In late August, occupation authorities in the eastern Ukrainian town of Kupyansk held celebrations to mark Russian Flag Day.
A few dozen people — including both pro-Kremlin activists and locals who had stayed in the town after it was captured by Russian forces six months ago — unfurled an enormous 60mx40m Russian tricolour on the main square, then waved flags and danced to a medley of patriotic tunes.
Just a few weeks later, the Russian occupying forces were gone after a surprise Ukrainian attack forced them to surrender more than 3,000 sq km of territory, leaving tanks, armoured vehicles and supplies.
The stunning reversal has shattered the mantra, repeated by senior officials visiting occupied territories over the spring and summer, that “Russia is here forever” in southeastern Ukraine.
Backed by western weapons and intelligence, Ukraine’s lightning counter-offensive across the Kharkiv region has shifted the momentum of the war, laying bare the vulnerability of Russia’s overstretched invasion forces and shattering the illusion of normalcy at home the Kremlin has worked to sustain.
The dramatic retreat on the battlefield is only one of a number of Ukraine setbacks that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has faced this week.
Russia’s budget surplus for the year has almost evaporated, according to figures published this week, due to weaker oil prices and dwindling gas deliveries to Europe — potentially putting even greater pressure on the economy. The EU is mobilising for an energy war with Moscow with no sign of weakening resolve over western sanctions against Russia.
Non-western leaders who have until now stood by Moscow have begun to distance themselves from the Kremlin’s war. The Russian president acknowledged at a summit on Thursday in Uzbekistan that his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping had “questions and concerns” about the invasion. On Friday, India’s Narendra Modi publicly rebuked Putin at the same summit, saying “today’s era is not an era of war”.
Since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February, the Russian leader has maintained the public stance that it is a “special military operation” — a term designed to introduce a sense of business as usual in domestic life, evoking far-off conflicts in places like Syria rather than Russians’ traumatic memories of bloody, grinding wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan.
But that position is becoming increasingly untenable — both from a military point of view and in terms of domestic politics.
Some military analysts believe he has little choice but to order a significant escalation of the conflict.
“By the end of this year, the Kremlin will lose almost all of its artillery ammunition, almost all of its armoured vehicles, battle tanks and the main part of its ground forces,” says Pavel Luzin, an expert on the Russian military. “How can you continue the war without artillery and troops?”
He also finds himself being under pressure at home not just from the liberal opposition, much of which has either fled the country or is too fearful to criticise the invasion, but also from the right, including some of the most prominent cheerleaders of the war who are urging him to escalate.
With no victory in sight, it is becoming increasingly difficult to shield Russians from the war’s blowback.
“He’s playing a very dangerous game,” says Alexei Venediktov, the longtime editor of liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, which was closed down in March.
“It’s a battle of resources, and the most important resource is time. Now either he waits out longer than Europe [during the winter], or the Russian people get tired,” Venediktov adds. “And it’s unclear what collapses first — Putin, or everyone else.”
Shadowy drive for recruits
On Wednesday, a video emerged online of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a caterer-turned-warlord known as “Putin’s chef”, addressing convicts in a Russian prison yard.
Prigozhin urged the prisoners to fight on the front lines in Wagner, a shadowy paramilitary group the US says he runs. If they survived six months, they would get amnesty; if they deserted, he said, they would be executed.
The video highlighted how Russia has been forced to adapt as the war drags on with no victory in sight.
Russia’s covert operations are now overt: Wagner advertises on billboards across Russia. Prigozhin appeared to confirm the video’s authenticity after denying the group’s very existence for years.
The apparent drive to recruit prisoners for Prigozhin’s militia has made Russia’s manpower problems starker still. “Either mercenaries and inmates [fight], or your children do — decide for yourselves,” Prigozhin wrote in a subsequent social media post.
Russia’s problems only begin there. By cutting off Russia’s main north-south supply line and occupying a vital staging ground for Moscow’s troops, Ukraine has in effect scuppered the Kremlin’s stated objective of “liberating” the entire Donbas region, say analysts. It has given Kyiv’s forces battlefield momentum and Ukraine’s western allies reassurance that it will prevail with their support.
“This counter-offensive shows very well that the Russian armed forces are exhausted,” says Luzin.
Russia’s defense ministry acknowledged the retreat but described it as a “regrouping”.
Moscow’s setback in Kharkiv has stirred criticism from the most virulent pro-war camp at home, which has openly bemoaned the defeat and raced to find someone to blame.
This more radical, sabre-rattling group has long criticised the Kremlin for not going far enough in its assault on Ukraine. It wants Putin to declare a full-scale war, propelling Russia’s large conscript army into battle and mobilising the wider population and economy.
“For the first half-year of the conflict Russia has been waging war like Britain once did in its colonies,” says Alexander Borodai, a Russian MP who commands three volunteer battalions currently fighting in Ukraine. “The brave little English soldiers in red are fighting somewhere in India. And the metropole is going on as usual with its balls, society galas and salons.”
Borodai, who previously led a Moscow-backed Donbas separatist government, adds: “Sometimes a sun-tanned, hopped-up Rudyard Kipling comes to read his romantic poetry about blood, dust and sand. They applaud, donate to charity, and then he goes back and life goes on.”
This ultranationalist camp is a minority, existing on the fringes of Russian politics, and is mostly made up of military bloggers and other commentators writing on the Telegram messaging app.
However, it can still have political resonance. “History is made by the minorities,” says Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of Moscow political consultancy R.Politik.
The hyperactivity of the ultranationalist group, and its highly vocal and emotional response to the defeat in Kharkiv, is affecting the mainstream pro-Kremlin elite, from the TV anchors to the technocrats, making its members nervous, says Stanovaya.
“If before, their fears were around the war dragging on, and potentially lasting years . . . Now, fears have appeared that Russia could lose,” she says. “This raises questions about the future of everyone who plays a role and whose fate is tied up with that of the government.”
The ultranationalist critique has not gone unnoticed in the Kremlin. Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday sent a barely veiled threat, warning them to not take the clamouring too far — a rare admission that criticism may be unsettling Russia’s leadership.
“When it comes to other points of view, critical ones, when these stay within the bounds of the existing legislation, it’s pluralism,” Peskov said. “But the line is very, very thin. One has to be very careful here.”
For the time-being, the ultranationalist group’s views do not align with those of the wider population. The majority of Russians appear happy to passively support Putin and the war, but prefer to pay as little attention to it as possible. Their support is predicated on them not having to escalate their involvement.
These “laymen”, as Greg Yudin, head of Political Philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, has termed them, are “completely depoliticised” and don’t want to engage in any way with the war.
Some of the war’s supporters have proposed half-measures to boost the war effort without alienating what Venediktov calls the “indifferently loyal” bulk of the population.
Borodai suggests a partial mobilisation of up to 400,000 men and declaring martial law only on Russia’s border. “It’s long past time to admit we are at war. And everything else follows from that,” he says.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, suggested that the government try a “self-mobilisation” approach instead.
This would put the burden of mobilisation on regional leaders, rather than on the Kremlin or ministry of defence. Moscow has deployed this tactic for unpopular policies before, most notably during the pandemic, when Putin wanted to introduce lockdowns without taking responsibility for them.
Options for Putin
Putin’s response to the setbacks in Ukraine remains a mystery. Even six months after Russia’s troops swarmed over all of eastern and central Ukraine, Putin has attempted to keep his options open. In public, he speaks repeatedly about efforts to gain control of the whole of Donbas but rarely mentions other hotspots such as Kharkiv and Kherson.
But as a result, “nobody knows why we need Kharkiv, as opposed to the Donbas,” a person close to the Kremlin says. “Putin might know what he wants, but the rest are all guessing. He’s been in power for 20 years and has become this godlike figure. So we assume he must know what he wants. But he’s not explaining it to the people who are actually doing the work.”
Speaking on Friday, Putin insisted that Russia would not change its operational plans and that its main goal remained “liberating all of the Donbas.” He claimed Russia’s offensive operations were bringing more territory under its control.
“We are not fighting with the whole army, but only part of it,” Putin said, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. “We are not in a rush.”
Putin could choose to escalate the conflict. This week Russia stepped up missile strikes on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, hitting the power network, district heating plants and hydroelectric installations, in what Ukrainian prime minister Denys Shmyhal described as an attempt to terrorise the Ukrainian population as winter approaches.
Though Russian radicals reacted with glee, “revenge is an act of helplessness”, the person close to the Kremlin says. “The most dangerous situation is if Russia loses, because then Putin might turn to more unconventional means.”
Putin could also try to expand the conflict by provoking a clash with Nato, says Luzin, thereby justifying a full mobilisation at home to expand the armed forces. But military experts say it would take several months to produce trained men integrated into military units with commanders and equipment.
Such a move would also make the war impossible to ignore for ordinary Russians — with potential consequences for Putin’s popularity. Yet as Ukraine advances, the radicals are urging him to go further.
“Most Russians want us to stop playing at the ‘special military operation,’ take our white gloves off, and really hit Kyiv where it hurts. We haven’t been doing this so far out of politeness,” Borodai says.
He insists the retreat will only prove a minor setback. “At the start of the second world war, Russia and the Soviet Union suffered the most terrible defeats on the battlefield, but ended the war in Berlin,” Borodai says. “So maybe this campaign will end like that one, too — perhaps right there, in Berlin?”