After Russian forces in Ukraine suffered a series of crushing defeats over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin went into retreat himself.
The Russian president postponed a planned meeting with his top military brass and representatives of the defense industry in Sochi, in a sign that Putin is caught in the lurch after Ukrainian forces reclaimed a lot of territory that Russian armed forces had seized earlier in the war, according to TASS. It is thought to be the largest Russian defeat since the beginning of the war.
“The Sochi meetings are in demand, they will continue,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, indicating that the meeting was just being postponed, not canceled.
Peskov said Putin had pushed off the meeting with Russian defense leadership and defense industry representatives, which is usually held in May, due to a “very, very busy” schedule.
But he also suggested that Putin needed time to digest the new developments in the war, alluding to the losses.
“Especially since as the special military operation develops, certain experience is gained that needs to be discussed,” Peksov added.
This is now at least the second shakeup Russian defense leadership have had to endure in trying to set up this meeting with Putin this year. In the thick of the invasion this May, Peskov suggested there were no plans to hold the usual meeting.
Other signs that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has left the Kremlin shaken have emerged in recent hours. Putin had planned to host a series of referenda as a way to fabricate support for Russia’s takeover. But Putin has now allegedly canceled them, according to Meduza, which cites two sources close to the Kremlin.
A pro-Moscow official in Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, has also suggested the referenda are on “pause” given the Ukrainian counteroffensive, although he has sought to walk back his comments, according to France 24.
The news comes days after Ukrainian forces began launching a counteroffensive in southern territories captured by Russia. Ukrainian forces also launched operations aimed at the northeast of the country, which Russian troops likely weren’t prepared for. Russia had rerouted forces to the south to handle the expected counteroffensive there, according to the Institute for the Study of War.
That regrouping may have been a strategic blunder. In the end, Russian forces were outnumbered by eight to one in the Kharkiv region, according to Vitaly Ganchev, a top military official appointed to the region.
Ukrainian forces have so far reclaimed over 3,000 square kilometers of territory since the beginning of the month, according to Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces—a statistic that would indicate the Ukrainians have tripled their won territory in just a couple of days. Ukrainians have reclaimed more than 20 settlements in the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, according to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, sending Russian forces retreating. Ukrainians have also taken Vysokopillia, Novovoznesenske, Bilohirka, Myroliubivka, and Sukhyi Stavok, Natalia Humeniuk, the head of the United Coordinating Press Center of Defense Forces of the South of Ukraine, said Monday.
The wins that Ukrainian armed forces secured in the last several days could place Russian narratives about the war—which, in Russia, remain focused on an alleged attempt to “liberate” the Donbas—in jeopardy.
According to a British intelligence assessment, the losses will likely inject tension into Russia’s military leadership and exacerbate existing suspicions in Russia’s military ranks, which have been gutted in recent weeks.
“The rapid Ukrainian successes have significant implications for Russia’s overall operational design,” the British intelligence assessment states. “The majority of the force in Ukraine is highly likely being forced to prioritize emergency defensive actions.”
“The already limited trust deployed troops have in Russia’s senior military leadership is likely to deteriorate further,” the assessment read.
Already, Russian officials are second-guessing the entire “special” military operation in Ukraine. Municipal deputies from Moscow and St. Petersburg demanded that Putin resign, noting that “everything went wrong.” Some lawmakers have accused Putin of high treason for invading Ukraine.
Even Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s key ally in Chechnya, has started lobbing criticism at Russia’s military.
“Mistakes were made,” Kadyrov said on Telegram. “And if today or tomorrow changes are not made to the strategy of the ‘special military operation,' I will be forced to turn to the leadership of the Ministry of Defense, the leadership of the country to explain to them the situation that is really happening on the ground.”
So far, though, the Kremlin has attempted to project a sense of calm about the losses in Ukraine. Russia’s Defense Ministry hasn’t explicitly admitted a defeat, but rather has indicated Russia has made a decision to “regroup.”
“In order to achieve the declared goals of the special military operation for the liberation of Donbas, it was decided to regroup the Russian forces stationed near Balakleya and Izyum to boost efforts in the Donetsk direction,” Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Igor Konashenkov told reporters.
Peskov, for his part, said that Russia will continue to work to achieve its military goals.
“The special military operation is underway and will continue until the goals that have been set are achieved,” Peskov told reporters.