The Russian authorities and supporters of the Ukraine invasion spent much of last week trying to make sense of the Armed Forces’ heaviest defeat since the spring. State-owned media studiously ignored the fact that Russia was almost entirely driven out of Kharkiv region, focusing instead on military successes announced by the Defense Ministry. At the same time, there was a public discussion of the possibility of a partial mobilization, something the authorities are obviously reluctant to attempt.
- Amid the Ukrainian offensive, Channel 1’s news weekly round-up show, Vremya, focused on the “stabilization” of Russia’s economy. It also discussed the successes of pro-Kremlin candidates in recent local elections. Missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure were talked up — apparently these “eclipsed Ukraine’s upbeat reports of a successful counter-offensive” — and the show screened a Defense Ministry briefing that boasted of the destruction of an ammunition dump and the death of “300 Ukrainian servicemen.”
- In a similar show on state-owned Rossiya 1, presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, also said nothing about the Russian army’s retreat. However, he acknowledged that “under the onslaught of superior enemy forces,” Russian soldiers left Balakliya and Izyum. He described the past week as “the most difficult” of the war so far.
- The military defeat was also overlooked by popular political talk show 60 Minutes, hosted by another face of Russia’s wartime propaganda, Olga Skabeeva. In its Sept. 12 afternoon edition, it focused on Ukraine’s losses (4,000 soldiers killed, according to Russian Defense Ministry figures) and insisted Russia was doing the right thing with missile attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. Skabeeva and her guests argued that NATO forces had done the same thing in Iraq, Libya and Yugoslavia.
- In contrast, pro-Russian bloggers on messaging app Telegram were full of criticism for those who decided to stay silent about the heavy defeat suffered by Russian forces in Ukraine. They also blasted the Defense Ministry. One wrote that “officials thirsting for power and wealth are drowning Russia,” another predicted the imminent collapse of the country. In one group there were calls for the creation of “public militias” in regions bordering Ukraine, and a blogger wrote that soon “people will be foaming at the mouth, demanding [President Vladimir] Putin’s resignation.”
At the same time as it was being ignored in state-owned media, Russian politicians were reacting to the Russian army’s retreat by demanding mobilization, albeit not a full one.
- Sergei Mironov, leader of the Just Russia political party said he was unhappy that Moscow celebrated its city anniversary while “our guys are dying out there.” He believes mobilization is needed: “not military, but a mobilization in our minds.” Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party, made a similar suggestion. In his words, Moscow’s “special operation” has already become a full-scale war against the West so “maximum” mobilization is required (again, though, his party clarified later that he apparently did not mean military mobilization).
- The Kremlin said Tuesday that it is not considering the possibility of full mobilization. In addition, it warned critics to “be careful”: while other points of view remain acceptable, the border between pluralism and breaking the law is “very, very thin.”
- Amid all this, a group of parliamentary deputies proposed legislation that would allow fathers of large families, if they wished, to join Russia’s military reserves.
- Russian governors also began actively discussing mobilization after Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s proposal that the leaders of Russia’s regions launch “self-mobilization” for the Ukraine war. This idea gained support from the head of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014; the interim governor of the Mariy El republic; the head of Kursk region on the Ukrainian border; as well as the governors of Magadan, Voronezh and Kemerovo. It appears that the covert mobilization that we have seen so far in Russia is coming to an end.
- In addition, prisoners are being encouraged to fight in Ukraine. For several months we have known that the Wagner Group, a mercenary force run by Evgeny Prigozhin, was recruiting for the Ukraine war in Russian jails. But a video appeared last week showing a man resembling Prizhogin telling prisoners about the terms of ‘service’ in Ukraine. It’s unclear who released the footage. Prigozhin responded by saying: “It’s either prisoners and the Wagner Group, or your children – choose for yourselves.”
- Wagner Group commercials were broadcast last week on the TV channel run by well-known Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov. To a drum-and-bass soundtrack men were urged to quit their boring factory jobs and join the fight against Ukraine.
Why the world should care
Defeat in Kharkiv region has put Russia on the back foot and the Kremlin appears to have few good options. Putin even appeared to come in for rare public criticism from the Indian and Chinese leaders at a summit in Uzbekistan last week.