Russian military bloggers and nationalist commentators have been complaining for weeks about the state of Russian President Vladimir Putin's "special military operation" in Ukraine. But after Ukraine routed Russian forces in northeastern Kharkiv province over the weekend, that criticism went nearly mainstream.
Russian military leaders "have made mistakes," said Kremlin-backed Chechnya strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. "If they don't make changes in the strategy of conducting the special military operation in the next day or two, I will be forced to contact the leadership of the Defense Ministry and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground."
Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov criticized the government's lavish public celebration of Moscow's 875th birthday on Saturday. "The fireworks in Moscow on a tragic day of Russia's military defeat will have extremely serious political consequences," he wrote. "Authorities mustn't celebrate when people are mourning." Sergei Mironov, the leader of a pro-Putin party in Parliament, agreed, tweeting, "It cannot be and it should not be that our guys are dying today, and we are pretending that nothing is happening!"
The criticism even broke through on Russian state TV.
So far, the criticism has focused on the Defense Ministry, shielding Putin "from the responsibility for setting unattainable goals for the invasion and likely micromanaging military operations," the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War reports.
But "Ukraine's rout of Russian forces this weekend is creating a new kind of political challenge" for Putin, undercutting "the image of competence and might that he has worked for two decades to build," The New York Times reports. Putin now finds himself "presiding over a six-month war against an increasingly energized enemy and a Russian populace that does not appear to be prepared for the sacrifices that could come with an escalating conflict," largely because the Kremlin has been telling them "the Russian Army is undefeatable," Ukraine "is riddle with corruption and cowardice," and "Putin is a brilliant geopolitical strategist."
"Strength is the only source of Putin's legitimacy," Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin who now lives in Israel, told the Times. "And in a situation in which it turns out that he has no strength, his legitimacy will start dropping toward zero." If Ukrainian forces "continue to destroy the Russian army as actively as they are now," he added, "then all this can accelerate even faster."