Putin’s Russia struggles to respond to Ukraine blitz

As Russian troops retreated into northeastern Ukraine amid a fierce counteroffensive from Kyiv, Muscovites celebrated the 875th anniversary of the city’s founding. Fireworks exploded and President Vladimir Putin inaugurated a Ferris wheel, a new transport link and a sports arena.

The festive weekend in the Russian capital stood in stark contrast to the military debacle unfolding in Ukraine which seemed to take the Kremlin by surprise in the nearly 7-month war.

The rapid and seemingly chaotic withdrawal of troops from the Kharkiv region, in which some weapons and ammunition were left behind, dealt a severe blow to Russian prestige. It was its biggest military defeat in Ukraine since Moscow withdrew its forces from areas near Kyiv after a failed attempt to seize the capital at the start of the invasion.

As he attended the holiday celebrations which included the unveiling of the Ferris wheel – larger than the iconic London Eye and now the largest such carousel in Europe – Putin said nothing about the key moment in Ukraine.

Indeed, the Ukrainian counteroffensive appears to have left the Kremlin scrambling for an answer.

The Defense Ministry said the troop withdrawal was aimed at bolstering Russian forces in Donbass, a somewhat weak excuse, given that Russian-controlled areas in the Kharkiv region provided a key vantage point for the Russians. operations from Moscow in the Donetsk region to the south.

The ministry did not provide details of the withdrawal, but it released a map on Sunday showing Russian troops being pushed back along a narrow strip of land on the border with Russia – a tacit admission of big gains Ukrainians.

Russian state television and other government-controlled media followed suit, avoiding direct mention of the retreat while praising the performance of Russian forces in individual combat episodes.

Defense Ministry video showed a Russian helicopter gunship attacking Ukrainian troops trying to cross the Oskil River in a previously calm part of the Kharkiv region, an acknowledgment of the scale of the ongoing Ukrainian attack.

Many in Russia blamed Western weapons and fighters for the setbacks. “It is not Ukraine but all of NATO that is fighting us,” wrote Alexander Kots, war correspondent for the pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Ukraine’s new blitz, which boosted the country’s morale as the war lasted 200 days on Sunday, could pave the way for further gains in the east and elsewhere.

But it could also potentially trigger an even more violent response from Moscow, leading to a new and dangerous escalation of hostilities. On Sunday evening, Russian missiles hit key Ukrainian infrastructure targets, knocking out power in several areas.

“The Kremlin seems stunned and hasn’t come up with a plan yet on how to try and spin this, so to a large extent the media ignore bad news until they get a directive,” he said. said Mark Galeotti, a professor at University College, London, who specializes in Russian security affairs.

He described the situation as a “sign that the state’s control over the narrative is cracking.”

In a stark reflection of the internal tensions caused by Kyiv’s successes, the Kremlin-backed Chechnya regional leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, openly criticized the Russian Defense Ministry for the “mistakes” that made the Ukrainian gains possible.

Critics of Kadyrov, who has sent Chechen units to fight in Ukraine and repeatedly pushed for tougher action in belligerent language, have exposed further divisions on Ukraine’s course of action.

On another flank, liberal politician Boris Nadezhdin warned on the NTV television channel that Russia would not be able to defeat Ukraine, and he called for negotiations.

Nadezhdin’s statement, made on a carefully orchestrated talk show, appears to reflect growing doubts in some quarters of the Russian administration about the future of the operation in Ukraine and could be part of efforts to propose new possible policy changes.

The Ukrainian blitz and the Kremlin’s inability to react quickly infuriated Russian nationalist commentators and military bloggers, who chastised senior Defense Ministry officials for failing to foresee and repel 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, has denounced senior Russian military officials as “morons” for undermining -estimated Kyiv.

Strelkov pointed out that a large Russian force blunted Ukrainian attacks in late August and early September in the south of the country. But he said the number of troops in the Kharkiv region was woefully insufficient to handle a counteroffensive.

“It turned out that the enemy is capable of simultaneously mounting large-scale offensives on several fronts, including the one where we had only a thin chain of outposts lined up in an echelon with even reserves missing tactics,” Strelkov said.

He warned that Ukraine could launch a new offensive in the Donetsk region south of Mariupol. The city on the Sea of ​​Azov fell in May after nearly three months of fierce battles, giving Russia a long-coveted land corridor from its border to the Crimean peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014.

“Having the initiative, a high fighting spirit and strong groups of strike forces, the enemy is unlikely to give our troops time to regroup,” Strelkov said, noting that Ukraine will try to take advantage of the few remaining weeks of good weather before the autumn rains. make the maneuver more difficult.

Many military bloggers have criticized the Kremlin for not taking stronger action and doggedly trying to win what Moscow calls a “special military operation” with a limited force smaller than Ukraine’s.

Ukraine led a large mobilization with the aim of reaching an active army of one million fighters, but Russia continued to rely on a limited contingent of volunteers, fearing that a mass mobilization would fuel widespread discontent and cause political instability.

Russia has not said how many of its troops are involved in the war, but early Western estimates put the invasion force at 200,000. Western observers said the recruitment of new volunteers and the use of pennies -Private military contractors failed to compensate for the heavy losses.

While Moscow has not reported its own casualties since March, when it said 1,351 troops were killed in the first month of the war, Western estimates put the toll at 25,000 dead, wounded, captured and deserters bringing the overall Russian losses to more. over 80,000.

Many pro-Moscow military bloggers have also wondered why Russia failed to destroy Ukrainian power plants, communications facilities and bridges over the Dnieper that are a conduit for weapons, fuel and other Western supplies to the front line. They say Russian missile strikes on railway facilities and power plants have been sporadic and insufficient to inflict lasting damage.

Sunday night’s missile barrage on Ukraine’s power plants appeared to answer those questions in an apparent signal that Moscow might step up its strikes on vital infrastructure. Ukrainian authorities said Monday that power was quickly restored to most areas.

Strelkov and other nationalist commentators call for even stronger blows.

“It was necessary to strike Ukraine’s critical infrastructure from day one of the operation,” Strelkov said on his messaging app channel. “Strikes on power stations will be very useful in winning the war.”

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