As Russian troops were retreating in north-eastern Ukraine amid a fierce counteroffensive by Kyiv, residents in Moscow were celebrating the 875th anniversary of the city’s founding. Fireworks boomed and President Vladimir Putin inaugurated a huge Ferris wheel, a new transport link and sports arena.
The Russian capital’s festive holiday weekend stood in stark contrast to the military debacle unfolding in Ukraine that seemed to catch the Kremlin by surprise in the nearly seven-month-old war.
The rapid and reportedly chaotic troop withdrawal in the Kharkiv region, in which some weapons and ammunition were left behind, was a huge blow to Russian prestige.
“The Kremlin seems stunned, and has not yet come up with a plan as to how to try and spin this, so to a large extent the media are ignoring the bad news until they get a directive,” said Mark Galeotti, a professor at University College, London, who specialises in Russian security affairs.
He described the situation a “sign that the state’s control over the narrative is cracking.”
In a stark reflection of internal tensions provoked by Kyiv’s successes, the Kremlin-backed regional leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, openly criticised the Russian Defence Ministry for “mistakes” that made Ukrainian gains possible.
The criticism from Kadyrov, who has sent Chechen units to fight in Ukraine and repeatedly pushed for tougher action in bellicose language, has revealed new rifts over the course of action in Ukraine.
On another flank, liberal politician Boris Nadezhdin warned on broadcaster NTV that Russia won’t be able to defeat Ukraine, and he called for negotiations.
Nadezhdin’s statement, made during a carefully orchestrated talk show, appeared to reflect widening doubts in some quarters of Russian officialdom about the future of the Ukraine operation and could be part of efforts to float possible policy shifts.
The Ukrainian blitz and the Kremlin’s failure to mount a quick response has infuriated Russian nationalist commentators and military bloggers, who chastised Defence Ministry brass for failing to foresee and fend off the counteroffensive.
Igor Strelkov, a Russian officer who led Moscow-backed forces in the early months of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine after it erupted in 2014, denounced top Russian military officials as “morons” for underestimating Kyiv.
Strelkov pointed out that a sizable Russian force blunted Ukrainian attacks in late August and early September in the country’s south. But he said the number of troops in the Kharkiv region was woefully insufficient to handle a counteroffensive.
Ukraine has conducted a broad mobilisation with a goal to reach an active military of 1 million fighters, but Russia has continued to rely on a limited contingent of volunteers, fearing that a mass mobilisation could fuel broad discontent and cause political instability.
Russia has not said how many of its troops are involved in the war, but Western estimates at its start put the invading force at up to 200,000. Western observers said the recruitment of new volunteers and the use of private military contractors failed to compensate for the heavy losses.
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