The New York Times
As Russians Retreat, Putin Is Criticized by Hawks Who Trumpeted His War
Anton Troianovski – September 11, 2022
As Russian forces hastily retreated in northeastern Ukraine on Saturday in one of their most embarrassing setbacks of the war, President Vladimir Putin was at a park in Moscow, presiding over the grand opening of a Ferris wheel.
“It’s very important for people to be able to relax with friends and family,” Putin intoned.
The split-screen contrast was stunning, even for some of Putin’s loudest backers. And it underscored a growing rift between the Kremlin and the invasion’s most fervent cheerleaders. For the cheerleaders, Russia’s retreat appeared to confirm their worst fears: that senior Russian officials were so concerned with maintaining a business-as-usual atmosphere back home that they had failed to commit the necessary equipment and personnel to fight a long war against a determined enemy.
“You’re throwing a billion-ruble party,” one pro-Russian blogger wrote in a widely circulated post Saturday, referring to the Putin-led celebrations in Moscow commemorating the 875th anniversary of the city’s founding. “What is wrong with you? Not at the time of such a horrible failure.”
Even as Moscow celebrated, he wrote, the Russian army was fighting without enough night vision goggles, flack jackets, first-aid kits or drones. A few hundred miles away, Ukrainian forces retook the Russian military stronghold of Izium, continuing their rapid advance across the northeast and igniting a dramatic new phase in the war.
The outrage from Russian hawks Saturday showed that even as Putin had succeeded in eliminating just about all of the liberal and pro-democracy opposition in Russia’s domestic politics, he still faced the risk of discontent from the conservative end of the political spectrum. For the moment, there was little indication that these hawks would turn on Putin as a result of Ukraine’s seemingly successful counteroffensive, but analysts said that their increasing readiness to criticize the military leadership publicly pointed to simmering discontent within the Russian elite.
“Most of these people are in shock and did not think that this could happen,” Dmitri Kuznets, who analyzes the war for the Russian-language news outlet Meduza, said in a phone interview. “Most of them are, I think, genuinely angry.”
The Kremlin, as usual, tried to minimize the setbacks. The defense ministry described the retreat as a decision “to regroup” its troops, even though the ministry said a day earlier that it was moving to reinforce its defensive positions in the region. Authorities in Moscow carried on with their festive weekend, with fireworks and state television showing hundreds lined up to ride the new, 460-foot-tall Ferris wheel.
But online, Russia’s failures were in plain sight — underscoring the startling role that pro-Russian military bloggers on the social network Telegram have played in shaping the narrative of the war. While the Kremlin controls the television airwaves in Russia and has blocked access to Instagram and Facebook, Telegram remains freely accessible and is filled with posts and videos from supporters and opponents of the war alike.
The widely followed pro-war bloggers — some embedded with Russian troops near the front line — amplify the Kremlin’s false message that Russia is fighting “Nazis” and refer to Ukrainians in derogatory and dehumanizing ways. But they are also divulging far more detailed — and, analysts say, accurate — information about the battlefield than the Russian Defense Ministry is, which they say is underestimating the enemy and withholding bad news from the public.
One of the bloggers, Yuri Podolyaka, who is from Ukraine but moved to Сrimea following its annexation in 2014, told his 2.3 million Telegram followers Friday that if the military continued play down its battlefield setbacks, Russians would “cease to trust the Ministry of Defense and soon the government as a whole.”
It was the bloggers who first rang alarm bells publicly about a possible Ukrainian counteroffensive in the country’s northeast.
On Aug. 30, a Kremlin spokesperson held his regular conference call with journalists and repeated his mantra: The invasion of Ukraine was going “in accordance with the plans.”
The same day, several Russian bloggers were reporting on social media that something was very much not going according to plan. Ukraine was building up forces for a counterattack near the town of Balakliya, they said, and Russia did not appear in position to defend against it.
“Hello, hello, anybody home?” one asked. “Are we ready to fend off an attack in this direction?”
Days later, it became apparent that the answer was no. Ukrainian forces overran Russia’s thin defenses in Balakliya and other nearby towns in northeastern Ukraine. By this weekend, some analysts estimated that the territory retaken by Ukraine amounted to about 1,000 square miles, a potential turning point in what had become a war of attrition this summer.
“It’s time to punish the commanders who allowed these kinds of things,” Maksim Fomin, a pro-Russian blogger from eastern Ukraine, said in a video published Friday, claiming that Russian forces did not even try to resist as Ukraine’s military swept forward this week.
Some of the bloggers are embedded with military units and work for state-run or pro-Kremlin media outlets, preparing reports for television while providing more detail on their Telegram accounts. Others appear to operate more independently, relying on personal connections for access near the front line and adding their bank details to their Telegram posts to solicit donations.
Kuznets, a former Russian war correspondent himself, said that Russian military officials appeared to tolerate the presence of war bloggers despite their occasional criticism, in part because they agreed with the bloggers’ hawkish, imperialist views. And the bloggers play a crucial role in spreading the pro-Russian message on social media, where their audience includes both Russians and Ukrainians.
Among some bloggers, the anger over the Russian military’s mistakes reached a fever pitch Saturday. One called Russia’s retreat a “catastrophe,” while others said that it had left the residents who collaborated with Russian forces at the mercy of Ukrainian troops — potentially undermining the credibility of the occupying authorities all across the territory that Russia still holds.
And while the Kremlin still maintains that the invasion is merely a “special military operation,” several bloggers insisted Saturday that Russia was, in fact, fighting a full-fledged war — not just against Ukraine, but against a united West that is backing Kyiv.
The stunned fury reflects how some analysts believe many in the Russian elite view the war: a campaign rife with incompetence, conducted on the cheap, that can only be won if Putin mobilizes the nation onto a war footing and declares a draft.
“I am sure that they reflect the opinion of their sources and the people they know and work with,” Kuznets said. “I think the biggest group among these people believes that it is necessary to fight harder and carry out a mobilization.”
Both Western and Russian analysts said that Putin would need a draft to sharply expand the size of his invading force. But he appears determined to resist such a measure, which could shatter the passivity with which much of the Russian public has treated the war. In August, 48% of Russians told the independent pollster Levada that they were paying little or no attention to the events in Ukraine.
As a result, analysts say, Putin faces no good options. Escalating a war whose domestic support may turn out to be superficial could stir domestic unrest, while continuing retreats on the battlefield could spur a backlash from hawks who have bought into the Kremlin narrative that Russia is fighting “Nazis” for its very survival.
Ever since Russia retreated in April from its attempt to capture Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, the Kremlin’s goals in the war have been unclear, disorienting Putin’s supporters, said Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“The Ukrainians’ war effort is obvious, it’s understandable, whereas on the Russian side, it was always a question of: What is Russia doing?” Lee said in a phone interview. “The goals aren’t clear, and how they achieve those goals isn’t clear. If you’re fighting a war and you’re not sure what the ultimate goal is, you’re going to be quite frustrated about that.”