Putin’s disaster in Kharkiv is his biggest challenge yet. He was left with few options

Experts have said that the Russian collapse in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region is the biggest challenge in Putin’s career, and that the Kremlin leader is running out of options.

Moscow attempted to portray the hasty withdrawal as a “regroupment”, but in a sign of how dire the situation in Russia was, the military was publicly criticized by a number of senior Kremlin loyalists including Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who provided thousands of fighters for the attack.

But Russian political analyst Anton Barbashin said the current situation could pose a much bigger problem for Putin.

“The Kyiv withdrawal was framed as a goodwill gesture, something they had to do to prevent civilian casualties,” he told CNN. “The propaganda element has always focused on the Donbass region as a top priority, but now that Russian forces have somewhat withdrawn from the Kharkiv region and Luhansk region, it will be difficult to explain that if Ukraine actually did, it rushes further and I see no reason why they should not” .

The Kremlin said on Monday that Putin was aware of the situation on the front lines, and insisted that Russia would achieve all the goals of its “special military operation” – the phrase Moscow uses in its war on Ukraine – to gain control of all of Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

But this process will be made more difficult by Ukraine’s victories in neighboring Kharkiv. The setbacks there sparked criticism and finger-pointing among bloggers and influential Russian military figures in Russian state media.

Unusually, even Putin himself was criticized. And on Monday, deputies from 18 municipal districts of Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Kolpino called for Putin’s resignation, according to a petition with a list of signatures posted on Twitter.

There are no good options left

Experts said Putin will now face increasing pressure to respond forcefully. Influential Russian nationalist and increasingly pro-war voices are calling for drastic steps, including full mobilization and massive strikes against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, some even suggesting the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

“In general, there is a clear sense of panic among analysts and Russia’s pro-war voices,” Barbashin said.

The Kremlin has so far rejected the idea of ​​mass mobilization and Russia watchers believe it is unlikely that Putin will ask, because he understands that such a move is likely to be unpopular and will be seen as recognition that the “private army 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 soldiers, but analysts say Russia’s recruitment is likely to become more difficult.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based analytical group, noted Sunday that some regional authorities have faced criticism over their efforts to recruit contract soldiers and volunteers to fight in Ukraine.

The full extent of Ukraine’s recent gains – and their ability to hold on to them – remains unclear. But experts say that if the Ukrainian counterattack continues at a similar pace, Putin will find it increasingly difficult to present himself as a powerful strategist.

wrecked russian military vehicle  Z & quot;  Banner written on it after the Ukrainian army liberated the town of Balaklya on September 11, 2022.

“It is the biggest challenge he faces as president that Russia faces as an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Barbashin said.

The natural worry is that he could take drastic steps to assert his power.

“[It] The pressure on Putin is either to assert leadership through major personnel changes or to change the style of war, Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, told CNN.

Haring said Putin could make some changes at the staff level, but firing high-profile figures was not his usual style.

Putin could also listen to hard-line voices from within Russia and escalate attacks on arms shipments and critical infrastructure, or launch more cyberattacks, but in doing so he could risk a larger response.

“[It’s] It’s not a great option because it might strengthen Ukraine’s already strong resolve and risk an escalation with the West,” he said.

Haring said Putin’s best option now is to push for negotiations and delay them.

Moscow has already taken some tentative steps in this direction. In a surprise statement on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated that Moscow might be ready 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 delay this process, the more difficult it will be for them to negotiate with us,” TASS quoted Lavrov as saying.

& # 39;  Everyone was running away.  & # 39;  Ukrainians in the villages of Kharkiv describe the decline of Russia

Haring said pressure for negotiations would allow Russia to halt the Ukrainian advance and “continue to mobilize the shadows and regroup.” However, Kyiv made it clear that it would reject negotiations that would involve Ukraine ceding any of its territory.

What experts say is inevitable is that the Kremlin will seek to blame the failed operation. For now, the propaganda machine is largely sticking to the usual narrative.

“The Russian media blames NATO and the West for providing the support that led to the dramatic advances of Ukraine in Kharkiv and Donbass,” Haring said.

However, if the war courts in eastern Ukraine do not change quickly, Putin may find it increasingly difficult to assign blame elsewhere.

“The narrative, up until six months ago, was somehow this way [Putin] He was a genius. He was much smarter than anyone else, he’s a KGB agent… I think they’ll try to excuse that, but I think at the end of the day, most people will blame him,” Ben Hodges, a former commanding general of the US Army in Europe told CNN on Monday.

Barbashin agreed, saying that it would be difficult for Putin to deflect blame for the failed operation.

“It is much easier to blame economic problems, but foreign policy has always been his domain, he has been in power for almost a quarter of a century and I don’t think you can convince the majority of Russians that it wasn’t him calling the shots.”

It is unclear what the Kremlin will decide next. What is clear, however, is that Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine – and whatever he chooses next – will determine his legacy. After this weekend, that legacy has been bruised more than ever.

CNN’s Tim Lister, Dennis Labin, and Ulyana Pavlova contributed to this report.

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