TALLINN, Estonia — When Russia’s top military officials announced on television that they were withdrawing troops from the key city of Kherson in southern Ukraine, one man was missing from the room, President Vladimir Putin.
When Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Sergei Surovikin, Russia’s supreme commander in Ukraine, stiffly explained the reasons for the withdrawal in front of cameras on November 9, Putin was touring a neurological hospital in Moscow and watching a doctor perform brain surgery.
Later that day, Putin spoke at another event but made no mention of the withdrawal from Kherson – arguably Russia’s most humiliating withdrawal from Ukraine. In the days that followed, he did not comment publicly on the subject.
Putin’s silence comes as Russia faces mounting setbacks in nearly nine months of fighting. The Russian leader appears to have delegated the delivery of bad news to others – a tactic he has used during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kherson was the only regional capital captured by Moscow’s forces in Ukraine, and fell into Russian hands in the early days of the invasion. Russia occupied the city and most of the outlying region, a key gateway to the Crimean peninsula, for months.
Moscow illegally annexed the Kherson region along with three other Ukrainian provinces earlier this year. Putin personally hosted a pompous Kremlin ceremony in September to formalize the steps, proclaiming that “people living in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhia will forever become our citizens.”
A little over a month later, however, the tricolor flags of Russia were lowered over government buildings in Kherson and replaced by the yellow and blue flags of Ukraine.
The Russian military reported the completion of the withdrawal from Kherson and the surrounding areas to the east bank of the Dnieper on November 11. Since then, Putin has not mentioned the withdrawal in any of his public appearances.
Putin “continues to live by the old logic: this is not a war, it is a special operation, major decisions are made by a small circle of ‘professionals’ while the President keeps his distance,” political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya wrote in a recent op-ed.
Putin, who was once rumored to be personally overseeing the military campaign in Ukraine and issuing battlefield orders to generals, appeared this week to be focusing on anything but the war.
He discussed bankruptcy procedures and problems in the automotive industry with government officials, spoke to a Siberian governor about encouraging investments in his region, made phone calls to various world leaders and met with the new President of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
On Tuesday, Putin chaired a video meeting on World War II monuments. That day he was scheduled to speak at the G20 summit in Indonesia – but not only did he choose not to attend, he didn’t even videoconference or send a recorded speech.
The WWII commemoration was the only one in recent days where some Ukrainian cities – but not Kherson – were mentioned. After the meeting, Putin signed decrees giving the occupied cities of Melitopol and Mariupol the title of “City of Military Glory”, while Luhansk was honored as the “City of Merit to Labour”.
Independent political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin attributed Putin’s silence to the fact that he has built a political system similar to that of the Soviet Union, in which a leader – or “vozhd” in Russian, a term used to refer to Joseph Stalin describe – is by definition incapable of making mistakes.
“Putin and Putin’s system … is set up so that all defeats are blamed on someone else: enemies, traitors, a stab in the back, global Russophobia – everything, really,” Oreshkin said. “So if he lost somewhere, firstly that’s not true and secondly – he wasn’t.”
Some of Putin’s supporters questioned such an apparent distancing from what even pro-Kremlin circles saw as critical developments in the war.
That Putin was on the phone with the leaders of Armenia and the Central African Republic at the time of the Kherson withdrawal was more troubling than “the actual Kherson tragedy,” pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov said in a post on Facebook.
“At first I didn’t even believe the news, it was so unbelievable,” Markov said, describing Putin’s behavior as a “demonstration of total retreat.”
Others tried to put a positive spin on the disengagement and involve Putin. Pro-Kremlin TV presenter Dmitry Kiselev said in his flagship news program Sunday night that the logic behind the Kherson pullout was “to save people.”
According to Kiselev, speaking in front of a large photo of Putin looking busy with the caption “To save people,” it was the same logic the president is using — “to save people, and under certain circumstances, any person.”
That’s how some ordinary Russians can see the pullback, analysts say.
“Given the growing number of people who want peace talks, even among Putin’s supporters, any such maneuver is taken lightly or even as a sign of possible disenchantment — labor savings, the possibility of peace,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior Carnegie fellow endowment
For Russia’s hawks — vocal Kremlin supporters who have called for drastic action on the battlefield and were unenthusiastic about pulling out of Kherson — there are regular missile attacks on Ukraine’s power grid, analyst Oreshkin said.
Moscow started on a Tuesday. With about 100 missiles and drones fired at targets across Ukraine, it was the largest attack yet on the country’s power grid, plunging millions into darkness.
Oreshkin believes that such attacks do not cause too much damage to the Ukrainian military and do not change much on the battlefield.
“But it is necessary to create an image of a victorious ‘Wozhd’. So it is necessary to carry out some kind of strike and shout loudly about it. That’s what I think they’re doing right now,” he said.
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