Withdrawal from an important bridgehead in southeastern Ukraine is sold to the Russians as a military necessity. For the time being, the political consequences of the failure have reverberated with President Putin.
Vladimir Putin was also not impressed by the important events during the Russian war in Ukraine. When the Russian troops withdrew headlong from the Kharkiv region in September, he celebrated Moscow’s city festivities. On Wednesday evening, he honored with his presence the celebration of the centenary of the Federal Medical-Biological Agency, a regulator that became widely known only during the pandemic.
Shortly before that, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu issued an important order while appearing before television cameras: he accepted the proposal of General Sergei Surovikin, the commander-in-chief of the “special operation” in Ukraine, of troops from the regional capital of Kherson. and the entire occupied territory on the right to withdraw from the Dnieper. Putin seemed demonstrably unconcerned with the shame of giving up a strategically important bridgehead.
Russia’s credibility in jeopardy
Kherson was one of the few trumps that the Russian army won in nine months of war. What’s more, in late September, Putin incorporated the southeastern Ukrainian region, along with three other occupied territories, into the Russian Federation. “Russia forever” proclaimed posters all over the city. Kherson was only to be the beginning of a western thrust towards Mykolaiv, Odessa and the breakaway Moldavian region of Transnistria.
These dreams have long proved unattainable. And the withdrawal from Kherson was not really a surprise either. For weeks, war correspondents and military bloggers speculated on TV talk shows and Telegram channels. At the latest, when the – not really voluntary – evacuation of the civilian population began and the regional administration moved its headquarters, the abandonment of the right bank areas, including the city, seemed predictable.
This is also why the mood in the mentioned propaganda media was much more muted than in September. Instead of indignation, incomprehension and anger prevailed, despondency and disappointment. Concerns concern the war aims, which are now even more in question, and the threat to Crimea, but also Russia’s credibility in the occupied territories. There, propaganda spread the hope that the union with Russia would bring certainty and security. The example of Kherson now shows citizens how little the Kremlin’s word matters.
The worst critics are quiet
Propagandist Vladimir Solovyov tried to find calm and reasonable words. Even the two harshest critics of the military leadership, the head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov and the defunct head of the Wagner paramilitary group Yevgeny Prigozhin, praised Surovikin.
This is not surprising given that the two lobbied for his appointment. Overall, unlike September, the Kremlin may have deliberately set the stage for unpleasant news. Emphasizing, for example, that the real enemy of the war is NATO, plays an increasingly important role in discussions on television. Shortly before, the Medusa online portal also reported that the Kremlin had ordered the media to pay less attention to voices from the State Duma who were actually loyal but critical of the military.
Less cited should also be the eccentric deputy head of the occupation administration of Kherson, Kirill Stremouzov, who caused a sensation with esoteric statements about his love for Russia and to the end denied any Russian intention to withdraw. On Wednesday afternoon, news broke that Stremousov had died in a traffic accident. There were immediate rumors of the circumstances – some commentators considered this turn of events too obvious. That same evening, Putin awarded him a medal posthumously.
Little public interest in Kherson
The applied equanimity of many commentators and the staged performance of Shoigu and Surovikin should give rise to the legend that it was primarily a military decision. In doing so, they diverted attention from the political significance of the event and Putin’s responsibility for it. That should definitely work. The success of Russian politics and propaganda is that their consumers see almost every move by the regime as inevitable and accept it with resignation – regardless of whether they actually believe it or not.
Most Russians are not interested in Kherson as such. The integration of the region into the federation was not accompanied by any enthusiasm among the people. Shoigu and Surovikin’s feigned statement, which can hardly be surpassed in terms of cynicism, that the lives of members of the Russian military always have the highest priority, can hardly be taken at face value. But every senseless fight that is canceled is a relief to the relatives of reservists who have been drafted.
However, even propaganda cannot properly whitewash failure. It is likely to increase the desire in some parts of society for a quick end to the war, as polls have shown, and increase resentment at the upheavals it has brought in recent months. According to media reports, the Kremlin could also speculate about using the withdrawal from Kherson to demonstrate its willingness to act.
Putin has stayed away from the G-20 summit
It would primarily be a breathing space in the fighting, which Russia desperately needs. Hopes that something in this regard might emerge on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Bali were dashed by Putin’s decision to stay away from the event. The head of the Kremlin is clearly afraid of showing the world public.
The defeat at Kherson, which was painful for them, strengthened another part of the population in their belief that everything must be done at once for victory. According to the so-called patriotic telegram channels, Surovikin was announcing the next phase of the war. This requires a fundamental restructuring of the Russian economy and society. There will be no return to the world before February 24th. Some predicted a bleak future if the West managed to push the Russians back.