By Steve Rosenberg
How the message has changed.
Right after Russia invaded Ukraine, TV talk show hosts here were confidently predicting that within days Russian troops would be marching through Kyiv.
That was nearly nine months ago.
This week the same presenters were grim faced as they announced the army’s “difficult decision” to withdraw Russian forces from Kherson – the only Ukrainian regional capital Russia had managed to capture and occupy since invading Ukraine on 24 February. Just six weeks ago, President Putin had claimed to have annexed Kherson region, along with three other Ukrainian territories, insisting that they would be part of Russia forever.
“I wanted our flag to be flying in Kyiv in March,” anchor man Vladimir Solovyov told viewers of his show Evening with Solovyov. “It was painful when our troops turned away from Kyiv and Chernihiv. But such are the laws of war…we are fighting Nato.”
That’s exactly how the Kremlin is trying to spin this: by blaming the West. The message from the Russian state media is that, in Ukraine, Russia is taking on the combined might of America, Britain, the EU and Nato. You name it, Russia’s fighting it. In other words, setbacks on the battlefield are not the Kremlin’s fault, but the handiwork of external enemies.
There’s another message, too: don’t criticise the Russian army or Russia’s president for what’s gone wrong in Ukraine. Instead, do your duty and rally round the flag.
It’s advice which, for now, prominent and powerful Russian voices seem to be following. The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of mercenary group Wagner, have been vocal critics of Russia’s military leadership. But on the withdrawal from Kherson, both have posted messages of support for the Russian Commander in Ukraine, General Surovikin, who had recommended the pull-back.
The same cannot be said of pro-war Russian military bloggers. They’ve been busy writing angry messages about the retreat, such as:
“I will never forget this murder of Russia hopes. This betrayal will be carved on my heart for centuries.” [‘Zastavny’]
“This is a massive geopolitical defeat for Putin and Russia…the defence ministry lost the trust of society long ago…now trust in the president will disappear.” [ ‘Zloi Zhurnalist’]
Not if the Kremlin can help it. It’s been trying hard to distance President Putin from the retreat, knowing that many here in Russia will view the withdrawal as a military setback and a blow to Russian prestige. Earlier this week it was the generals who made the announcement that Russian forces would be withdrawn from part of Kherson region. Russian TV showed Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu issuing the order, following consultations with General Surovikin. Vladimir Putin, the Commander in Chief, was nowhere to be seen.
The Defence Minister made the decision; I have nothing to add, said Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press secretary, on Friday. The military is in charge of this one thanks to the Kremlin. or at least making an effort.
However, the invasion of Ukraine was ordered by President Putin. He came up with the concept for the “special military operation.” It won’t be simple for him to remove himself from any aspect of it.
However, this threat to Vladimir Putin predates his withdrawal from Kherson. Events over the past nine months run the risk of altering how the president is viewed at home—not so much by the Russian public, but—and this is important—by the Russian elite, by those who surround him, and by those in positions of authority.
They have long regarded Mr. Putin as a brilliant tactician, someone who consistently succeeds, and as a victor. He has been viewed by them as the center of the system that they are a part of and that has been created around him.
However, “winning” has been scarce since February 24. The invasion by Vladimir Putin has not gone as planned. Not only has it caused death and destruction in Ukraine, but it has also caused his own army to suffer sizable military losses. He had stated that only “professional soldiers” would engage in combat, but thousands of Russian citizens were later enlisted to fight in the conflict. The financial costs have also been high for Russia.
Vladimir Putin was once referred to as “Mr. Stability” by the Kremlin.
Selling that is now much more difficult.