Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday September 14, 2022
Putin’s Kharkiv disaster is his biggest challenge yet
Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent more than two decades carefully cultivating his domestic political image of a strong foreign policy strategist who can outsmart Western leaders and restore Russia to its former glory.
But that image has suffered significant damage in the past few days, as a blistering Ukrainian counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine exposed the inadequacies of Moscow’s master plan and forced Russian troops to retreat.
Experts said the Russian collapse in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region represented the biggest challenge of Putin’s career, and that the Kremlin leader was running out of options.
Moscow has tried to spin the hasty withdrawal as “regrouping”, but in a sign of just how badly things look for Russia, the military has been publicly criticized by a number of high-profile Kremlin loyalists including Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who supplied thousands of fighters to the offensive.
Russia has suffered significant setbacks earlier in the war — for example when it lost its Black Sea fleet flagship Moskva or when it was forced to withdraw from the areas around the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
But the current situation could pose a much bigger problem for Putin, Russian political analyst Anton Barbashin said.
“The Kyiv withdrawal was framed as a gesture of goodwill, something they’ve had to do to prevent civilian casualties,” he told CNN. “The propaganda component was always focusing on Donbas region as being the top priority, but now that Russian forces are somewhat withdrawing from Kharkiv region and Luhansk region, it would be much more problematic to explain this if Ukraine does in fact, push further and I didn’t see a reason why they wouldn’t.”
The Kremlin on Monday said Putin was aware of the situation on the frontlines, and insisted 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 regions.
But that operation will be made much more difficult by Ukraine’s victories in neighboring Kharkiv. And the setbacks there have ignited criticism and finger pointing among influential Russian military bloggers and personalities in Russian state media.
Unusually, even Putin himself has been criticized. On Monday, deputies from 18 municipal districts in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kolpino called for Putin’s resignation, according to a petition with a list of signatures posted on Twitter.
Experts said Putin would now face growing pressure to respond with force. Influential Russian nationalist and pro-war voices are increasingly calling for radical steps, including full mobilization and ramped up strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, some even suggesting the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
“Generally there’s a quite open sense of panic among Russian pro-war analysts and voices,” Barbashin said.
The Kremlin has so far rejected the idea of a mass mobilization and Russia watchers believe it is unlikely that Putin would call for one, because he is aware that such a move would likely prove unpopular and would be seen as an admission that the “special military operation” is, in fact, a 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 analytical group, pointed out on Sunday that some regional authorities have faced criticism for their push to recruit contract servicemen and volunteers to fight in Ukraine.
The full extent of Ukraine’s recent gains — and its ability to hold onto them — is still unclear. But experts say that if the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues at similar pace, Putin will find it increasingly difficult to present himself as a strong strategist. (CTV)
From sketch to finish, see the current way Graeme completes an editorial cartoon using an iPencil, the Procreate app, and a couple of cheats on an iPad Pro …