Last week, Vladimir Putin visited the coordinating headquarters for Russia’s forces in Ukraine and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu inspected the deployment of troops in southern Russia.
These unexpected events, which were not previously announced, took place against the backdrop of increased Russian missile strikes on Ukraine and warnings from Ukrainian generals of an impending Russian offensive on Kyiv.
On Dec. 15, the Russian Defense Ministry reported Shoigu’s visit to “the forward positions of Russian units in the zone of the special military operation.” The next day, the Kremlin said that Putin had visited the military headquarters and that he worked there “all day long.” In addition to Putin, the meetings were attended by Shoigu, the head of Russia’s frontline forces Sergei Surovikin, and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
The precise location of these headquarters is not known. Journalist Dmitry Kolezev pointed out to the fact that the rooms where Putin was seen resembled those where Surovikin has given interviews in the past.
Putin visited the headquarters on a day of massive missile strikes on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Russia is systematically targeting the Ukrainian power grid with its missiles, leaving much of the country without electricity, heating or water. A few days before Putin’s visit, Valeriy Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s military, told The Economist that he expects Russia to make a renewed assault on Kyiv next year, either via Belarus or from the south.
Since the war broke out, Putin has neither traveled to the combat zone nor set foot in the occupied territories. The closest the president has physically come to the war was when he visited a training camp for conscripts in central Russia. Throughout this time, Putin’s speeches have made no reference to the retreat of Russian forces from Kherson, nor their retreat from the Kharkiv region. The Kremlin now wishes to portray Putin as a competent wartime leader, wrote analysts at the Institute for the Study of War.
Another possible reason for this display could be an attempt to rehabilitate the Defense Ministry’s reputation. The ministry has faced intense criticism from supporters of the war as it has suffered a string of setbacks on the battlefield.
Why the world should care:
Putin believes in the “historical justice” of the war in Ukraine — but he has not been directly involved in it until now. All the key decisions in the public sphere were taken exclusively by the military. Now, the president has brought the war under his personal direction. We can only speculate whether this is the first stage of a renewed assault on Kyiv or another PR stunt to appease supporters of the war.