Putin’s options narrow after battlefield rout of Ukraine

Ukrainian paratroopers drive the vehicle with the Ukrainian flag on the pantone bridge crossing the Siverskiy-Donets river in the recently recaptured region of Izium, Ukraine, Wednesday, September 14, 2022. AP Photo/Evgeny Maloletka

Humbled by Ukraine’s meteoric gains on the battlefield, Russian President Vladimir Putin faces increasingly limited options as he seeks to turn the tide of his nearly seven-month-old embattled invasion.

Criticism in Russia of the sudden setback in the northeast Kharkiv region over the past week has spread from nationalist bloggers to mainstream political figures. But his forces still hold key positions in Ukraine’s Donbass region and are fighting a fierce fight against his troops near Kherson in the south. There are signs that the Kremlin could also redeploy forces to protect Crimea, which Russia annexed as the main prize in its 2014 campaign, in case Ukraine is able to break through its lines.

In the Kremlin, the shock of sudden and startling battlefield reversals is increasingly giving way to grim resignation and determination to continue the escalation of the fight, stepping up strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure deep behind the lines, according to people close to the situation who spoke. on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential matters.

Publicly, Russia denies having targeted civilian targets, which would be a violation of international law.

But after strikes on power plants plunged large areas of Ukraine into darkness on Sunday, Russia fired missiles at parts of the water system in Kryvyi Rih on Wednesday evening, causing severe damage and destruction. flooding in a town behind the front lines, Ukraine said.

Yet even with its more weapons, Russia is still plagued by troop shortages and low morale and is unlikely to be able to reverse what the United States calls a “shift in leadership.” ‘momentum’ towards Kyiv with its ever-increasing arms shipments from Washington. and European allies. The Kremlin’s attempts to use energy supply disruptions to pressure Europe have so far failed to erode support for Ukraine, while Moscow’s vague hints of a possible nuclear escalation ring a bell. hollow.

“We are moving in one direction – forward and towards victory,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Wednesday during a surprise visit to the strategic town of Izyum, one of dozens of towns and villages that his strength resumed last week.

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Destroyed and damaged houses after the Russian attack on a civilian neighborhood in the recently recaptured area of ​​Izium, Ukraine, Wednesday, September 14, 2022. AP Photo/Evgeny Maloletka

Putin still does not consider the invasion a “mistake”, according to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who spoke by telephone with the Russian president on Tuesday.

Moscow’s priority now is to prevent Ukraine from making substantial gains in the south and east over the next few weeks, restoring a stalemate on the battlefield by winter, according to Alexander Borodai, a Russian lawmaker who leads a force of volunteer fighters and briefly served as leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014.

“We suffered a psychological defeat but the Ukrainians are not going to find it easy,” he said. Reinforcements are strengthening Russian defenses in Kherson and the army is continuing its offensive in Donbass even though it lost a key supply route after the Ukrainian advance, he said by telephone.

Inside Russia, there are growing public calls for a more aggressive stance.

“There is a war going on, and we have no right to lose it,” Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said on Tuesday. “We need a full mobilization of the country.”

The Kremlin continues to rule out mass conscription, a move that risks sparking unrest, despite Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in retaking more than 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 miles) of territory so far this month- here, dealing a decisive blow to the Russian attempt to seize control of the East.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting on economic issues via teleconference in Moscow, Russia, Monday, September 12, 2022. Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin swimming pool photo via AP

“The major problem for us at the moment is the lack of manpower,” said Kremlin political consultant Sergei Markov. “The Russian army fighting in Ukraine is half the size of our Ukrainian adversaries.”

But general mobilization would probably not solve the immediate problem because it would take months to train the new conscripts. And abandoning the rhetorical pretense that the war is a “special military operation” would force ordinary Russians, many of whom have been largely isolated from it, to confront the true scale of the conflict.

Instead, Putin and his commanders are more likely to opt for “crypto-mobilization,” including through a bill that would legalize conscription requests by mail, rather than in person, according to the report. ‘Institute for the Study of War, an American thinker. tank that follows the war in the daily reports. The aim would be to “promote recruitment into contract service through deception, coercion or promised financial rewards,” the ISW said in its Tuesday report.

Pro-Kremlin pundits on state television have admitted serious reversals after the Defense Ministry portrayed the hasty troop withdrawal in the face of superior advancing Ukrainian forces as a redeployment. More than 20,000 residents of the liberated areas of the Kharkiv region have fled to Russia for fear of reprisals from the Ukrainian authorities, the Tass news service reported. Kyiv said it will prosecute citizens who collaborated with the occupying forces.

The loyalist Just Russia party on Wednesday called for a closed session of parliament this week to hear a report on the situation on the battlefield from Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Tass reported.

Some former critics have returned to again support the Kremlin line. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, a staunch Putin loyalist who over the weekend denounced the army’s “mistakes” in the operation, had nothing but praise. “Our generals, graduates of military academies, are well versed in the intricacies of how to wage war,” he wrote in Telegram.

“But if it were up to me, I would announce martial law across the country and use all the weapons we have because today we are fighting with the whole NATO bloc,” did he declare. The alliance does not conduct combat operations in Ukraine.

Dmitry Medvedev, a former president and now a senior Kremlin official known for his angry public statements, warned on Tuesday that “the military campaign will move to another level.”

“Western countries will no longer be able to sit in their clean homes and apartments laughing at how they are masterfully weakening Russia by proxy,” he wrote in Telegram. “Everything around them will be on fire. The earth will burn and the concrete will melt.

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