After Russia’s chaotic retreats to Kherson – less than a week after Vladimir Putin illegally annexed the Ukrainian province alongside three others – the region’s Moscow-appointed governor, Kirill Stremousov, has sought to calm the mood .
Far from being a rout, the withdrawal was a tactical “regrouping” to “deal a retaliatory blow”, Stremousov said on Wednesday.
His comments – among the first public admissions of Russia’s retreats to Kherson – attempted to obscure what even many war supporters are now saying: the situation is the worst the Russian military has found itself in since the start. of the invasion seven months ago. .
“My friends, I know you are waiting for me to comment on the situation. But I really don’t know what to tell you. The retreat… is catastrophic,” Roman Saponkov, a prominent war correspondent, wrote on his Telegram channel, describing his despair over the withdrawal to Kherson.
The extent of Russia’s withdrawal remains uncertain at this time. During his overnight address on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said: “The Ukrainian army is making quite rapid and powerful movements in the south of our country. Henamed eight small towns of Kherson which had recently been taken over.
Asked by reporters on Wednesday whether there was a contradiction between Russia’s annexation rhetoric and the reality on the ground, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was none. none. The territories “will be with Russia forever and they will be returned”, he added.
However, such confidence could not be felt among pro-war military bloggers and journalists, an increasingly vocal group with frontline contacts and millions of readers who have taken to criticizing the Kremlin for its failure to reach her goals.
They paint a bleak picture of deteriorating Russian morale, blaming lack of rotation and army exhaustion for failures in southern Ukraine.
“I am being criticized for driving people into depression with my news… well, the weather is such, there will be no good news in the near future,” wrote Aleksandr Kots, a pro-Kremlin journalist who trip with the Russian army, on Tuesday.
“We don’t have enough people… fatigue has set in… there is no more strength to keep the territories won.”
On the day Putin announced his so-called “partial mobilization” last month, the contracts of soldiers fighting in Ukraine were also automatically extended indefinitely. This decision has deprived many of those who have been fighting since February of a way out of the war.
“We receive hundreds of requests every day from soldiers who want to find a way to cancel their contracts,” said a military lawyer who asked to speak anonymously for fear of breaking Russian laws that criminalize “false ” information about the army.
“Most of the soldiers had no idea they were going to Ukraine when the war started. They hoped to get out once their contracts expired. Now that’s just not possible anymore.
Russia’s surrender of Lyman, a strategically important town in the northern Donetsk region, had already drawn rare public criticism of senior military leaders from several senior officials.
“I don’t know what the Ministry of Defense reports [Putin]but in my opinion more drastic measures should be taken,” Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov wrote.
The Russian military sought to downplay Lyman’s Saturday retreat as a minor military setback in which it inflicted heavy casualties on Ukrainian troops in the fight for the city.
But according to a BBC News Russia investigation, one of Russia’s most elite military intelligence units suffered many casualties during the retreat. The 3rd Guards Spetsnaz Brigade has now lost up to three-quarters of its reconnaissance strength since the start of the war, according to the BBC service.
The latest military failures, seemingly too big to ignore, also spilled onto Russian television screens.
“Why are we advancing meter by meter when they are advancing village by village?” Olga Skabeyeva, the country’s main state television host, angrily asked Andrei Marochko, a Russian-appointed official in Luhansk, during a recent broadcast.
The Kremlin hopes that the first mobilization campaign announced last month can soon stem the losses.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that 200,000 troops had already been mobilized and were at 80 training grounds and six training centers across Russia.
The Defense Ministry also released smooth videos of recruits being trained by soldiers, alongside other footage showing them arriving in Russian-held areas of Luhansk where they were greeted by cheerful locals.
But a government propaganda campaign did not prevent the mobilization campaign from sparking chaos and anger across Russia. That anger grew after videos emerged showing dozens of men being subjected to poor conditions at training centers as they waited to be sent to Ukraine.
At least six recruits have died in training centers since the mobilization began, Pavel Chikov, a leading Russian human rights lawyer, said on Tuesday. One of the recruits allegedly committed suicide.
In arguably the most embarrassing mobilization video to date for the Kremlin, a group of mobilized soldiers from the Siberian region of Omsk is seen attractive to the authorities for the salary promised by the government for his participation in the war. “We are ready to go. But please help us, help our families,” one said.