Loss of Kherson city shatters political goals of Putin’s war in Ukraine

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RIGA, Latvia – Ukrainian forces raising their flag in the city center of Kherson on Friday cemented Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most significant political and military defeat in his ill-fated eight-and-a-half-month war.

Kherson was the only Ukrainian regional capital that Russian forces managed to capture since the beginning of the invasion on February 24, and abandoning the city to Kiev shattered the illusion of control that Putin tried to create, organizing referendums and declaring illegal Kherson and three others. the regions – Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia – to be annexed and absorbed into Russia.

Although Russian forces still control the wider Kherson region, which is part of Putin’s coveted “land bridge” from mainland Russia to illegally annexed Crimea, the loss of the capital is a stunning blow after repeated pro-Kremlin statements that Russia would remain. in Kherson “forever”.

Moscow’s hardline pro-war faction, including nationalist military bloggers, called the city’s surrender a “betrayal” and a “black day.” Kherson, along with other illegally annexed regions, was written into the Russian constitution as part of Russia, after the parliament approved Putin’s annexation plans.

The flag of Kherson, together with those of the three other regions, was recently raised during a ceremony in the State Duma.

While other leaders may suffer serious repercussions, the Kremlin has for weeks carefully prepared the Russian population for the shock, distancing Putin from responsibility and trying to insulate him from the political fallout. However, there were signs that Putin would not entirely escape responsibility and that the Kherson defeat could raise opposition to the war, which has slowly grown amid repeated clashes on the battlefield.

“I think this will seriously complicate how the situation is seen in the country,” said an influential Moscow businessman, declining to be named because of possible consequences in a paranoid, increasingly totalitarian state. “It’s a serious loss.”

“For Russia, these losses have a sacred character,” the businessman added. “It’s a big blow to Putin’s image.”

The retreat from the city of Kherson was the latest in a series of military setbacks for Putin, including Russia’s failed attempt to capture Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, at the start of the war, and the fulmination of Ukraine of Russian forces from the northeastern region of Kharkiv in September.

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Territorial losses in Kharkiv led Putin to declare a disorderly conscription drive that prompted hundreds of thousands of men to flee Russia and sent tens of thousands of poorly trained troops to fight in Ukraine.

Many ordinary Russians also see Putin as an intelligent, tsar-like figure who loves his homeland but is perennially brought down by venal and incompetent officials, according to analysts, who said the government’s propaganda efforts The Kremlin appears to be working to minimize public concerns about Kherson. render

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But the many military failures in a pointless war are obvious to Moscow’s elite billionaires and state officials. Equally clear are the political difficulties created by Putin’s annexations, a flagrant violation of international law now exposed as an illusion.

Amid military withdrawals, misguided mobilization, deepening economic difficulties and mounting casualties, Moscow is increasingly signaling a readiness for talks with Ukraine. But negotiations are unlikely as Putin clings to his position that Kiev must accept his illegal seizures of territory.

Putin stepped aside on Wednesday as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the top commander of the Russian military in Ukraine, Colonel General Sergei Surovikin, conducted an awkward and robotic dialogue on state television Russia 24, formalizing the decision to leave Kherson “to save lives”.

When Shoigu approved the surrender, Putin visited the federal center for brain and neuro technologies to mark the 75th anniversary of the Federal Medical-Biological Agency. It was unclear whether the Russian president was totally out of touch or intentionally putting himself out of the reach of military decision-making.

Former Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov, speaking in an interview, described the surrender of Kherson as “Russia’s biggest geopolitical defeat since the collapse of the USSR”, noting Putin’s personal guarantee that the territory it would still be part of Russia.

“This is, of course, a huge blow to the mood of the population,” said Markov “It is a huge blow to the army – to its fighting spirit. It is a blow to the respect of President Putin and a blow for optimism.”

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Putin, however, remains protected by his coterie of security and military chiefs and has shown no outward sign of changing course.

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Political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently compared Putin’s paranoid, increasingly withdrawn behavior to Stalin in his later years, in which “all decisions are made by one person.”

But despite outrage among hardliners over the Kherson surrender, Kolesnikov said ordinary Russians seemed convinced, at least for now, by the military’s explanation that the surrender was necessary to save lives.

Putin’s popularity was “pretty solid,” he said, dropping to 77 percent from 83 percent during the flawed September mobilization, before rebounding to 79 percent last month.

A Russian state official said that the decision to surrender Kherson “means that there is still rational thought in the command. If the president is part of it, then there is hope, even if it is the ghost of a chance, which is ready for discussions”.

But the state official added that he did not think that Putin would not accept Ukraine’s conditions to completely withdraw Russian forces from Ukraine or even withdraw to pre-war lines, because this would be a “massive political coup” that might not survive.

Many members of the elite privately criticize Putin’s catastrophic war and resulting sanctions, underscoring the divide between Russia’s hard-line pro-war faction and business leaders and bureaucrats desperately hoping for an off-ramp and the end of global ostracism.

The businessman said Moscow was banking on Ukrainian resistance collapsing in the winter due to missile attacks on Ukrainian civilian energy facilities, although there is no evidence that this will happen.

Another prominent Russian businessman said he believed the Biden administration was pressuring Ukraine to start negotiations, citing comments Wednesday night by General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that winter presents “a window of opportunity” for the sides to start talks. Western officials, however, said it is Kiev’s decision.

Russians were tired of war, the second businessman said, and Putin’s position was “on the brink of catastrophe.”

“From a military point of view, there are a lot of dead bodies. I think he is ready for some kind of agreement,” said the second businessman, adding that Putin probably understood that a decisive military victory was impossible.

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The risks are growing for Putin, he said. “If he loses more territory, it would be a complete disgrace for him. It would be the end for him personally. It would also be the end for him politically.”

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Analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the political analysis group R. Politik, said that the feeling of betrayal among Russia’s “war party” does not pose a threat to Putin, who remains convinced that Ukraine will lose Western support next year, forcing Kyiv to capitulate. its terms.

Stanovaya said Putin only wanted to buy time until Western support for Ukraine disappears, while Kolesnikov dismissed Putin’s signals that he was ready to negotiate as “pure PR”, with the sides too far apart.

Stanovaya said Putin did not expect Russia to win the war through the military, but considered Ukraine a non-state that would eventually collapse.

The liberation of the city of Kherson fueled speculation about how far the Ukrainian army might advance before winter. Kiev forces have also made some gains in the east.

Markov, the former Kremlin adviser, said Putin is trying to hold on to the remaining annexed territories once the Russian military is reinforced with trained forces in the coming months. But it was not clear that Russia could arm them with the necessary weapons, he said.

“If he finds out that the Russian economy cannot provide these troops with military technology, then he will be forced to enter into peace negotiations,” Markov said, adding that Putin could also be forced to agree to withdraw into positions that Russia held before February. . 24 invasion. This includes the regional capitals of Luhansk and Donetsk, which Russian-backed separatists have controlled since 2014.

“The retreat to the February 24 line would be seen as a serious loss, but not capitulation,” he said. “It would be a very hard condition. But it is possible.”

Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia, and Belton reported from London.

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