When General Sergei Surovikin was appointed supreme commander of Russian forces in Ukraine a month ago, media cheerleaders in the Kremlin hailed him as just the kind of tough warrior needed to bring order to the faltering invasion. “General Armageddon,” some called him.
The general appeared on state television in a very different role on Wednesday: he was the designated bearer of bad news and announced that Russia should give up the southern regional capital of Kherson to save the lives of its soldiers there.
President Vladimir V. Putin, who a few weeks earlier declared Kherson Russia for eternity during a belligerent appearance on Red Square in Moscow, was elsewhere – celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Federal Medical-Biological Agency.
The distance was intentional. However, with each new significant setback in Ukraine, it is becoming more difficult for Mr Putin to shake off the whiff of failure that is beginning to erode his image as a determined, indomitable leader.
“This is a personal regime and, in general, the public understands very well that Putin is behind all major decisions,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter-turned-political adviser. “He’s the central pillar in the building of the system, and when he trembles, the whole system trembles.”
Of course, there is no immediate challenge to Mr. Putin’s considerable power, and the combination of a muscular propaganda machine and draconian laws to silence dissent does little to generate a wave of public protest. But after Kherson was presented as a key loot seized early in the war that would provide a stepping stone to conquering the entire Black Sea coast, each new step backwards begs the question of why the Russians should trust the Kremlin.
“It will destroy the narrative of Putin as the great leader,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a Washington-based political risk assessment firm. “It will be another problem for him if he tries to win over the Russian public to his war effort. You don’t lose your greatest prize and you don’t suffer from it at all.”
To end what has turned into a war gone awry, Mr Putin needs some sort of triumph, analysts said. Fighting on risks more failures, but stopping his invasion with little to show would undermine his main justification for his more than 20 years at the helm – rebuilding Russia as a great power.
Mr Putin doesn’t need a real win, Mr Gallyamov said, just something to sell to make Russia fare better than before. “He can’t stop and can’t keep going,” he said, “so he’s at a dead end.”
The Kremlin propaganda machine went into action to blunt any criticism of the withdrawal from Russian-held areas west of the Dnipro River, including Kherson. Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent talk show host, called it a “difficult” decision on state television and warned: “Trust the generals.”
Mr. Putin has long banished generals to the back seat, fearing someone might steal his limelight. But General Surovikin has garnered a high public profile, particularly through the theatrical performance associated with recommending the withdrawal at a military briefing to Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, who then gave the order. The President wants someone else to be the face of defeat.
The state media – and they’ve basically all been state-run since the beginning of the war – rolled out their euphemism nutcase and dubbed the withdrawal the “Kherson maneuver” or a “regrouping,” insisting it was just one act as a temporary setback.
The Kremlin also appeared to have taken advance steps to mitigate any criticism from two of the military’s harshest critics: Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen Republic’s militant leader, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner military company. Mr Kadyrov said General Surovikin was acting like a “true combat general,” while Mr Prigozhin, an ally of the general who has worked for years to wipe out opposition in Syria, also praised the decision.
With each new defeat, Russian experts said the country was fighting the entire West, whose united front would soon collapse. This time, pro-Kremlin commentators also noted that for centuries, Russian forces have emerged victorious in what initially looked like disastrous defeats, including World War II.
But cracks emerged among right-wing supporters of the war, including military bloggers who described the withdrawal in disastrous terms. Konstantin Malofeev, a tycoon with his own religiously-oriented TV channel, said Russia has become a nation with greedy commercial interests and needs to revive its fighting spirit. “We are warriors. We are the empire,” he wrote on his Telegram channel.
Divisions among prominent pro-war voices could give Mr Putin some breathing room, analysts said.
There were also voices of scorn, although most of this criticism was quashed by threats of lengthy prison terms. Where does Russia’s territory end, one man wryly asked on Twitter, writing in an expletive: “Where it wasn’t beaten.”
From a military perspective, the withdrawal actually made sense, analysts said, assuming it wasn’t a ruse. The estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Russian troops holding Kherson and its environs are among the best and most experienced troops Russia has left after losing so many such units in the battles for Kyiv and Kharkiv earlier this year, Edward Arnold said , a former British Army Infantry Officer and European Security Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Although withdrawing troops across the Dnipro is a risky operation under fire, he said, a successful withdrawal means “they are able to retain some of their combat capability, which is really necessary.”
Russian troops are heavily entrenched on the east bank of the river, and from there the front line stretches northeast for hundreds of kilometers. Beyond that line lies the Donbass — the industrialized region of south-eastern Ukraine over which both sides have been fighting for eight years — as well as the land bridge linking Russia to Crimea and the canal that supplies water to the illegally annexed peninsula.
Preserving all of this land is far more important to Mr Putin and his war aims than the city of Kherson itself, analysts noted.
Some suggested taking the step at face value; that the eastern bank of the Dnipro River would be much easier to defend. If fighting becomes less intense over the winter, Russia could use the lull to consolidate its hold in the area and train new soldiers better than the thousands of green conscripts who are now being thrown out to plug holes.
Moscow may even propose a ceasefire and negotiations, although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has flatly rejected anything of the sort while Russia still holds large swathes of Ukrainian territory. US officials have reportedly tried to push Kyiv in this direction while publicly denying it; Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday a winter break would be an opportunity for peace talks.
The problem for Mr Putin now is that he sold Kherson as the main prize in the transition to Russian rule, suggesting he was recreating Novorossiya, or Novorossiya, the lower half of Ukraine first conquered by Empress Catherine the Great.
“This has been Putin’s jewel in the crown of the war so far,” Mr Kupchan said. “I must say that his crown is remarkably unjeweled.”
Ivan Nechepurenko and Oleg Matsnev contributed to the coverage.