Although there is a significant humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, until very recently the Russian invasion had barely touched Russia’s public at home.
But after the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive and subsequent announcement of mobilisation in Russia, that may be changing. Hundreds of thousands of men have reportedly fled the country, fearing conscription. For some, it may be getting harder to believe President Vladimir Putin’s assertion earlier this year that “everything is going according to plan”.
Another recent setback for Russian forces has been the loss of Lyman, a strategic logistics and railroad hub in the Donetsk region, near Luhansk – both of which have been claimed by Russia after hasty referendums, despite neither area being fully under Russian nor separatists’ control.
How has the Russian media, which is tightly controlled by the government, presented the loss to its viewers, and how is the campaign seen from the Kremlin?
In his report for the Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP) newspaper, war correspondent Alexander Kots describes how Ukrainian forces had crossed the Oskil river and there was fierce fighting there for a number of weeks without much success, until they concentrated their efforts on Lyman. Ukrainian forces, foreign mercenaries among them, outnumbered the garrison.
“The risk of encirclement and shameful captivity became too great, and the Russian command decided to withdraw,” he wrote.
But Kots also sought to extol the bravery of the pro-Russian forces and their dedication to their duty.
“If necessary, we would have stayed there to die,” a militiaman from the Luhansk People’s Republic told him, while an artillery gunner expressed hope that mobilisation would turn the tide in their favour.
“We are waiting for our reservists, we will accept them as our own,” he told Kots. “They are their own. And we will feed them, dress them and teach them as necessary.”
Back at home, pro-war voices were on the lookout for who to blame for this calamity.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of Putin, blamed Russian Colonel General Aleksandr Lapin, but added that despite his supposed incompetence, Lapin is being protected by friends in high places.
“If I had my way, I would demote Lapin to a private, deprive him of his medals and send him to the front line with a machine gun in his hands to wash away his shame with blood,” Kadyrov wrote on Telegram.
Meanwhile, Igor Strelkov, a former “defence minister” of Donetsk who led a separatist rebellion in 2014, aimed higher in the ranks, posting a photo on Telegram of the Russian forces’ Chief of General Staff, Valery Gerasimov.
“This comrade should be glorified for all our victories in the current special military operation’ – starting with the ‘de-escalation’ in the Kyiv, Sumy, Chernihiv regions, continuing with the ‘successful regrouping’ from Balakleya, Izyum, Kupiansk, and Volchansk, and ending with the ‘withdrawal to more convenient positions’ near Lyman,” he wrote sarcastically.
Strelkov has been consistently critical of the Kremlin’s war effort, arguing that it has only half-heartedly committed to its military operation and calling for total war. Semyon Pegov, a war reporter and blogger who runs the WarGonzo channel on Telegram and social media, said that he “lost a piece of [his] heart” after the loss of Lyman, but tried to be more constructive.
“Obviously, it is impossible to fight like five, 10, fifteen, or 20 years ago, given modern realities,” he told his Telegram readers.
“This was already clear two weeks after the start of the operation. And the generals – everyone involved in this – have to honestly admit it. There is a new generation of commanders. Cool, and creative … There are many among the Russian army. They should just be allowed to work.”
Andrey Gurulyov, a former deputy commander of Russia’s southern military district, tried to raise these systemic issues with pro-Kremlin journalist Sergey Mardan on his live stream.
“No matter how heroically they fought, there’s an elementary calculation of military capabilities which shows whether or not Lyman could be held,” he said.
“The problem we have is the constant delivery of good reports, or constant lying, as you can call it. This system does not go from the bottom to the top, but top to bottom.”
Before he could elaborate, Gurulyov’s Skype connection apparently suffered some technical difficulties.
Appearing on a talk show on the state-run TV channel NTV, foreign policy analyst Maxim Yusin expressed doubt that Russia could hold on to any other territories it laid claim to, given the loss of Lyman.
“I don’t remember a precedent in world history when territories we don’t even control were absorbed into the country,” he told the panel.
“You know, it’s very difficult to argue with dreamers who live in their own world,” Yusin said. “I see the dynamics of the military actions on the front. We aren’t walking about what is happening near Lyman … It’s easy to say ‘after the liberation of Zaporizhzhia’. Yeah, try liberating it, the way everything is going.”