The Russian army had to withdraw from the Kharkiv region because the Ukrainian resistance was too strong. Who takes responsibility for this setback? At least not Vladimir Putin.
It was a shameful escape. The approaching military counter-offensive by the Ukrainian troops in the Kharkiv region pushed the Russian army back to the borders of the Donetsk region within a few days.
The Russian soldiers left behind military equipment and personal belongings. The Russian army had to leave the area behind in great haste because they had nothing to oppose the advancing Ukrainian soldiers.
Territory captured by the blood of numerous Russian soldiers over the past few months was hastily lost. Blatant reconnaissance and leadership failures at the level of the regional command up to the general staff were responsible for this Russian defeat.
But does anyone take responsibility for it?
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Putin, who started this war with numerous wrong decisions, is absolved of any responsibility. Politically, he is primarily responsible for the war in Ukraine.
The Ministry of Defense said the Russian army had not fled from the Ukrainian troops, but that it was a “planned troop deployment”. This statement is of course absurd in view of what actually happened.
My sources at the Russian Presidential Office tell me that Putin’s relationship with Defense Minister Sojgu, who has held the post since 2012, is severely tainted. The same applies to Chief of Staff Gerasimov; he, too, has held this position for almost a decade.
So far, Putin has shied away from dismissing them. Firstly, because it is not easy to find people who are more capable and familiar with the subject as a replacement. The relative standing that the defense minister enjoys among the Russian population would not be an obstacle for Putin.
The more important reason is a political one: the dismissal of these officials would make it clear to the Russian public that the “military special operation” in Ukraine is not going “according to plan”, as the leadership claims mantra-like.
However, this dilemma at the top command level did not prevent Putin from looking for culprits at lower levels. The supreme commanders of the western military district were fired twice within 6 weeks.
However, Putin has to sit up and take notice when Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov criticizes Russia’s top military leadership. He would have to go to the state leadership to explain the situation on the ground if there weren’t any changes to the “military special operation” soon.
Although Kadyrov’s paramilitary units were not particularly successful in the war in eastern Ukraine, this did not compel Kadyrov to criticize himself. The word of the brutal tyrant still carries weight in Russia.
Even if only the nationalist right criticizes Putin directly because of the course of the war, Russia’s president need not fear for his status for the foreseeable future. The calls by district deputies from St. Petersburg and Moscow for Putin to be deposed as president for high treason do not endanger Putin’s position.
Should he be criticized more for the setbacks in warfare in the future, Putin will also blame followers close to him and fire them. Before his star falls, he must blame others for the failures of the Russian army.
This is likely to get stuck for a while in the majority of the population, which supports Putin in this war, or at least is not against him. However, the mood could change if the purges fail to change the tricky war situation.
Gerhard Mangott is a professor of political science with a special focus on international relations and security in the post-Soviet space. He teaches at the Institute for Political Science in Innsbruck and is a lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna
People will then ask themselves more and more often why the “wise tsar” put people in decision-making positions who then obviously fail. Does the President have a lucky hand in his personnel selection? Is Putin perhaps responsible for the bad course of the war?
The mood in Russia could change after a while and strengthen the ranks of the war opponents, who are currently in the minority. Putin will then have to explain himself; it is doubtful how Putin could then justify himself.