by Professor Mark Galeotti who is the author of Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, to be published by Bloomsbury on November 10
Ukraine’s recent dramatic successes are a challenge for Russia’s generals. Even more serious, though, is the challenge facing Vladimir Putin.
A man who tends to balk at making tough decisions finds himself confronted with a range of unpalatable options, and seems not to know what to do.
Ukraine undoubtedly outfought and outthought the Russians on the Kharkiv front. Yet the eye-catching tales of troops fleeing, leaving plates of food behind in their rush, are not the whole story. While there was undoubtedly panic on the part of some soldiers, in the circumstances a headlong retreat was sensible: it was that or be outflanked and likely captured.
The real failure did not belong to the men on the ground, who in some places were outnumbered eight to one. It was in Moscow that decisions were taken that left the front woefully undefended in the first place, even though for a fortnight there had been reporting of a Ukrainian build-up.
Given the degree to which he himself seems to have been directly involved in operational decision-making, something that the Kremlin’s own propaganda machine has been hyping, then for all the undoubted failures of Russian intelligence, this is very much Putin’s defeat. The obvious comparison is a devastating one.
Tsar Nicholas II foolishly took on the mantle of commander-in-chief soon after the start of the First World War, thinking the glow of victories would rekindle his faded legitimacy. Instead, he became associated with defeat after defeat in a war Russia could not win. Today the eagerness with which Putin — a man with no meaningful military experience beyond some cursory reserve officer training at university — asserted himself as the architect of the invasion of Ukraine is coming back to haunt him too.
There is a spiteful and spirited community of Russian ultra-hawks, especially within the social media “milblogger” [bloggers, often ex-military, focusing on the war] community, whom one would have expected to be up in arms, ranging from Igor Girkin, one of the first insurgent commanders in the Donbas in 2014 under the nom de guerre “Strelkov”, through to “Reverse Side of the Medal”, a mouthpiece for members of the Wagner mercenary group.
They have from the first been critical not of the war, but of what they (with reason) see as its amateurish and incompetent prosecution. They are demanding everything from a purge of the high command (including the defence minister Sergei Shoigu) to mass mobilisation, even the use of nuclear weapons.
But they have been saying this almost from the start of the war, and have relatively little political traction. What is different now is the emergence of cautious criticism on state TV and in the political mainstream. There is no consensus as to what should be done, but a growing consensus that something needs to change.
A sign of the times was that Ramzan Kadyrov, volatile despot of the Chechen region, acknowledged that “it’s a hell of a situation” and warned that if there was no change in strategy, “I will have to go to the leadership of the Ministry of Defence and the country to explain the situation to them.” One should never take Kadyrov’s statements at face value, but the way the Kremlin quickly and publicly countered that Putin was too busy to meet him suggests he struck a nerve.
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President Zelensky with Ukrainian troops who helped to recapture the city of Izyum last week REX FEATURES