September 13, 2022

Institute for the Study of War:  Kremlin acknowledges defeat in Kharkiv, blames Putin’s military advisers

Institute for the Study of War

The Kremlin acknowledged its defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, the first time Moscow has openly recognized a defeat since the start of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Kremlin officials and state media propagandists are extensively discussing the reasons for the Russian defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, a marked change from their previous pattern of reporting on exaggerated or fabricated Russian successes with limited detail.[1] The Kremlin never admitted that Russia was defeated around Kyiv or, later, at Snake Island, framing the retreat from Kyiv as a decision to prioritize the “liberation” of Donbas and the withdrawal from Snake Island as a “gesture of goodwill.”[2] The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) originally offered a similar explanation for the Russian failure in Kharkiv, claiming that Russian forces were withdrawing troops from Kharkiv Oblast to regroup, but this false narrative faced quick and loud criticism online.[3] The Kremlin’s acknowledgment of the defeat is part of an effort to mitigate and deflect criticism for such a devastating failure away from Russian President Vladimir Putin and onto the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the uniformed military command.

Kremlin sources are now working to clear Putin of any responsibility for the defeat, instead blaming the loss of almost all of occupied Kharkiv Oblast on underinformed military advisors within Putin’s circle.[4] One member of the Kremlin’s Council for Interethnic Relations, Bogdan Bezpalko, even stated that military officials who had failed to see the concentration of Ukrainian troops and equipment and disregarded Telegram channels that warned of the imminent Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkiv Oblast should have their heads ”lying on Putin’s desk.”[5] ISW has previously reported that the Kremlin delayed Putin‘s meeting with Russian defense officials immediately after the withdrawal of troops from around Kharkiv, increasing the appearance of a rift between the Kremlin and the Russian MoD.[6] The Kremlin’s admission of defeat in Kharkiv shows that Putin is willing and able to recognize and even accept a Russian defeat at least in some circumstances and focus on deflecting blame from himself.

Several members of the Russian State Duma expressed concern about the dire situation on the frontlines in Ukraine during the Duma’s first plenary meeting of its autumn session on September 13. Leader of the Russian Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov stated that Russia needs to announce full mobilization because the Russian “special military operation” is a war.[7] Zyuganov said that one can end a “special military operation” at any time, but that a war can end only in victory or defeat, and “we have no right to lose” this war.  Leader of the “Fair Russia—For Truth” Party Sergey Mironov called for social “mobilization,” in which regular Russians would pay attention more to the war in Ukraine, rather than for full military mobilization. Leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party Leonid Slutsky also noted that Russia will continue to fight in the geopolitical “scrum” with the West. All three MPs had publicly advocated for Putin to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR and LNR) before the February invasion and were instrumental in setting information conditions for the invasion itself.[8] The MPs also discussed a December date for the next hearing on a bill that will simplify the delivery of the semiannual conscription notices.[9] The bill, which is likely to pass, will allow Russian military recruitment centers to send out conscription notices via mail instead of presenting them in person and will oblige men who have not received a notice in the mail to show up at the local recruitment center anyway.[10]

The Kremlin is likely seeking to use the defeat in Kharkiv to facilitate crypto mobilization efforts. Zyuganov’s, Mironov’s, and Slutsky’s statements could be aimed at raising concern and patriotism among Russians to encourage them to get more involved in the war. The bill could further facilitate the ongoing crypto mobilization campaign, which aims to promote recruitment into contract service via deception, coercion, or promised financial rewards. Recruitment centers throughout Russia have been delivering unofficial summonses that look like conscription notices via mail and phone calls, but many men are aware that Russian law requires military recruitment centers to issue conscription notices in person.[11] Russian men who have responded to the unofficial summonses have recounted recruiters attempting to persuade or pressure them into signing a military contract. The bill legalizing mailed conscription notices will facilitate this dishonest practice. Both the bill and MPs’ statements may evoke fear of general mobilization among men, which could incentivize some to sign military contracts and receive financial bonuses for volunteering, as opposed to being conscripted and forced to serve without such compensation.

Nothing in the Duma bill suggests that Putin is preparing to order general mobilization, and it is far from clear that he could do so quickly. Large-scale conscription would very likely overwhelm the Russian MoD’s ability to induct, train, and equip new soldiers, particularly since the Russian training base appears to be strained in preparing the limited numbers of volunteer battalions currently being fielded. Russia would likely first have to expand its training base significantly, a time-consuming process, and then find and prepare for combat sufficient equipment to kit out large numbers of new units before it could even begin to handle a large influx of new conscripts. Widely-reported Russian materiel shortages suggest deep failures in the Russian military industry that would make generating the necessary equipment, ammunition, and supplies for a large conscript army very difficult. ISW has not identified any indicators that preparations for such activities have been ordered or are underway.

The Kremlin has adopted narratives that echo longstanding milblogger demands and complaints, suggesting that Putin seeks to appease and win back the critical milblogger community rather than censor it. Russian milbloggers have long complained about the Russian MoD and the military high command, and now the Kremlin state media is openly expressing dissatisfaction with the progress of the war and the lack of situational awareness of events on the ground.[12] Milbloggers are advertising Telegram channels covering frontline developments 24/7 and urging readers to subscribe if they “believe” in Putin.[13] Kremlin-controlled and Kremlin-influenced media are now openly calling for an intensive missile campaign against Ukrainian civilian critical infrastructure and transit routes, an idea with broad support among many milbloggers.[14] These new calls are a stark departure from the Kremlin‘s previous line claiming that Russian forces did not target civilian infrastructure, and this new narrative is earning the Kremlin public support among milbloggers. Slutsky’s statement at the Duma meeting pointing to the disinterest of most Russian civilians in the war echoes frequent milblogger complaints about the harmful side effects of conducting a limited war.[15]

Russia’s defeat in Kharkiv Oblast is causing panic among Russians in occupied Ukrainian territories, servicemen, and milbloggers. The Ukrainian Main Military Intelligence (GUR) reported that Russian authorities in Crimea urged their families to flee to Russia, while employees of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) are selling their homes on the peninsula and are urgently evacuating their families due to Ukrainian counter-offensives.[16] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that forcibly mobilized proxy units are suffering low morale and psychological problems.[17] Russian milbloggers are increasingly worrying about Ukrainian counter-offensives in different areas along the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblasts frontline, and preemptively identifying vulnerable Russian positions.[18]

Russia’s military failures in Ukraine are likely continuing to weaken Russia’s leverage in the former Soviet Union. Armenia accused Azerbaijan of violating a Russian-brokered ceasefire and attacking Armenian forces along the Azerbaijan-Armenian border on September 13.[19] Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and convened a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) member states later in the day but did not invoke the CSTO’s collective security agreement, according to government readouts of both meetings.[20] The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not comment on whether the Kremlin would fulfill its CSTO obligations to Armenia if Azerbaijan continued to press its attack.[21] Russia’s hedging approach may damage Russia’s relationship with Armenia and with other CSTO member states, particularly If Russia cannot provide military or peacekeeping support.

The CSTO is a Russia-created and Russia-dominated intergovernmental military alliance that the Kremlin claims is about collective security, but typically uses to justify or further its hybrid war aims.  The degraded Russian military likely does not have sufficient forces to enforce a ceasefire or to deploy additional peacekeepers to the area after six months of devastating war in Ukraine. ISW reported on March 13 that Russia pulled 800 personnel from Russia’s base in Armenia and elements of its Nagorno-Karabakh “peacekeeping deployment” to replenish early losses in Ukraine.[22] ISW has observed no redeployments to Nagorno-Karabakh or Russia’s base in Armenia since then.

Key Takeaways

  • The Kremlin has recognized its defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, the first defeat Russia has acknowledged in this war. The Kremlin is deflecting blame from Russian President Vladimir Putin and attributing it instead to his military advisors.
  • The Kremlin is likely seeking to use the defeat in Kharkiv to facilitate crypto mobilization efforts by intensifying patriotic rhetoric and discussions about fuller mobilization while revisiting a Russian State Duma bill allowing the military to send call-ups for the regular semiannual conscription by mail. Nothing in the Duma bill suggests that Putin is preparing to order general mobilization, and it is far from clear that he could do so quickly in any case.
  • The successful Ukrainian counter-offensive around Kharkiv Oblast is prompting Russian servicemen, occupation authorities, and milbloggers to panic.
  • Russia’s military failures in Ukraine are likely continuing to weaken Russia’s leverage in the former Soviet Union as Russia appears unwilling to enforce a violated ceasefire it brokered between Armenia and Azerbaijan or to allow Armenia to invoke provisions of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization in its defense.
  • Ukrainian troops likely continued ground attacks along the Lyman-Yampil-Bilohorivka line in northern Donetsk Oblast and may be conducting limited ground attacks across the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast.
  • Russian and Ukrainian sources indicated that Ukrainian forces are continuing ground maneuvers in three areas of Kherson Oblast as part of the ongoing southern counter-offensive.
  • Russian troops made incremental gains south of Bakhmut and continued ground attacks throughout Donetsk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian forces provided the first visual evidence of Russian forces using an Iranian-made drone in Ukraine on September 13.]

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