The loss of the city of Kherson shatters the political aims of Putin’s war in Ukraine

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RIGA, Latvia — Ukrainian forces raising their flag in the center of the city of Kherson on Friday cemented Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most significant political and military defeat in his ill-fated 8.5-month war.

Kherson was the only Ukrainian regional capital that Russian forces had managed to capture since the invasion began on February 24, and the abandonment of the city to Kyiv shattered the illusion of control that Putin tried to create by organizing referendums and illegally declaring Kherson and three other regions – Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia – to be annexed and absorbed by Russia.

Although Russian forces still control the wider Kherson region, part of Putin’s coveted “land bridge” between mainland Russia and illegally annexed Crimea, the loss of the capital is a blow after repeated and vocal statements by pro-Kremlin figures that Russia would stay in Kherson “forever”.

Moscow‘s radical pro-war faction, including military nationalist bloggers, called the city’s surrender a “treason” and a “dark day”. Kherson, along with the other illegally annexed regions, was enshrined in the Russian constitution as part of Russia, after parliament confirmed Putin’s annexation plans.

Kherson’s flag, along with those of the other three regions, was raised recently in a ceremony at the State Duma.

While other leaders could face serious repercussions, the Kremlin has for weeks carefully prepared the Russian population for the shock, ridding Putin of any responsibility and trying to insulate him from the political fallout. Still, there were signs that Putin would not entirely shirk responsibility and that the defeat at Kherson could stoke opposition to the war, which has been slowly rising amid repeated battlefield setbacks.

“I think it will seriously complicate the way the situation is perceived inside the country,” said an influential Moscow businessman, declining to be named because of the possible consequences in a paranoid state and increasingly totalitarian. “It’s a serious loss.”

“For Russia, these losses have a sacred character,” added the businessman. “It’s a blow to Putin’s image.”

The withdrawal from the city of Kherson was the latest in a series of military meltdowns for Putin, including Russia’s failed attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital Kyiv at the start of the war, and the rout lightning strike of Russian forces from the northeastern region of Kharkiv in September.

Territorial losses in Kharkiv led Putin to declare a disorderly conscription campaign that drove hundreds of thousands of men to flee Russia and sent tens of thousands of poorly trained soldiers to fight in Ukraine.

Many ordinary Russians still see Putin as a smart, czar-like figure who loves his homeland but is perpetually let down by venal and incompetent officials, according to analysts, who said the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts had apparently worked to minimize public concern about Kherson. abandonment.

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But the many military failures in a pointless war are obvious to Moscow’s billionaires and state officials. Equally clear are the political difficulties created by Putin’s annexations, a flagrant violation of international law now exposed as an illusion.

Amid military retreats, failed mobilization, deepening economic hardship and mounting casualties, Moscow is increasingly signaling that it is ready to start talks with Ukraine. But negotiations are unlikely as long as Putin clings to his position that Kyiv must accept his illegal seizures of territory.

Putin stayed on the sidelines on Wednesday as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army in Ukraine, Colonel General Sergei Surovikin conducted an awkward and robotic dialogue on television. State Russia 24, formalizing the decision to abandon Kherson “to save lives”.

As Shoigu endorsed the surrender, Putin visited the Federal Brain and Neurology Technology Center to mark the 75th anniversary of the Federal Medical and Biological Agency. It was unclear whether the Russian president was totally out of touch or whether he had intentionally put himself outside the reach of the military decision.

Former Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov, speaking in an interview, described the surrender of Kherson as “Russia’s biggest geopolitical defeat since the collapse of the USSR”, noting Putin’s personal guarantee that the territory would still be part of Russia.

“This is, of course, a blow to the mood of the people,” Markov said. “It’s a blow to the army – to its fighting spirit. It’s a blow to respect for President Putin and a blow to optimism.

Putin, however, remains protected by his coterie of security and military leaders and has shown no outward signs of changing course.

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Political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently compared Putin’s increasingly closed and paranoid behavior to that of Stalin in his later years, when “all decisions are made by one person”.

But, despite hardliners’ outrage over Kherson’s surrender, Kolesnikov said ordinary Russians seemed convinced, at least for now, by the military’s explanation that surrender was necessary. to save lives.

Putin’s popularity was “pretty solid”, he said, rising from 83% to 77% during September’s failed mobilization, before rising to 79% last month.

A Russian state official said the decision to return Kherson “means that there is still rational thinking in the command. If the president is among them, then there is hope, although the ghost luckily, that he is ready for talks.

But the state official added that he did not think Putin would not agree to Ukraine’s terms to completely withdraw Russian forces from Ukraine or even retreat to pre-war lines, because it would be a “massive political coup” that he might not survive.

Many members of the elite privately criticize Putin’s catastrophic war and resulting sanctions, pointing to the split between Russia’s pro-war hardline faction and corporate executives and bureaucrats desperately hoping for an exit and end of global ostracism.

The businessman said Moscow was banking on the collapse of Ukrainian resistance in the winter due to missile strikes on Ukrainian civilian energy facilities, although there is no evidence that this will happen.

Another prominent Russian businessman said he believes the Biden administration is pressing Ukraine to enter into negotiations, citing comments Wednesday night from Chief of State Chairman General Mark A. Milley. major, that winter presents “a window of opportunity” for the parties to begin talks. Western officials, however, said it was Kyiv’s decision.

Russians were war-weary, the second businessman said, and Putin’s position was “on the brink of disaster”.

“From a military point of view, there are a lot of corpses. I think he’s ready for some sort of deal,” the second businessman said, adding that Putin probably realized a decisive military victory was impossible.

The risks are mounting for Putin, he said. “If he loses any more territory, it would be a total shame for him. It would be the end for him personally. It would also be the end for him politically.

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Analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political analysis group R. Politik, said the sense of betrayal within Russia’s “war party” posed no threat to Putin, who remains convinced that Ukraine will lose the Western support next year, forcing Kyiv to capitulate to its terms.

Stanovaya said Putin simply wanted to buy time until Western support for Ukraine faded, while Kolesnikov dismissed signals from Putin that he was ready to negotiate as “pure public relations”, with parts too far apart.

Stanovaya said Putin did not expect Russia to win the war by military means, but viewed Ukraine as a non-state that would eventually collapse.

The liberation of the city of Kherson fueled speculation that the Ukrainian army would advance before winter. Kyiv forces also made some gains in the east.

Markov, the former Kremlin adviser, said Putin would try to hold on to the remaining annexed territories, once the Russian military is reinforced with trained forces in the coming months. But it was not clear that Russia could arm them with the necessary weapons, he said.

“If he finds out that the Russian economy cannot provide military technology to these troops, then he will be forced to start negotiations for peace,” Markov said, adding that Putin may even be forced to agree to withdraw to the positions that Russia occupied before February. 24 invasion. This includes the regional capitals of Lugansk and Donetsk, which Russian-backed separatists have controlled since 2014.

“The withdrawal to the February 24 line would be considered a serious loss but not a capitulation,” he said. “It would be a very difficult condition. But it is possible. »

Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia, and Belton reported from London.

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