Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent more than two decades carefully cultivating an inner political image of a powerful foreign policy strategist who can outwit Western leaders.
But that image has suffered major damage in recent days, as a fierce counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine exposed the shortcomings of Moscow’s master plan and forced Russian troops to retreat.
Experts said Russia’s collapse in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region was the biggest challenge of Putin’s career, and the Kremlin leader was running out of options.
Moscow has tried to paint the withdrawal as a hasty “regroupment”, but in a sign of how badly things are looking for Russia, the army has been publicly criticized by high-profile Kremlin loyalists, including Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who supplied thousands. to the attack of the fighters.
Russia has suffered major setbacks at the beginning of the war, for example when it lost the flagship of the Black Sea fleet Moskva or when it had to withdraw from the areas around the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
But the current situation could pose a much bigger problem for Putin, Russian political analyst Anton Barbashin said.
“The withdrawal in Kiev was presented as a goodwill gesture, something they had to do to avoid civilian casualties,” he told CNN. “The propaganda component was always focusing on the Donbas region as a top priority, but now that Russian forces are withdrawing somewhat from the Kharkiv region and the Luhansk region, it would be much more problematic to explain that if Ukraine pushes further and I saw no reason not to.”
The Kremlin said on Monday that Putin was aware of the situation on the front line, insisting that Russia would achieve all the goals of its “special military operation” – the phrase Moscow is using for its war on Ukraine – to take control of all of Luhansk and. Donetsk region.
But that operation will be made much more difficult by Ukraine’s victory in neighboring Kharkiv. And the setbacks there have sparked criticism and finger-pointing from Russian military bloggers and Russian state media figures.
Unusually, Putin himself has also been criticized. On Monday, deputies from 18 municipal districts in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kolpino called for Putin’s resignation, according to a petition posted on Twitter with a list of signatures.
CNN reporter: Russians seem ‘stunned’ by Ukraine counterattack
Experts said Putin will now be under increasing pressure to respond forcefully. Influential Russian nationalist and pro-war voices are calling for radical steps, including full mobilization and increased strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, with some suggesting the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
“In general, there is a fairly open sense of panic among analysts and voices supporting the Russian war,” Barbashin said.
The Kremlin has so far dismissed the idea of a mass mobilization and Russia watchers believe that Putin is unlikely to call for one, knowing that such a move would likely be unpopular and would be approved by “special forces”. “operation” is, in fact, war.
Putin signed a decree last month to increase the number of military personnel to 1.15 million, adding 137,000 service personnel, but analysts say it will likely become increasingly difficult for Russia to recruit.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said on Sunday that some regional authorities have come under fire for their push to hire contract workers and volunteers to fight in Ukraine.
The full extent of Ukraine’s recent gains – and its ability to sustain them – remains unclear. But experts say that if Ukraine’s counteroffensive continues at a similar pace, Putin will find it increasingly difficult to present himself as a strong strategist.
“This is the biggest challenge he faces as president and Russia as an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Barbashin said.
The natural concern is that he may take radical steps to assert his authority.
“[It] It puts pressure on Putin to assert leadership through significant personnel changes or change the conduct of the war,” Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, told CNN.
Haring said Putin may make some personnel changes, but such a high-profile exit is not usually his style.
Putin could also listen to the darkest voices inside Russia and step up attacks on arms shipments and critical infrastructure, or launch more cyberattacks, but doing so would risk even greater retaliation.
“[It’s] it’s not a great option because it could harden Ukraine’s already strong resolve and increase the risk of confrontation with the West,” he said.
Putin’s best option for now would be to push for negotiations and delay, Haring said.
Moscow has already taken some tentative steps in this direction. In a surprise statement on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that Moscow may be ready to negotiate with Ukraine. “The president told the participants of the meeting that we do not deny negotiations, but those who do should understand that the longer this process is delayed, the more difficult it will be for them to negotiate with us,” Lavrov told Tass.
Haring said pushing for negotiations would halt progress in Ukraine and allow “the continuation and regrouping of shadow mobilization.” However, Kiev has made it clear that it will reject any negotiations that would involve Ukraine giving up any of its territory.
Experts say it is inevitable that the Kremlin will try to deflect blame for the botched operation. For now, the propaganda machine is largely sticking to the conventional narrative.
“The Russian media narrative blames NATO and the West for providing support that led to Ukraine’s dramatic advances in Kharkiv and Donbas,” Haring said.
However, if the war tribunals in eastern Ukraine do not change quickly, Putin will find it increasingly difficult to place the blame elsewhere.
“The narrative, until six months ago, was that somehow [Putin] he was a genius. He was much smarter than everyone else, he’s a KGB agent… I think they’ll forgive him, but in the end I think most people will blame him,” Ben Hodges, former Commanding General of US Army Europe, told CNN on Monday.
Barbashin agreed, saying it would be difficult for Putin to shift blame for the botched operation.
“Blame for economic problems is much easier to pass on, but foreign policy has always been his prerogative, he has been in power for almost a quarter of a century and I don’t think you will convince a majority of Russians that he was not called. shots,” he said.
It is unclear what the Kremlin will decide to do next. What is clear, however, is that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine – and what he intends to do next – will define his legacy. After this weekend, that legacy is more bruised than ever.