti said.
“I think it’s more likely that if we see a mobilization it will be later so that they have the strength for a spring offensive, or more likely, to resist a Ukrainian spring offensive.”
But the word mobilization is starting to gain traction. Despite criticism of the military, the general tone in the media remains patriotic. It is possible that the Russian public is being prepared for the next escalation in the war.
Edited by: Kate Hairsine, Sonya Diehn