Russia’s pro-war activists delivered over the weekend their most cutting criticism of the military’s performance in Ukraine to date, following the humiliating withdrawal of Russian troops from the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson. By Sunday, the drumbeat of denunciations broke the taboo against singling out President Vladimir Putin himself and Russia’s very system of government.
Alexander Dugin — the right-wing ideologue whose concept of a “Russian World” helped inspire the war — wrote online that the main job of an autocratic leader is to protect the people and the lands under his control. “The authorities in Russia cannot surrender anything else,” Dugin wrote. “The limit has been reached.”
He was hardly alone. Other social media posts questioned the authenticity of a September referendum in Kherson when the population was said by Russia to have voted overwhelmingly to become part of that country. The referendum’s results appeared in sharp contrast to the jubilant crowds that were seen welcoming Ukrainian soldiers as liberators Friday.
The Communist Party faction in the Duma, or Russian parliament, which rarely challenges the Kremlin, proposed demanding an explanation from the Ministry of Defense for ordering the withdrawal from Kherson, but Putin’s governing United Russia faction torpedoed that proposal.
Some analysts suggested that the flow of criticism indicated that Putin had failed to distance himself from the repeated setbacks in the war but that the volume had yet to constitute a real liability.
“Matters are definitely getting worse for Putin, but it is hard to know the extent because he has crossed so many lines and has still been able to keep control of his inner circle and those who matter,” said Maxim Trudolyubov, a political analyst and former newspaper editor now living in exile. “So far they have been successful in doing damage control.”
Top Russian officials and the state news media have taken the line that the withdrawal from Kherson was a temporary, tactical measure and that Russia’s annexation of the territory — a move condemned as illegal by Ukraine and the West — still holds.
Some of the most pointed criticism of the military comes from social media accounts linked to the Wagner Group, a mercenary army whose founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been critical of the generals. The military might be prone to dismiss the criticism as trying to make it look bad. Wagner, in general, advocates greater violence as the answer to any setbacks.
The loss of control over Kherson, the only regional capital that Russian forces had captured since the February invasion, clearly grated.
The Dugin post, which appeared on the website of the Tsargrad TV network, owned by a right-wing tycoon who endorses the restoration of a czar, suggested that the Kremlin was failing because it was relying on public relations rather than a real commitment to the “Russian idea.”
The post did not name Putin directly but made reference to a study of myths and religions that included the African tale of Kings of the Rain, slain for failing to make it rain amid a drought. Dugin later wrote on his page on Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, that Western analysts were falsely portraying him as having turned on Putin.
Dugin’s daughter Daria, an ultranationalist who echoed his thinking, was killed in a car bombing in an affluent suburb of Moscow in August. Russia blamed Ukraine for the attack, and U.S. intelligence agencies also said they believed that parts of the Ukrainian government had authorized the bombing.
Doubters of what the Kremlin was calling the “Kherson maneuver” invoked both history and strategy in faulting it.
The Kremlin tries to draw endless historical parallels between the war in Ukraine and the key role the Soviet Union played in defeating Nazi Germany, but one publication wrote that the surrender of Kherson failed to live up to that legacy.
Oleg Pakholkov, editor-in-chief of Bloknot, a southern regional outlet, noted that the defenders in Stalingrad had the choice to fall back across the Volga River but did not so they could “break the enemy and grind him down and to prove to the world that we can.”
“The surrender of Kherson says the opposite,” he wrote. “So soon those who took Kherson will come to other places. It looks like we have nothing with which to stop them.”
A few commentators wondered aloud why Russia did not use its nuclear arsenal and why the Russian military was not bombing the routes in western Ukraine used to import military supplies from the United States and Europe. Although it is a crime to question the war or the military directly, Putin thus far has been tolerant of zealots on the right who have criticized Russia as not fighting hard enough.
Still, even those charged with selling the official line — that the withdrawal was merely a maneuver and that Russia would be back — had trouble explaining Kherson. Vladimir Solovyov, one of the chief Kremlin cheerleaders on state television, swung between anger and frustration on his several talk shows. One minute he was blaming the West for arming Ukraine and the next railing against the incompetence and cowardice of some Russians who refused to fight.
Rybar, a popular Telegram channel, suggested that state-run television would try to “smooth over the bitter pill” by saying that history would eventually right the situation in Russia’s favor. “In the eyes of the population, this is a defeat,” it wrote. “It’s the loss of territories that the Russian Federation recognized as its own.”
Kherson was among four regions that Russia annexed in September even though it did not fully control them.
Some critics took the opportunity to raise questions about a system that vested so much authority in one man.
“His decisions are not up for discussion,” an editorial in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper, said of Putin. “Therefore, he himself cannot make mistakes because there is not mechanism to correct them. A leader who admits a mistake lowers his status, which puts his qualities into doubt.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta’s owner and editor, Konstantin Remchukov, is a member of the Russian establishment.
That thought was echoed in a Telegram post on a channel generally sympathetic to the government line. In this case it suggested that the Russian system would defeat any attempts to dismantle it.
“The Russian System, along with cockroaches, is one of the most tenacious organisms on earth, it too, we are sure, could survive a nuclear war,” the post read. “In fact, it is a continuation of the Soviet system, which betrayed its country, accepted its destruction and dismemberment in 1991 in order to survive.”
Buttressing the system is one reason most criticism is concentrated among right-wing military bloggers and other war supporters, analysts said, while people tied to the Kremlin are less likely to openly question Putin’s role in the course of a war that Russia started.
“They built a big lie, and they need to live this big lie,” Trudolyubov said.