Ukraine war: What will Russia’s losses mean for Putin?

Steve Rosenberg BBC Russia Editor

Vladimir Putin

Source, Reuters

Under normal circumstances, you would expect the Russian state television’s weekly news program to extol the successes of the Kremlin.

However, the program broadcast yesterday began with a rare confession.

“This has been the toughest week ever on the special operations front in Ukraine,” said Dmitry Kiselev, announcing a mournful expression.

“Especially on the Kharkov front, when the enemy forces outnumbered our troops, the Russian soldiers had to leave the towns they had previously liberated,” he said.

Here you can also read the word liberate as occupy.

Moscow had occupied these areas months ago. However, as the Ukrainian Army counterattacked, Russian troops lost a significant amount of territory in the northeast of the country.

The Russian state media nevertheless tried not to darken the neck.

What happened in the Kharkov region was not officially described as a “retreat”.

“The Russian Ministry of Defense denied rumors that Russian troops fled Balakliya, Kupyansk and Izyum in disgrace,” the latest edition of state-affiliated Rossiyskaya Gazeta said.

“This was not an escape, but a pre-planned regroup,” it said.

An expert in the boulevard newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets expressed different opinions: “Obviously we have underestimated our enemy. Russian troops were too late to react and collapse. As a result, we were defeated. We have to withdraw our troops in order not to be under siege and to minimize our losses. We stayed.”

This “defeat” sparked outrage on pro-Russian social media channels and “patriotic” Russian bloggers. They accused the Russian army of making mistakes.

Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov also criticized: “If there is no change in strategy today or tomorrow, I will meet with the ministry of defense and the rulers of the country and tell them what is really happening on the ground.”

More than six months have passed since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.

In the days that followed, Russian politicians, commentators and experts predicted that the operation, which the Kremlin described as a “special military operation”, would end in a few days.

According to them, the Ukrainian people would welcome the Russian soldiers for liberating them, and the Ukrainian government would fall like dominoes.

On the contrary, six months after the start of the invasion, the Russian army began to lose territory.

What political consequences could it have for Putin?

Now the key question is: What political implications could this have for Vladimir Putin?

After all, for over two decades, Putin has always been seen as a winner in the eyes of the Russian elite. As an invincible figure who can always pull himself out of the most difficult points.

I have often compared him to the famous illusionist Harry Houdini. Just like Houdini, Putin was able to get himself out of there, no matter how chained or tied in knots.

All that changed on February 24.

The last six months have shown that Russian President Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was a major miscalculation.

Because it failed to achieve a quick victory, it lured Russia into a long and bloody offensive and suffered a series of embarrassing defeats.

If the seemingly invincible image of an authoritarian leader is shaken, it can cause him problems.

Vladimir Putin will know this very well from the history of Russia that the leaders who went to wars in the past but could not win did not end well.

The defeat of Russia by Japan led to the first Russian Revolution in 1905.

Military defeats in the First World War sparked the 1917 Revolution and brought the end of the Tsar.

But Putin does not intend to be seen as a loser in public at all.

“Russia’s special military operation will continue until all the objectives set in the first place are achieved,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Which brings us to the second key question: What will Putin do next?

It’s not easy to find someone here who knows what Vladimir Putin is thinking or planning.

The accuracy of the information conveyed to him by military and intelligence chiefs may also be decisive in this regard.

However, there are two things we know at this stage: The Russian leader does not easily admit that he made a mistake and does not easily make a U-turn.

Source, Getty Images

According to what state media say, Western countries’ support for Ukraine is blamed for defeats on the battlefield.

Russian state television covered the news with the headline “Kyiv, backed by NATO, counter-attacked”.

Nuclear weapon option?

But there is a difficult question in the background that has been unanswered for months: If Putin cannot achieve victory with conventional weapons, will he use the nuclear weapon option?

Valeri Zaluzhnyi, the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, warned a few days ago: “There is a direct threat that the Russian armed forces will use tactical nuclear weapons under certain conditions.”

There are no clear signs of panic in the Kremlin at this time.

Russian state television also looks at the developments positively, describing the Russian missile attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure as “a turning point in special operations”.

While news of Russia’s loss of territory to Ukraine were coming, a confident-looking Vladimir Putin was inaugurating a new Ferris wheel in Moscow.

It seems that Putin believes his “special military operation” will turn in his favor, just like this tallest Ferris wheel in Europe.