In a vain bid to celebrate his illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday congratulated educators on Teachers’ Day, and promised to organize restful autumn holidays for schoolchildren in “restless and even dangerous” areas of Ukraine. But even as he spoke, Russian forces continued to retreat from the territories Putin just claimed as his own.
“I congratulate school workers in all 89 regions of Russia,” Putin said in his video message, emphasizing his new tally of Russian federal subjects — increased by four with the addition of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in Ukraine that he is trying to seize.
Putin’s surreal message to the war-torn areas amid cascading Russian military setbacks on the battlefield created a stark split-screen between the image of control that the Kremlin is trying to project and the reality on the front lines, where Russia has been losing ground for weeks. Earlier Wednesday, the president had signed legislation to absorb the seized regions into Russia despite his lack of control.
As he spoke, the Russian leader gave no indication that his grip on the regions had already slipped. “Let me emphasize: Russia has been and will be sovereign,” he said, adding: “Above all, it is necessary to convey the moral cultural code of the Russian people to the children and exclude attempts to impose alien and perverted interpretations of history.”
Highlighting the contradiction between Putin’s claim that Russia will remain in the four annexed Ukrainian regions “forever” and the situation on the ground, the president’s spokesman conceded Wednesday that “certain areas” in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions were under Kyiv’s control and still needed to be retaken.
“Control will be regained, nonetheless, over certain territories there, and we will continue to consult with that part of the population expressing the desire to live with Russia,” the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a conference call with reporters.
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The veneer of a successful annexation Putin hoped to create is wearing thin in Russia amid ongoing criticism of his botched military mobilization — aimed at calling up 300,000 new troops — and glum reports of new battlefield losses by hawkish military correspondents with massive online audiences.
“Friends, I know that you expect me to comment on the situation, but I really don’t know what to tell you,” pro-Russian military reporter Roman Saponkov wrote on Telegram about losses along the Dnieper River. “The retreat from the north of the right bank in the Kherson region is a disaster.”
“Vysokopillya, Lyubimovka, Velyka Oleksandrivka, Davydov Grid, these places have been showered with the blood of our soldiers,” Saponkov added, listing key towns in Kherson that the Ukrainian army captured in just 48 hours.
Only a month after Russian forces were routed from the northeast Kharkiv region in a lightning offensive, Ukrainian troops have made gains in Donetsk, and are pushing into Luhansk, the region where Russia is most firmly in control.
As Moscow acknowledged its defenses in the south had been breached, Russian audiences saw tense exchanges on television, as top propagandists struggled to explain why the military was experiencing setback after setback.
“We have lost 17 settlements in the Kherson region,” Alexander Sladkov, a war reporter with the Russia 1 state channel, said on air during one of the main talk shows, “60 Minutes.”
“This is concerning, to say the least. Why there was no cover there?” the host, Olga Skabeeva, responded.
“We are waiting for the reinforcement. It is coming, but if we throw them into battle now, pardon me, what will happen to them?” Sladkov asked rhetorically. “If we mobilized 300,000 people at the beginning of the war, when we had heavy casualties, we would’ve spent them, too. Now it’s different; we understand now that a soldier has to be prepared.”
“When will there be positive changes for Russia?” Skabeeva wondered.
“If we are talking about big, significant offensives, I would say two months,” Sladkov replied.
Putin is betting that the tens of thousands of newly mobilized men will be able to shore up his depleted ranks in Ukraine, and allow leave for exhausted soldiers, some of whom haven’t been rotated out since the start of the invasion in late February.
“In many sectors of the front line, fatigue has sunk in after a long offensive period, during which large territories were liberated,” Alexander Kots, a military correspondent for Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, wrote Tuesday on his Telegram blog. “But there is no longer any strength left to hold them.”
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Western military experts say the Russian leader may be running out of time to turn around his ailing war effort, and faces a difficult choice: spend more time training the reinforcements and risk further Ukrainian advances, or throw the men into battle quickly and hope they can hold ground despite a lack of combat experience.
Roman Starovoit, the governor of the Kursk region in western Russia, which is one of the key staging grounds for the invasion, described the state of some military units he recently toured as “awful.”
“I cannot understand how an active training unit of the Ministry of Defense can be in such a condition,” Starovoit said. “A ruined canteen, broken and rusty showers, lack of beds, and the existing ones are broken.”
“There is a lack of uniforms, the parade ground looks as if it had been bombed,” the governor added. “It is good that, at least, there is equipment and weapons.”
The Russian Defense Ministry has said the newly mobilized soldiers will receive “up to one month of training.” But there have been multiple reports of military commissariats deploying soldiers to the front just days after they were summoned.
The problems with the mobilization announced two weeks ago have snowballed so quickly that more than 20 Russian regional governors resorted to a rare public admission that mistakes had been made, while dismissing several enlistment officers.
There have been widespread reports of men unfit to serve being called to duty, including some who are blind, deaf, disabled or elderly.
In a speech Wednesday, Putin blamed the Defense Ministry for not cementing exemptions for students, professionals of key industries and others.
“Initially, the Ministry of Defense reported that several categories of our citizens did not need to be called up as part of mobilization, but they still did not make the relevant changes to the regulations,” Putin said. “We now have to make appropriate corrections.”
At least nine mobilized soldiers died even before they got to the battlefield, some of heart ailments, raising further questions about whether enlistment officers are adhering to health criteria for recruits. Others lost their lives under murky circumstances, including a young man who died Sunday at a training site in Krasnoyarsk after a conflict between him and other men, according to local media.
Three deaths were reported at one garrison in the Sverdlovsk region: one man died of a heart attack, another by suicide, while a third succumbed to liver failure linked to excessive alcohol consumption after he had been sent home, an official told local news outlet EA News.
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The deaths reveal deeper issues in the mobilization efforts, linked to low morale and abysmal conditions in some training centers, where mobilized men sometimes have to sleep on the floor and where the Defense Ministry apparently lacks such basic provisions as socks, adequate food and uniforms.
“Our guys need thermal underwear, warm socks, gloves, cigarettes, sugar, and canned meat,” a message read in one of the groups on Vkontakte, a social media site, organized by mothers and wives of Russian soldiers who are trying to crowdsource gear.
One of the women in the chatroom, Anna, wrote that her husband was called up recently and was in need of combat boots.