Although Russian forces still control the wider Kherson region, which is part of Putin’s desired “land bridge” from mainland Russia to illegally annexed Crimea, the seizure of the capital is a stunning blow after repeated, heated statements by pro-Kremlin figures that Russia would stay in Kherson “forever”.
Moscow’s hard-line pro-war faction, including nationalist war bloggers, called the city’s surrender a “treason” and a “black day”. Kherson, along with other illegally annexed regions, was written into the Russian constitution as part of Russia after parliament approved Putin’s annexation plans.
Kherson’s flag, along with those of the three other regions, was raised recently during a ceremony at the State Duma.
While other leaders may suffer serious consequences, the Kremlin has spent weeks carefully preparing the Russian population for the shock, distancing Putin from responsibility and trying to insulate him from the political fallout. Still, there were signs that Putin would not completely shirk responsibility and that a defeat in Kherson could spark opposition to the war, which has slowly built up amid repeated battlefield setbacks.
“I think this will seriously complicate the way the situation is viewed inside the country,” said one influential Moscow businessman, who declined to be named because of the possible fallout in the paranoid, increasingly totalitarian state. “It’s a serious loss.”
“For Russia, these losses have a sacred character,” added the businessman. “It’s a big blow to Putin’s image.”
The retreat from Kherson was the latest in a series of military collapses for Putin, including Russia’s failed attempt to capture Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, at the start of the war, and Ukraine’s blitzkrieg of Russian forces from the northeastern Kharkiv region in September.
Territorial losses in Kharkiv led Putin to declare a disorderly military conscription that prompted hundreds of thousands of men to leave Russia and sent tens of thousands of poorly trained soldiers to fight in Ukraine.
Many ordinary Russians still see Putin as a shrewd, tsar-like figure who loves his homeland but is repeatedly let down by abusive, incompetent officials, according to analysts, who say the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts have seemingly worked to play down public concerns about Kherson. he surrendered.
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But the many military failures of the unnecessary war are obvious to Moscow’s elite billionaires and state officials. Equally clear are the political difficulties created by Putin’s annexations, a flagrant violation of international law now exposed as a delusion.
In the face of military withdrawal, failed mobilization, deepening economic difficulties and increasing casualties, Moscow is increasingly signaling readiness for talks with Ukraine. But negotiations are unlikely as Putin sticks to his position that Kyiv must accept his illegal territory seizures.
Putin stood aside on Wednesday as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the commander-in-chief of the Russian army in Ukraine, Colonel General Sergey Surovikin, staged an awkward, robotic dialogue on state-run Russia 24 television, formalizing the decision to leave Kherson “to save lives”.
As Shoigu approved the lecture, Putin visited the federal center for brain and neuro-technologies to mark the 75th anniversary of the Federal Medical-Biological Agency. It was unclear whether the Russian president was completely out of touch or deliberately putting himself out of reach of a military decision.
Former Kremlin adviser Sergei Markov described Kherson’s surrender in an interview as “Russia’s biggest geopolitical defeat since the collapse of the USSR,” noting Putin’s personal assurance that the territory would always be part of Russia.
“This, of course, is a huge blow to the mood of the population,” Markov said. “It’s a huge blow to the army – to their fighting spirit. It is a blow to respect for President Putin and a blow to optimism.”
Putin, however, remains protected by his group of security and military leaders and has shown no outward signs of changing course.
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Political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently compared Putin’s increasingly closed, paranoid behavior to Stalin in his final years, in which “all decisions are made by one person.”
But despite fury among hardliners over Kherson’s surrender, Kolesnikov said ordinary Russians seemed convinced, at least for now, by the military’s explanation that the surrender was necessary to save lives.
Putin’s approval rating was “pretty solid,” he said, falling to 77 percent from 83 percent during a poor rally in September, before rising to 79 percent last month.
A Russian state official said the decision to hand over Kherson “means there is still rational thinking in command. If the president is part of this, then there is hope, albeit a spirit of chance, that he is open to talks.”
But the state official added that he did not think Putin would accept Ukraine’s terms of a full withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine or even a withdrawal to pre-war lines, as that would be a “massive political blow” that he might not survive.
Many members of the elite are privately critical of Putin’s disastrous war and resulting sanctions, underscoring the rift between Russia’s hard-line pro-military faction and business executives and bureaucrats desperate for a scrapped ramp and an end to global ostracism.
The businessman said that Moscow is pushing for the collapse of Ukrainian resistance in the winter due to missile attacks on Ukrainian civilian energy facilities, although there is no evidence that this will happen.
Another prominent Russian businessman said he believed the Biden administration was pressuring Ukraine to start negotiations, citing comments Wednesday night by Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that winter presents a “window of opportunity” for the parties to begin talks. Western officials, however, said it was Kyiv’s decision.
Russians were war-weary, the second businessman said, and Putin’s position was “on the brink of disaster.”
“From a military point of view, there are a lot of corpses. I think he is ready for some kind of deal,” the second businessman said, adding that Putin probably realized that a decisive military victory was impossible.
The risks are mounting for Putin, he said. “If he loses more territory, it would be a complete shame for him. It would be the end for him personally. That would be the end for him politically as well.”
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Analyst Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of political analysis group R. Politik, said the sense of betrayal among Russia’s “party of war” did not pose a threat to Putin, who remains convinced that Ukraine will lose Western support next year, forcing Kyiv to capitulate to his terms.
Stanovaya said Putin only wanted to buy time until Western support for Ukraine faded, while Kolesnikov dismissed Putin’s signals that he was willing to negotiate as “pure PR”, with the sides too far apart.
Stanovaya said Putin does not expect Russia to win the war through military means, but considers Ukraine a non-state that will eventually fail.
The liberation of the city of Kherson has fueled speculation about how far the Ukrainian military might advance before winter. Kievan forces are also making some gains in the east.
Markov, a former Kremlin adviser, said Putin would try to hold on to the remaining annexed territories after the Russian army is reinforced with trained forces in the coming months. But it was not clear that Russia could arm them with the necessary weapons, he said.
“If he finds that the Russian economy cannot provide these soldiers with military technology, then he will be forced to enter into peace negotiations,” Markov said, adding that Putin might even be forced to accept a withdrawal of positions that Russia has held before February. 24 invasion. This includes the regional capitals Luhansk and Donetsk, which Russian-backed separatists have controlled since 2014.
“The withdrawal of the line on February 24 will be considered a serious loss, but not a capitulation,” he said. “That would be a very difficult situation. But it is possible.”
Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia, and Belton from London.