Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent more than two decades carefully cultivating his domestic political image of a strong foreign policy strategist who can outsmart Western leaders and restore Russia to its former glory.
But that image has suffered significant damage in the past few days, as a blistering Ukrainian counteroffensive in eastern Ukraine exposed the inadequacies of Moscow’s master plan and forced Russian troops to retreat.
Experts said the Russian collapse in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region represented the biggest challenge of Putin’s career, and that the Kremlin leader was running out of options.
Moscow has tried to spin the hasty withdrawal as “regrouping”, but in a sign of just how badly things look for Russia, the military has been publicly criticized by a number of high-profile Kremlin loyalists including Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who supplied thousands of fighters to the offensive.
Russia has suffered significant setbacks earlier in the war – for example when it lost its Black Sea fleet flagship Moskva or when it was forced to withdraw from the areas around the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
But the current situation could pose a much bigger problem for Putin, Russian political analyst Anton Barbashin said.
“The Kyiv withdrawal was framed as a gesture of goodwill, something they’ve had to do to prevent civilian casualties,” he told CNN. “The propaganda component was always focusing on Donbas region as being the top priority, but now that Russian forces are somewhat withdrawing from Kharkiv region and Luhansk region, it would be much more problematic to explain this if Ukraine does in fact, push further and I didn’t see a reason why they wouldn’t.”
The Kremlin on Monday said Putin was aware of the situation on the frontlines, and insisted Russia would achieve all the goals of its “special military operation” – the phrase Moscow is using for its war on Ukraine – to take control of all of Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
But that operation will be made much more difficult by Ukraine’s victories in neighboring Kharkiv. And the setbacks there have ignited criticism and finger pointing among influential Russian military bloggers and personalities in Russian state media.
Unusually, even Putin himself has been criticized. On Monday, deputies from 18 municipal districts in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kolpino called for Putin’s resignation, according to a petition with a list of signatures posted on Twitter.
No good options left
Experts said Putin would now face growing pressure to respond with force. Influential Russian nationalist and pro-war voices are increasingly calling for radical steps, including full mobilization and ramped up strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, some even suggesting the use of tactical nuclear weapons.
“Generally there’s a quite open sense of panic among Russian pro-war analysts and voices,” Barbashin said.
The Kremlin has so far rejected the idea of a mass mobilization and Russia watchers believe it is unlikely that Putin would call for one, because he is aware that such a move would likely prove unpopular and would be seen as an admission that the “special military operation” is, in fact, a war.
Putin signed a decree last month to increase the number of military personnel to 1.15 million, adding 137,000 service personnel, but analysts say it will likely become increasingly difficult for Russia to recruit.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based analytical group, pointed out on Sunday that some regional authorities have faced criticism for their push to recruit contract servicemen and volunteers to fight in Ukraine.
The full extent of Ukraine’s recent gains – and its ability to hold onto them – is still unclear. But experts say that if the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues at similar pace, Putin will find it increasingly difficult to present himself as a strong strategist.
“It’s the biggest challenge he’s facing as president and that Russia is facing as as an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Barbashin said.
The natural worry is that he could take radical steps to affirm his authority.
“[It] puts pressure on Putin to either assert leadership through significant personnel changes or to alter the conduct of the war,” Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council told CNN.
Haring said Putin could make some personnel changes but that high-profile ousting are not usually his style.
Putin could also listen to the hawkish voices from within Russia and step up attacks on arms shipments and critical infrastructure, or launch more cyber attacks, but in doing so he would risk even stronger retaliation.
“[It’s] not a great option, since it could stiffen Ukraine’s already strong resolve and risk escalation with the west,” she said.
The best option for Putin right now would be to press for negotiations and delay, Haring said.
Moscow has already made some tentative steps in that direction. In surprising statement on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated Moscow might be willing to negotiate with Ukraine. “The president told the meeting participants that we do not deny negotiations, but those who do should understand that the longer they postpone this process, the more difficult it will be for them to negotiate with us,” Lavrov was quoted by Tass as saying.
Haring said that pushing for negotiation would allow Russia to stall the Ukrainian progress and “continue with shadow mobilization and regroup.” However, Kyiv has made it clear it would reject negotiations that would involve Ukraine giving up any of its territory.
What experts say is inevitable is that the Kremlin will seek to deflect blame for the botched operation. For now, the propaganda machine is largely sticking with the usual narrative.
“The Russian media narrative is blaming NATO and the West for providing the support that led to Ukraine’s dramatic advances in Kharkiv and the Donbas,” Haring said.
However, if the courts of the war in eastern Ukraine doesn’t change quickly, Putin might find it increasingly difficult to place the blame elsewhere.
“The narrative, up until six months ago, was that somehow [Putin] was a genius. He was so much smarter than everybody else, he’s a KGB agent … I think they’re gonna try and excuse it, but I think at the end of the day, most people are going to blame him,” Ben Hodges, Former Commanding General of US Army Europe, told CNN on Monday.
Barbashin agreed, saying that it would be difficult for Putin to deflect the blame for the botched operation.
“The blame for economic problems is much easier to pass on, but foreign policy has always been his domain, he’s been in power for nearly a quarter century and I don’t think you can convince a majority of Russians that it was not him calling the shots,” he said.
It is unclear what the Kremlin will decide to do next. What is clear though is that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine – and whatever he chooses to do next – will define his legacy. After this weekend, that legacy is bruised more than ever.
CNN’s Tim Lister, Denis Lapin, Uliana Pavlova contributed reporting.