When our Global Grid series last convened — just last week — it was still fair to call the war in Ukraine a slog, a war of attrition, one in which gains were made and lost in small increments. In Russia, meanwhile, public criticism of Putin’s war was rare. And almost no one in the Russian media would call it a “war”; doing so was a crime.
What a difference a week can make. Ukrainian forces have swept through a large swath of Russian-held territory across the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine. They have recaptured thousands of square kilometers and liberated more than 100,000 people from Russian occupation. Russian troops have by all accounts left their posts in a hurry, often leaving heavy weaponry and military equipment behind. It’s a momentum-shifting rout that has changed the outlook of the war and forced fresh conversations from Moscow to Kyiv, Brussels to Washington, and beyond.
As for public discourse in Russia itself, that too has seen something of a quantum shift. There had been low-level rumblings — particularly from the far right — that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his commanders weren’t doing enough to punish Ukraine and bring a swift end to the conflict. But as the Ukrainians have rushed through the northeast, and members of the much-vaunted Russian Army have run for their lives, those rumblings have become something of a cacophony.
On Wednesday, the Global Grid conversation looked at these twin turning points in the war, with Global Editor Tom Nagorski, Global Security Reporter Joshua Keating, and former Russian television journalist and Grid special contributor Stanislav Kucher.
Keating counseled caution in terms of thinking the rout in the northeast could presage a speedy end to the war; Kucher said the atmosphere among previously pro-Kremlin commentators now ranges from “confusion” to “hysteria.” Both offered analysis of the week just past, and the days ahead.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Nagorski: Josh Keating — President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy has traveled to Izium, the largest city in that region that the Ukrainians have just run through. And of course a visit like that for him would have been preposterous to even imagine a week ago. Give us the latest, if you could.
Josh Keating: Ukrainian forces are consolidating their control over almost all of the Kharkiv area. Zelenskyy claims they have retaken 6,000 square kilometers of territory. The Ukrainian military very helpfully pointed out on Twitter that that’s larger than Joe Biden’s home state of Delaware. But that’s difficult to assess, given how fluid the battle lines are. But they do appear to be in control over almost all of that Kharkiv region.
I think what’s significant right now is the Russians along the front lines don’t appear to be getting reinforcements. There were actually some reports on Twitter from Ukrainian sources that the Russian government has suspended reinforcements, but that hasn’t been confirmed. But this does seem to confirm reports we’ve been hearing for weeks that Russia has really serious m shortages, and difficulty in reinforcing its troops on the front lines. A lot of the troops fighting in this area actually aren’t Russian military. They’re from militia, from the separatist regions [of Donetsk and Luhansk].
And then there’s still fighting in the south. Until last week, we all expected that Kherson was going to be the site of the big Ukrainian offensive, until the Ukrainians surprised all of us by simultaneously attacking in the East. Ukrainian progress has been much slower in the south. But even there they are putting pressure on the Russian front lines. It’s looking difficult for Russia to maintain its defenses on both these fronts simultaneously.
TN: There also has been reporting on the extent to which the United States had counseled the Ukrainians about the wisdom of going on a full-on offensive in the south versus this attack. Can you say a few words about that?
JK: It’s clear that there’s a pretty high level of coordination. Early in the war, this is the kind of thing the U.S. government was trying to keep very quiet. Right now, it looks like they’re being a lot less cautious about it. They’re being much more open than they used to be about talking about this kind of stuff in the media.
Meanwhile, it’s not quite right to call this a Russian intelligence failure, because it’s pretty obvious the Russians knew there were Ukrainian troops massing nearby. But it’s a failure to coordinate intelligence with the commanders on the ground, and to act on what they’re gathering. It appears that the Ukrainian forces noticed — and American commanders agreed with them — that there were these vulnerabilities. Russia had been moving troops down to Kherson in anticipation of this big offensive that we were all anticipating, and that Grid was writing about a month ago. And they had left this Eastern front dangerously under-defended.
TN: Stan Kucher, you are perhaps uniquely qualified to get into this other side of things, meaning what you’re seeing and hearing in the Russian media. In this same time period, what has changed in terms of public commentary and in the various traditional and social media channels that you’ve been looking at?
Stan Kucher: Let’s say “confusion,” “hysteria,” “a mess,” “uncertainty.” These are the words I’d use to describe the state of minds in the Russian media at the moment, on national television, newspapers, and hundreds, if not thousands of Telegram channels that are either partially or totally controlled by the Kremlin.
This is something very, very unusual for these almost seven months of the war. Even when word [of the invasion] came on Feb. 24, there was a choir of voices in unison saying that, yes, we need to do that. We need to protect the people of the Donbas, and so on.
And what’s happening now is totally different, because different voices are sounding out, and a lot of Putin’s associates and his propaganda peddlers are now openly using the word “war,” which had been forbidden before. People have been prosecuted and put to jail for just writing the word “war,” using the word war in their social media.
Right now, it’s totally different. More and more people are criticizing not only the defense minister, not only top generals, but also Putin personally, for not being hard enough, for the military defeat. And this is something, again, very, very unusual. Russians literally do not understand what’s going on and where the truth is. That’s one of the peculiarities of the current situation.
Russian propaganda does a 180 (confident tone)
TN: Am I right in understanding that the steady diet of information, until recently, was not only about a small military operation, but also just no questions that this huge juggernaut that is the Russian military was going to go in there and do the job? Russian people don’t have to worry about it, and it’ll be over soon. Is that about right?
SK: You’re right, that’s been the general message. At the beginning, Margarita Simonyan, the queen of Russian propaganda, said “if we ever fight Ukraine, this will be over in just two days, probably less than two days.” And that was the general forecast for the war. She said those words a few days before the war began.
And even when the Kremlin’s propagandists realized that this was something that might last for months, if not years, they changed their tune, saying that it’s going on longer for two reasons. First, because the Russian army is trying to save the lives of civilians, so they’re not killing any civilians whatsoever, and that definitely makes the war longer. And second, because we’re fighting not against the Ukrainian army, but the American army, fighting the NATO forces.
That’s what I’m reading in some Telegram channels right now, as I’m talking to you. One of the evangelists of the “Russian world” idea and one of the great pro-Putin propagandists is writing that everybody should admit that we’re fighting NATO troops. That NATO troops train in Poland, and they are responsible for the successes of the so-called Ukrainian army.
Confusion is probably the main word to describe the messages of Russian propaganda at the moment. They’re all sending very different messages. And probably this is one of the reasons why the speaker of the Russian parliament, just a few minutes ago, suggested that all questions related to the special military operation in Ukraine should be classified. So this is all becoming suddenly very serious. And of course, when Russians hear news like this, they realize that something really bad for the Russian army is happening.
TN: All of a sudden, in one week we’ve gone from no criticism of anything to criticism that for the most part seems to be “fight harder.” Not “stop the war,” but “punish the Ukrainians.” You would think that someone within the Kremlin must have said, “It’s OK to say all that now.”
SK: Well, first and foremost, the Kremlin has said almost nothing. We haven’t heard anything from Putin. We haven’t heard anything from the Russian Foreign Ministry, even. And usually, they would be talking. They would have been talking 24/7 in the past week. They’re silent. And again, that’s a sign of the fact that they don’t have any tactics or strategy.
One important thing is that [Ramzan] Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya, which is formally a part of Russia, has repeatedly called himself an infantryman of Putin. That’s his favorite phrase, he says he’s a servant, he’s his vessel, he’ll do anything Putin says. What he’s saying now is that it is time to admit it is a war, not just a especial military operation. And it’s time for us to act as we should in a real full-scale war, that’s what he is saying. And even he is sending confusing messages. What I just quoted, he said yesterday, and just a couple of hours ago he said that the Russian troops are not retreating anywhere, that all this is Western media provocations, don’t let them fool you. There are such concepts as tactics and strategies, and our troops have a subtle strategy. That’s what he said in his Telegram channel just a couple of hours ago.
So basically, very confusing messages from everybody who should be very confident and very clear.
TN: Josh, I would imagine there’s a temptation in Ukraine to not stop. To plow on and race through the rest of eastern Ukraine, the south and take everything back, or at least try to. What should we understand about the likelihood of that?
JK: One former officer who was quoted recently said the hard part Ukraine faces now is deciding where to stop. The temptation, given the disarray of the Russian retreat, is to keep pressing on. But then they leave themselves vulnerable to counterattacks. One has to assume that at a certain point, Russia will reinforce its positions.
It’s important to remember that, even as all this was going on, Russian forces were still advancing, they actually made gains elsewhere. So it’s not as if Russia has entirely stopped fighting.
If you listen to the statements that Ukrainian commanders are putting out, they’re not thinking of this in terms of a war that they’re going to win in the next few days or even months. They’re still talking about the aid they’re going to need to continue this fight through 2023. I’m sure they would welcome a full Russian military collapse, but I don’t think that’s the likeliest scenario in the long run. Given that the goal is forcing Russia from all pre-2014 Ukrainian territory, that’s all of the Donbas and Crimea, there’s still a lot more fighting to come, despite the excitement of the last few weeks.
So yes, this may be a turning point, but we should still think of it in terms of a long, long-term fight.
Limited options for Russia
TN: How do the Russians respond? There are a lot of voices in Russia saying, “Declare war.” What are their choices?
JK: The initial response came in the form of these missile strikes targeting the energy infrastructure in eastern Ukraine, which left the city of Kharkiv and a few other places in basically complete blackout. That’s a pretty serious threat, especially with winter coming and what’s happening at the Zaporizhzhia power plant. It’s going to be very difficult for Ukraine to maintain power and water services because water pumps run on the electrical grid. Civilians in eastern Ukraine, whatever happens on the battlefield, are in for a very rough winter.
In terms of Russian strategy, there’s been this question of when Vladimir Putin is going to — if he will at all — declare a mass mobilization. We were all expecting that back in May on Victory Day, but it hasn’t happened. His spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it’s not coming soon, even after this defeat. They’ve clearly decided the risk is too high. Basically, by officially declaring this a war, that would give Russia the ability to declare a mobilization, and the ability to send conscripted troops into Ukraine. That’s happened to a small extent, and it’s been very controversial in Russia. It frees up some manpower but still that won’t solve Russia’s problems overnight. It’ll take a while to carry out this mobilization. It’ll take a while to train and equip these troops.
So this isn’t something that’s going to make a difference, certainly not before winter sets in. In the next few weeks, I’d say the Kremlin’s options are fairly limited.
TN: Stan Kucher, what messaging could Putin use at the moment that might quiet the critics or at least tone them down a bit?
SK: Putin has two options. One, as you mentioned earlier, he can say, “yes, the radical patriots are right, it’s time for us to finally pull ourselves together, this is a real war because it’s NATO and America fighting us now.” That’s what some of the Russian propaganda peddlers are saying at this moment. And so yes, we need mobilization to wage a full-scale war, throw every little piece of wood we have into this fire.
And there is a different scenario, involving the so-called liberal wing of Putin’s administration, if you can call them a liberal wing. Those are people like, for example, Sergey Kirienko, deputy chief of the president’s office, and others. I’m pretty positive these people are against a full-scale war. Right now, there is a big argument going on there, with some urging Putin to start prosecuting those radical militant followers, defenders of the idea of “war to the bitter end.”
But the problem is that Putin realizes that no matter who wins, the so-called liberals in his government or the radical patriots, it’ll be the same for him, because they will no longer consider him to be the true leader of the nation. And that leaves Putin very few good steps, if not no good steps at all.
We again come closer to discussing the dangerous topic of his resorting to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, and that’s an entirely different conversation.
TN: I wonder if I can put each of you on the spot. To what extent do these events we’ve been talking about alter the calculus, in terms of potential endgames for the conflict?
JK: That risk of larger escalation, even nuclear escalation, is still there, and it’s much higher than any of us should feel comfortable with. The general consensus from outside military analysts and people watching this is that Russia does still have capacity to regroup. We should remember, even after losing a chunk the size of Delaware, that Russia does still control a fifth of Ukraine. It’s not as if all their gains over the last eight years have been reversed overnight.
There are still options there. I thought it was interesting that Chechnya’s president said that he’s not sure about the information that Putin is getting, whether Putin realizes the gravity of the situation and how badly things are going. It’s important to remember that his perspective on what’s happening may be a little different from ours, and he may not see the situation as quite as hopeless as we do.
I would expect a lot more fighting to come, attacks on civilian infrastructure, perhaps a different kind of nuclear blackmail happening — and that’s really concerning. I would caution anyone about expecting any kind of rapid climax in the next few weeks.
SK: My personal experience as a political analyst in the past 30 years tells me that every time there is so much confusion and hysteria in Russia, something is going to change radically, both on the battlefield and domestically.
I’m absolutely positive there will be no mobilization in Russia, because if there was total mobilization, that would mean further chaos. But I would say in two or three months we’ll see the end of this war by either a large-scale operation that might include tactical nuclear weapons, or because Putin will be pressed to start negotiations with Zelenskyy. That’s what I would suggest, because you will find few political analysts saying that total mobilization in Russia is a possibility. Mobilization for a patriotic war? Yes. For this aggressive invasion? No. And very few people in Russia view this military operation as a patriotic war.
Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.