Ukraine war: What will Russia’s losses mean for Putin?

You can normally expect Russian state TV’s flagship weekly news programme to trumpet Kremlin successes.

But Sunday’s edition opened with a rare admission.

“On the frontlines of the special operation [in Ukraine], this has been the toughest week so far,” declared sombre-looking anchor Dmitry Kiselev. “It was particularly tough along the Kharkiv front, where following an onslaught by enemy forces that outnumbered ours, [Russian] troops were forced to leave towns they had previously liberated.” For “liberated”, read “seized”. Moscow had occupied those areas months ago, but after a lightning counter-offensive by the Ukrainian army, the Russian military has lost considerable territory in north-east Ukraine. Still, Russian state media are putting a brave face on things. Officially, what happened in Kharkiv region isn’t being referred to here as a “retreat”. “The Russian defence ministry dismissed rumours that Russian troops fled in disgrace from Balakliya, Kupiansk and Izyum,” claimed the latest edition of the government paper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta. “They didn’t flee. This was a pre-planned regrouping.” In tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, a military analyst took a different view: “It’s already clear that we underestimated the enemy. [Russian forces] took too long to react and the collapse came… As a result, we suffered a defeat and tried to minimise the loss by withdrawing our troops so they weren’t surrounded.” This “defeat” has sparked anger on pro-Russian social media channels and among “patriotic” Russian bloggers, who have accused their military of making mistakes. So has the powerful leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. “If today or tomorrow no changes in strategy are made,” Mr Kadyrov warned, “I will be forced to speak with the leadership of the defence ministry and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground to them. It’s a very interesting situation. It’s astounding.” It’s more than six months since Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the days that followed, I remember Russian politicians, commentators and analysts on TV here predicting that what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation” would be wrapped up within days; that the Ukrainian people would greet Russian troops as liberators, and that Ukraine’s government would collapse like a pack of cards. Instead, more than six months on, the Russian army has been losing ground. So, here’s a key question: will this have political consequences for Vladimir Putin? After all, for more than 20 years, Mr Putin has, within the Russian elite, enjoyed a reputation for being a winner; for always managing to extricate himself from the tightest of spots; in short, for being invincible. I’ve often viewed him as the Russian version of famous escape artist Harry Houdini. Whatever knots or chains he got tied up in, Mr Putin always managed to slip free.

That changed after 24 February.

The last six months suggest that President Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was a major miscalculation. Unable to secure a rapid victory, Russia got bogged down in a long, bloody offensive, and has suffered a series of embarrassing defeats.

  • A successful surprise attack – but danger still looms
  • Why Russia wants to seize Ukraine’s eastern Donbas

When an authoritarian leader’s aura of invincibility fades, it can cause problems for the aforesaid leader. Vladimir Putin will know Russia’s history. It hasn’t ended well for past Russian leaders who fought wars and didn’t win them. Russia’s defeat by Japan led to the first Russian Revolution of 1905. Military failures in World War One sparked the 1917 Revolution and the end of the Tsar. Publicly, though, President Putin has no intention of ending up the loser. On Monday, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists: “[Russia’s] special military operation continues and will continue until all the tasks that were initially set have been fulfilled.” Which brings us to the other key question: what will Mr Putin do next? You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone here who knows what Vladimir Putin is thinking and planning. Much may depend on how accurate the information is that he is receiving from his military and intelligence chiefs. But here are two things we do know: the Russian president rarely admits to making mistakes. And he rarely makes U-turns.


From what the state media is saying, we’re already seeing signs that failures on the battlefield are being blamed on Western support for Ukraine. “Kyiv, backed by Nato, launched a counter-offensive,” declared Russian state TV. There is one more uncomfortable question that’s been in the background for months: if he cannot achieve victory via conventional weapons, would President Putin go nuclear? Only a few days ago, Ukraine’s military chief, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, warned: “There is a direct threat of the use, under certain circumstances, of tactical nuclear weapons by the Russian armed forces.” For now, there are no open signs of panic in the Kremlin. Russian state TV is sounding more positive. It’s been describing Russian missile strikes on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure as “a turning point in the special operation”. As for the Kremlin leader, last Saturday – as reports were coming in from Ukraine that Russia was losing territory – back in Moscow, a relaxed looking Vladimir Putin was inaugurating a new Ferris wheel, the tallest in Europe. Russia’s president still seems to believe that, like Moscow’s new Big Wheel, his “special operation” will turn in his favour.

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