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Ukraine’s Counter Offensives: Is Putin Disconnected from Reality?

As the Russian army is pushed back around Kharkiv and Kherson, Nicola Mikovic looks at why the Kremlin still holds to its narrative of a multi-polar world, with itself a major player

Is Putin disconnected from reality?

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While the Kremlin was too busy holding military drills in Russia’s Far East – more than 9,000 kilometers from the front line in Ukraine – the Eastern European country’s armed forces have launched a counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region. As a result, the Ukrainian Army has made significant gains, while Moscow continues ignoring reality on the ground and spreading a false narrative of a “multipolar world” in which Russia will apparently play a major role. 

Various military analysts, both from Russia and the West, have predicted that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson could open up a window of opportunity for Kyiv to undertake some raids into Russia-controlled territory in the Kharkiv region. That is exactly what happened on September 7 when Ukrainian forces recaptured several villages, cut off Russian supply lines, and continued advancing eastward aiming to establish full control over strategically important town of Balakliya. According to reports, Ukrainian forces advanced at least 20 kilometers deep into Russian-controlled territory north of the city of Izyum toward Kupyansk, and managed to recapture about 400 square kilometers over the past couple of days. 

Russia, for its part, did nothing to prepare for the Ukrainian actions. Poorly equipped and forcefully mobilized soldiers from the Moscow-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic could not repel Ukrainian attacks. They merely served as a cannon fodder, while 50,000 Russian troops, along with more than 5,000 pieces of weaponry and military equipment, including 140 aircraft and 60 warships and support vessels, were taking part in the Vostok 2022 military drills in the far eastern Primorsky Region.

By holding such exercises Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to create an illusion at home that the country can continue doing business as usual despite the war in Ukraine. In the past, the major goal of the Russian muscle-flexing drills was to portray the Russian Armed Forces as a powerful army. But after the Ukrainian debacle, both Kyiv and the West have stopped overestimating the Russian military. Putin, however, continues using his well-known empty rhetoric, claiming that “Russia did not start anything in terms of military actions, but is only trying to end the conflict.”

There are various ways to end the war. The most realistic one, at this point, is Russia’s defeat and a de facto capitulation. In order to prevent – or postpone – such an outcome, the Kremlin might be forced to eventually change its military strategy in Ukraine. It is not a secret that Russia desperately lacks a manpower. For political and economic reasons, Putin hesitates to declare a nationwide mobilization, a move that could lead to large-scale turbulences in the Russian society. Instead, Moscow continues conducting a covert mobilization campaign, but Ukrainian recent gains in the Kherson and Kharkiv regions have clearly showed that such half-measures cannot help Russia preserve control over territories it occupied during the first stage of war. 

Putin, however, claims that Russia “has lost nothing and will lose nothing” by invading Ukraine. In reality, Russian military continues losing territories, and has already lost dozens of thousands of troops. But for the Kremlin, human life seems to have no value. Quite aware of that, not many Russians are willing to fight in Ukraine, which is why Moscow refuses to declare a state of war, but continues conducting the so-called special military operation instead. Moreover, a potential mobilization would have an impact on the country’s economy in which oligarchs play a very important role. That is why Putin’s room for political maneuvers is rather limited. 

But that will not prevent the Kremlin chief from trying to convince the Russian population that Moscow, despite catastrophic losses in Ukraine, is apparently winning the war. 

“In terms of what we have gained, I can say that the main gain has been the strengthening of our sovereignty”, Putin said on September 7 at the plenary session of the 7th Eastern Economic Forum, themed “On the path to a multipolar world”.

Putin has been repeating his mantras of a “multi polar world” ever since he came to power in 2020. That year he said that Russia’s allies can be “anyone who shares Russian vision of a multipolar world”. In 2022 Russia does not seem to have any allies, but is on its own fighting a war against Ukraine that is firmly backed by the entire Western civilization.

In 2002, during his visit to Beijing, Putin and the then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin reportedly agreed that “there is a need to create a multipolar world”. In 2003, Putin stressed that Russia has “taken the first step towards creating a multipolar world.” In 2006, the Russian leader repeated that the Kremlin will “advocate for a multipolar world”, while in 2010 he pointed out that Russia’s goal is “to create a world that will be more democratic, more balanced and multipolar”. Seven years later, he said that a “multipolar world is being established, and the Western monopolists do not like it.” 

In 2018 Putin continued spreading his “multipolar world” narrative, while in 2021 he emphasized that it is “important to develop and strengthen multipolarity in the world”. Finally, in June 2022 he yet again proclaimed “a multipolar world”. 

Ukraine, on the other hand, does not pay any attention to such Putin’s phrases that mostly serve to keep the Russian population removed from reality. Quite aware that Kyiv can count on the Western support, Ukrainian Armed Forces will continue conducting their counteroffensive in Kherson and Kharkiv, and possibly in other regions that are currently occupied by Russia and its proxies. 

Putin, for his part, will keep lying to his own people, claiming that the so-called special military operation is “going according to plan”. Indeed, facing reality will be very painful for the Russian society. 

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