Defeat in Kharkiv has sparked discontent among normally deferential generals
Internal tensions are surfacing in Russia after the military leadership of the country appeared to have been unprepared for the speed and success of the Ukrainian north-east counteroffensive. Since Wednesday, Ukraine has recaptured territory more than double the size of Greater London. The Ukrainian flag has been raised in Kupiansk, where rail lines have been supplying logistics to the Russian army. Russian forces have been forced to prioritise emergency defensive actions, and troop morale and trust in military leadership is likely to have degraded significantly. The speed of the counteroffensive has resulted in such a rapid retreat of Russian troops that withdrawing occupying forces have left ammunition and equipment behind.
The Kremlin has thus far been successful in its suppression of internal critics of the invasion. But with increasing claims of such operational and strategic failure, more and more conservative allies or supporters of the invasion are becoming vocally dissatisfied with its management.
The Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, never one to hold his tongue, has publicly voiced displeasure with the state of military operations in the region: “They have made mistakes and I think they will draw the necessary conclusions,” Kadyrov posted to his Telegram channel on Sunday. “If today or tomorrow no changes in strategy are made, 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.”
Chechen units have been instrumental in the invasion of Ukraine, and Kadyrov is acutely aware of the Kremlin’s need to retain his loyalty. Moscow allows the Chechen leader an atypical degree of independence in return for military and political loyalty — but Kadyrov remains a somewhat loose cannon, especially on messaging.
Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the pro-Russian Vostok Battalion formed during the 2014 insurgency in Donbas, has also been publicly critical of the government for having “no effective system of reaction” to the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Khodakovsky has complained that the Russian military has punished these units for internal disagreements by cutting off ammunition and other crucial supplies.
“When the ‘alternative army’ does not agree with the [Russian] army’s approaches and holds their ground […] the army squeezes resources in retaliation,” he wrote on his Telegram. “Our battalion, for example, has not received supplies from the army for more than three weeks and lives only on reserves. Of course, one could say that we should put everyone under one command — and the problem is over — but no: the army’s approaches are often so specific that there is little desire to pile everyone into one fire and burn them all.”
Domestically and internationally, people are asking whether the Russian military will repeat its mistakes. Putin will be becoming increasingly aware of the fact that, should Russia suffer any more grievous failures, the loyalty necessary to achieving any success in Ukraine may disappear into the ether. It was reported today that he has already sacked the general responsible for the Kharkiv rout, who had only been in the role for sixteen days. If Putin finds himself at a crossroads, will he be more inclined to retreat and suffer that humiliation, or extend the war effort and risk exacerbating internal dissent?