- The Washington Times
Monday, September 12, 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin faced calls to resign from some former strong supporters Monday as his troops were pushed back to their border by a crushing Ukrainian counteroffensive that has retaken strategically key cities and dealt a massive blow to the morale of the Russian army.

The Ukrainian advance swept through the country’s northeast at lightning speed, recapturing Kharkiv and more than 20 small towns and settlements nearby. Western military observers said the counteroffensive took control of an area about twice the size of London over the past five days in Ukraine’s most significant battlefield victory since it repelled Russia’s assault on Kyiv in the early weeks of the war. 

For Mr. Putin, embarrassing reports of Russian troops in full-blown retreat and scores of others reportedly taken prisoner by Ukrainian fighters have sparked severe, almost unprecedented blowback at home. The Kremlin has mostly kept a tight lid on dissent throughout its nearly 7-month-old campaign in Ukraine, but the criticism broke through as dozens of local Russian officials reportedly signed a petition demanding that Mr. Putin step down and accept responsibility for the battlefield failures.

“President Putin’s actions are detrimental to the future of Russia and its citizens,” the petition reads in part. “We demand the resignation of Vladimir Putin from the position of president of the Russian Federation.”

Ksenia Torstrem, a municipal deputy in St. Petersburg’s Semyonovsky district, shared the petition on Twitter. She said 18 other municipal deputies, including some from Moscow, signed the original petition.

By late Monday afternoon, Ms. Torstrem said, another 84 had signed on, according to English-language media reports.

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Equally striking were the sharp criticisms of the Kremlin by nationalist pro-war Russian bloggers on social media platforms such as Telegram. Many of the bloggers are embedded with Russian forces in eastern Ukraine and have issued pessimistic accounts that contrast sharply with the official Russian line that the invasion is going well. Many bloggers say Mr. Putin and his generals have been far too timid to devote the manpower and resources needed to defeat a determined Ukrainian resistance.

The pro-war and nationalist bloggers said Russia has been repeatedly outmaneuvered by Ukrainian forces in the fighting and that Mr. Putin’s refusal to reimpose an immediate military draft to shore up depleted Russian units on the front lines is helping produce what one critic called a “catastrophe.” Mr. Putin, whose power was once unchallenged, was also mocked for attending a major fireworks display Saturday night to celebrate the 875th anniversary of the founding of Moscow as the scope of the Russian losses in Ukraine was coming into focus.

The public rebuke of Mr. Putin and his war planners stretched beyond social media. Even commentators on state-controlled television took the Kremlin to task for the reverses in Ukraine.

Speaking on Russian television Monday, Boris Nadezhdin, a former Russian parliament member, blasted his country’s strategy in unusually blunt terms.

“People who convinced President Putin that the operation will be fast and effective … these people really set up all of us,” he said. “We’re now at the point where we have to understand that it’s absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine using these resources and colonial war methods.”

Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Russia’s Chechnya region, took aim at “mistakes” by the Russian Defense Ministry that he said paved the way for the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

The sharp criticism in Russia directly coincided with major gains by Ukrainian troops. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy celebrated those successes on social media while expressing his trademark defiance toward Moscow.

“Do you still think you can intimidate, break us, force us to make concessions?” Mr. Zelenskyy said in social media posts. “Cold, hunger, darkness and thirst for us are not as scary and deadly as your ‘friendship and brotherhood.’”

Russians routed

Russia’s retreat began over the weekend as military officials conceded that troops were pulling back from key regions near Kharkiv and regrouping in the Donetsk province, a Russian stronghold in the country’s southeast.

Although fighting is expected to drag on for months or perhaps years in that region, Ukraine’s stunning success around Kharkiv has rapidly reshaped the battlefield and breathed new life into Kyiv’s hopes for victory. With the aid of U.S.- and other Western-supplied weapons, Ukraine’s ability to quickly rout the much larger, better-equipped army has changed the dynamics of the broader war and could once again force the Kremlin to rethink its strategic aims.

The speed and magnitude of Ukraine’s gains seem to have caught Russian leaders by surprise.

“Since Wednesday, Ukraine has recaptured territory at least twice the size of greater London,” the British Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence estimate posted on Twitter. “The rapid Ukrainian successes have significant implications for Russia’s overall operational design. The majority of the [Russian] force in Ukraine is highly likely being forced to prioritize emergency defensive actions. The already limited trust deployed troops have in Russia’s senior military leadership is likely to deteriorate further.”

U.S. defense officials confirmed that the Russians have essentially abandoned Kharkiv to the Ukrainians. 

Ukrainian troops also are mounting a “deliberate and calibrated” offensive near the southern city of Kherson, defense officials told reporters, and the airspace over Ukraine “remains contested” in spite of Russia’s perceived massive advantage in the air.

Still, Russia remains fully capable of inflicting serious damage. After being pushed out of Kharkiv, Russian troops launched a massive artillery assault on the city Sunday and Monday, temporarily knocking out the city’s power and leaving residents in darkness. 

It’s just Moscow’s latest revamping of its plan of attack in Ukraine, where stiffer-than-expected resistance often seems to have caught Russian military leaders by surprise.

In the early weeks of the war, the Russian army pulled back after a disastrous campaign to capture Kyiv and drive Mr. Zelenskyy from power. That early failure led defense analysts to question whether Russia’s supposedly world-class military was vastly overrated.

Since then, Russia has concentrated most of its war effort in the country’s east, particularly around Kharkiv and in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the southeast, which together make up the disputed Donbas region. 

Russia’s state-run Tass news agency portrayed the retreat from Kharkiv as a “regrouping” of forces, but even state-controlled media reports seemed to suggest that Mr. Putin was growing impatient with his military leadership. 

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov would not confirm or deny media reports that Mr. Putin had fired Lt. Gen. Roman Berdnikov, who was appointed to lead Russia’s Western Military District just last month. Gen. Peskov even seemed to stop short of saying that Mr. Putin had confidence in his military leadership.

“When asked whether the country’s military leadership continues to enjoy the confidence of the head of state, Peskov stressed that ‘the special military operation continues and will continue until all the goals that were initially set are achieved,’” says a story on the Tass website.

In Washington, White House officials celebrated Ukraine’s battlefield successes but cautioned against declaring victory. The Biden administration also wouldn’t comment on whether President Biden is worried that Mr. Putin may resort to nuclear weapons if he feels he is losing the fight in Ukraine.

“I can’t speak to Russia’s intention; that’s for them to speak to,” Mr. Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, told reporters on Air Force One. “We’ll leave it to Ukrainians to describe their operations. It’s clear they are fighting hard to defend their country and take back territory.”

Mr. Biden has secured more than $13 billion in Ukrainian assistance from Congress, but he requested nearly $13 billion more as lawmakers debate a short-term spending bill.

“We’re going to just continue to support their need to succeed on the battlefield. That has been our goal,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said.

Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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