The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has appeared to concede the severity of the Kremlin’s recent military reversals in Ukraine, insisting Russia would “stabilise” the situation in four Ukrainian regions it illegally claimed as its own territory last week.
Russia has suffered significant losses in two of the four regions since Friday, when Putin signed treaties to incorporate them into Russia by force, with Russian officials saying their forces were “regrouping”.
“We are working on the assumption that the situation in the new territories will stabilise,” Putin told Russian teachers during a televised video call.
With Ukraine pushing its advance in the east and south, Russian troops have been retreating under pressure on both fronts, confronted by fast moving and agile Ukrainian forces supplied with advanced western-supplied artillery systems.
As Russian troops have retreated, they have left behind smashed towns once under occupation and, in places, mass burial sites and evidence of torture chambers.
In the town of Lyman, which was retaken by Ukrainian forces on Sunday, more than 50 graves have been found, some marked with names, others with numbers, the Kyiv-based outlet Hromadske reported on Wednesday.
Putin’s comments comes amid increasingly gloomy commentary from Russian war correspondents and military bloggers over the severity of the situation that has seen a large-scale withdrawal from the Kharkiv region, the loss of the strategic town of Lyman on Friday and Ukrainian advances in the Kherson region.
The scale of the recent defeats was underlined by a report by the BBC’s Russian service that said an elite Russian military intelligence unit may have lost up to three-quarters of its reconnaissance manpower in Ukraine.
On Wednesday, Ukraine’s southern command said it had extended its area of control by six to 12 miles in the Kherson region and the president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, confirmed the recapture of a series of villages.
The territory recaptured is to the south of the city of Kryvyi Rih in the direction of Nova Kakhovka as well as west along the north bank of the Dnipro river towards Kherson.
“The Ukrainian army is making quite fast and powerful progress in the south of our country,” said Zelenskiy in his nightly address on Tuesday. “Dozens of settlements have already been exempted from the Russian pseudo-referendum this week alone … and this is far from a complete list.” He named eight villages in the Kherson region.
Some Russian propagandists and officials blamed the losses on Nato.
“We are regrouping [our forces] along the front, which means that we can gather strength and strike back,” Kirill Stremousov, the Moscow-appointed deputy head of Kherson region, told the RIA Novosti news agency. Stremousov said it was “impossible” for them to enter Kherson city.
A Russian war reporter for state TV, Roman Saponkov, wrote to his Telegram followers that Russia was losing in Kherson. “Friends, I know you’re waiting for me to comment on the situation. But I really don’t know what to say to you. The retreat from the north on the right bank is a disaster.”
War reporter Roman Saponkov is the latest Russian to despair at what's happening on the Kherson front
"Friends, I know you're waiting for me to comment on the situation. But I really don't know what to say to you. The retreat from the north on the right bank is a disaster" pic.twitter.com/xMGzzb9f5M
— Francis Scarr (@francis_scarr) October 4, 2022
The losses came as Putin ordered on Wednesday his government to take control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, but was met with the head of Ukraine’s state nuclear energy company saying he was taking charge and urging workers not to sign any documents with Russia.
Military experts say Russia is at its weakest point, partly because of its decision not to mobilise earlier and partly because of massive losses of troops and equipment.
About 15,000 of Russia’s best-trained troops are struggling to fight off Ukrainians on the western bank of occupied Kherson, despite movements of Russian troops from the eastern front to the south, which has thinned Russian forces elsewhere.
According to Jack Watling, a senior analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, Russian troops around Kherson have retreated to their second line of defence to shorten their frontline.
“There’s no evidence of surrender or collapse [of Russian forces] … like we saw in Kharkiv region,” said Watling, noting the political importance for Russia of holding on to Kherson city, the only regional centre it has managed to acquire since February.
But if Ukraine’s forces manage to break through Russia’s second line of defence, they will be able to cut the Russian supply lines with a wider range of cheaper artillery and trap them on the western bank of Kherson, he added.
“At the moment, the bridges are being hit by Himars [rockets], which are scarce and very expensive … [if they advance further] they can afford to open up against more incidental targets,” said Watling of the bridges supplying Russian forces on Kherson’s west bank.
Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at St Andrews University, added that Ukraine’s recent progress had been a product of a process, not a turning point.
“For months now, Russia has been getting weaker, it has been bleeding its army on the field, it’s been losing a huge amount of equipment. On the other hand, the Ukrainians have been getting stronger; they have better-trained forces and better military equipment.”
He added: “This hasn’t happened overnight, this has been the way the war has been trending but now we can say it reached the tipping point in September.”
In the short term there is nothing Russia can do because they waited too long to mobilise, O’Brien said.
Russia, meanwhile, has continued to attack behind Ukraine’s frontlines, a mixture of military and civilian targets. On Wednesday morning, it launched a significant drone attack on Bila Tserkva in Kyiv region and fired rockets into Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro region.
But O’Brien doubted Russia had enough quality missiles to alter the situation behind the frontlines to affect the battlefield.
“It’s more of a question of, can they just hold on and hope that they can get a trained and re-equipped force back in the spring, but even then there’s a question about whether they can do that,” said O’Brien. He said Russia would need to produce more equipment and properly train troops but its system of mobilisation appeared “chaotic”.
Konrad Muzyka, an independent military analyst, said he had initially thought the war may last for years, but after the Kharkiv region, it could be much less.
“It does not look good for [Russia] … They are not able to defend properly, let alone conduct any offensives,” said Muzyka. “This Russian leadership thinks with [new] reservists they will be able to stop Ukrainian advances, but I’m not sure. The truth is, we don’t know how big an impact it will [have] on the frontline.”