Russia’s retreat from a key Ukrainian city over the weekend sparked an outcry from an unlikely crowd – state media outlets that usually portray Moscow’s war in glowing terms.
A string of embarrassing military casualties in recent weeks is a challenge for prominent Russian news and political talk show hosts who are struggling to find ways to portray Ukraine’s achievements in a way that is still favorable to the Kremlin.
Frustration at the battlefield setbacks has long been voiced on social media blogs run by nationalist pundits and pro-Kremlin analysts, and the volume grew around Kharkiv in the northeast after Ukraine’s counter-offensive last month. But it is now spilling over into state television programs and the pages of state-sponsored newspapers.
The less forgiving tone of state media comes as President Vladimir Putin faces widespread Russian discontent over his partial mobilization of reservists and while government officials struggle to explain plans to annex Ukrainian regions, they are simultaneously being recaptured by Kiev’s forces.
“Russia’s defeats in Kharkiv (region) and Lyman, combined with the Kremlin’s failure to conduct partial mobilization effectively and fairly, are fundamentally changing the Russian information space,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in a report.
On Sunday, after Ukraine recaptured Lyman, an eastern town that Russian troops had used as a major logistics and transportation hub, Putin’s media allies dropped the niceties and more directly criticized his military, saying tougher measures were needed for victory be.
“What happened on Saturday, Lyman — it’s a serious challenge for us,” Vladimir Solovyov, a prime-time talk show host on state-run Russia 1 and one of the Kremlin’s biggest cheerleaders, said on air on Sunday. “We must pull ourselves together, make unpopular but necessary decisions and act.”
Ukrainian forces recaptured Lyman a day after Moscow celebrated its illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions, including Donetsk, about 40% of which – now including Lyman – are under Kyiv’s control.
The move paves the way for Ukrainian troops to potentially push further into lands that Moscow illegally claims as its own. Ukrainian forces made more gains in their counteroffensive on at least two fronts on Monday, advancing into the very areas Russia was trying to absorb.
The leader of Chechnya, a Russian region in the North Caucasus, blamed a general for the Lyman retreat. In an online post, Ramzan Kadyrov, an outspoken Kremlin supporter, said the general’s incompetence was “covered up by senior leaders in the General Staff” and called for “more drastic measures”.
A story about the Lyman withdrawal in Russia’s popular pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda painted a bleak picture of the Russian military. The story released on Sunday says Russian forces at Lyman have been plagued by supply and manpower shortages, poor coordination and tactical errors orchestrated by military officials.
“It’s the same as always,” says an unnamed soldier who was part of the group that retreated from Lyman to Kreminna, another strategic city targeted by the Ukrainian army. “There is virtually no communication between different units.”
Russian war correspondents working for state media also reported on the social media app Telegram and reported on the withdrawal, and some expressed concern about Ukraine’s continued push towards Kreminna.
“It turns out that the Armed Forces of Ukraine broke through our defenses 30 kilometers in the direction of Luhansk in two days… So they (Russian Armed Forces) will not even allow to settle near Kreminna. Wow,” wrote Russia-1 war correspondent Alexander Sladkov on his Telegram channel, which currently has nearly 940,000 followers.
Hosts of popular news and political talk shows on state TV channel Russia 1 on Sunday described Lyman’s loss as a “difficult situation.”
On Sunday, soldiers quoted by state media provided analyzes of the situation that at least partially agreed with Putin’s: They blamed NATO for the Russian army’s difficulties and said members of the alliance had supplied Ukraine with weapons and even fighters.
“It’s not a game, it’s not a game for a long time,” a soldier told a reporter from Russia 1 in the Donetsk region. “It is a careful, clear offensive by the NATO army.”
To support his claim, the soldier claimed that communications intercepted by the Russian army included people speaking Romanian and Polish; he did not explain how he or other soldiers could recognize any of the languages.
Media personalities also repeated the argument put forward by Putin.
Prime-time host Solovyov stressed in his program on Sunday that Moscow “doesn’t deal with Ukraine – we’re over that. We are dealing with the entire NATO bloc, with the power of its military-industrial complex.”
He warned not to wait “for good news” from the battlefield any time soon. “You have to have a long will and strategic patience,” said Solovyov.