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‘We’ve lost the real war’ How Russian elites feel about Moscow’s retreat from Kherson
Story by Andrey Pertsev. Translation by Sam Breazeale.
On November 9, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu ordered the country’s troops to withdraw from the right bank of the Dnipro River in Ukraine’s Kherson region, which would entail fully retreating from the city of Kherson itself. Losing Kherson was just the latest in a long series of humiliating military losses for Russia’s leadership, but it came with an extra sting: from the Kremlin’s perspective, the entire Kherson region has been “Russian” territory since Moscow staged a sham “referendum” there in early September. Meduza has learned from sources close to the Putin administration and the Russian government that the retreat did indeed cause a shift in how Russian elites are thinking about their country’s future — but that most Russians, preoccupied with fears of mobilization, took little notice of the withdrawal.
It’s no surprise that few in Russia’s ruling class were pleased about the country’s retreat from Kherson just one week ago. Still, sources from the Putin administration and the Russian government who spoke to Meduza wanted to reiterate: the withdrawal was a “very painful event” for the Russian elite.
One source close to businessmen from Putin’s “inner circle” put the situation in even starker terms: “It’s started to dawn on people: we’ve lost the real war. People are starting to think about how to move forward, what position they’d like to take in the future, what bet to make, what hand to play. [On one hand,] there’s going to be revanchist sentiment. On the other, there will be demand for normalization and stabilization.”
The mood in the Putin administration’s political bloc is slightly more optimistic. According to one of Meduza’s sources, the Kremlin is still hoping that the West’s “consensus in support of Ukraine will collapse” due to its need for cheap energy.
Another one of the Kremlin’s hopes, Meduza’s sources said, is that Ukraine’s domestic political situation will change drastically and Volodymyr Zelensky will leave office, though it’s unclear why Russian elites see that scenario as plausible.
Additionally, some in the Kremlin reportedly believe that a few months from now, the Russian army will become more effective as a result of mobilization and will turn the tide on the battlefield.
On the other hand, according to one source, the average Russian took little, if any, notice of the Kherson retreat — and that wasn't lost on the Putin administration:
Society has barely noticed it at all; people aren’t interested. [Propaganda networks] hadn’t managed to [effectively] promote the annexation of Kherson. Thankfully, it was overshadowed by mobilization. At first, we thought that was a bad thing, but now, it turns out, the failure helped us. People weren’t enthusiastic about Kherson, so it’s easier for them to accept the official explanations about how it was necessary to abandon it.
Independent survey data appears to confirm these claims.
One high-ranking source from a regional administration said that his region “is far from Kherson” and has gone on with “its own life.” At the same time, other regional politicians and businessmen told Meduza they don’t believe the Kremlin will be able to turn the situation around.
A source from one of the Russian ruling party’s regional offices summarized the overall sentiment: “What happened in Kherson is seen as a disgrace and a consequence of the chaos in our government. People suspected it to a certain extent, but we didn’t know it was this bad.”
One other regional official admitted that people in his social circle are “beginning to get the sense that it’s somebody else’s war.”
Previously, the “special [military] operation was something in the background that you might even be able to take pride in. Especially if you only paid attention to official state media. After mobilization, it was a part of life, but nobody had asked you about it… They were fighting up at the top (and without any success) and it was affecting us.
A similar feeling appears to have taken hold among members of the Putin administration and the federal government. Meduza’s sources acknowledged that amid the constant military defeats, they’ve become more concerned about the “complete opacity of our country’s top leadership.”
“We’re not privy to anything; we learn a lot of our information from the news — and from Ukrainian and Western sources at that. It looks like we’re constantly making concessions while also trying to cover them up and hide them,” a source close to the government told Meduza, adding that Kremlin’s recent hemming and hawing regarding the Black Sea grain deal left a “bleak impression.”
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The source also noted that the members of the Russian elite who “aren’t completely going along with the special [military] operation” are looking wiser and wiser. As Meduza has previously reported, a number of Russian officials have opted for obeying war-related orders from their superiors while at the same time refraining from making militarist speeches. Meduza’s sources named Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin as two examples.
Nonetheless, Meduza’s sources maintained that despite the widespread discontent surrounding the war, Russian officials and businessmen have no intention of taking any measures against Putin himself. “We just want all of this to be over as soon as possible,” one said.
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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